In the main case, a monastic asks Caoshan, “‘How is it when the mourning clothes are not worn?’ Caoshan said, ‘Today Caoshan’s filial duty is fulfilled.’” In ancient China, when your mother or father passed away, it was proper to wear white mourning clothes as a way of showing your grief and respect for your parents—the people who gave you life. So what is the monastic asking? What kind of state is this?


Photo by Kristin Smith

As with all koans, we shouldn’t get tangled in the words. This is not about wearing clothes or not wearing clothes. “How is it when the mourning clothes are not worn?” The footnote to that says, “The cicada has shed its shell but still holds the cold twig.” This is the time when all distinctions have dropped away. When the shell—our body, our mind, our name, our identity, our history, our emotions, our opinions—is shed. But what’s left? Why does he say the cicada has shed its shell, “but still holds the cold twig?” The twig is cold and lifeless, but the cicada is holding on. Having shed the shell, there’s no need for the twig, yet it holds on.

The experience of no shell, no personal self, no attachment to the idea of “I am” is the beginning of the emergence of compassion. Why? Because when the self has been forgotten, who we really are is now free, a being that inherently possesses wisdom, whose life purpose is to serve, to be generous. Zen Master Hakuin described that emergence from self-clinging towards selfless compassion, “From the sea of effortlessness, let your great uncaused compassion shine forth.” Compassion no longer requires effort. It’s not you doing the right thing, helping someone out who’s disadvantaged. You’re no longer attached to the sense of self and other. From the sea of effortlessness, there’s just effortless response. And from that place he says, “let your great uncaused compassion shine forth.” This compassion is uncaused because there’s no self present. True compassion shines forth like the rays of the sun, without conscious effort or any sense of doing; the sun just radiates light and warmth, a bodhisattva simply serves others.

The “mourning clothes are not worn.” “Caoshan said, ‘Today Caoshan’s filial duty is fulfilled.’” His duty is fulfilled. When we let go of the self and realize our true nature is empty, our obligation—the debt of gratitude for the life that we’ve been given through the efforts of our teachers—has begun to be repaid. What every teacher wants is for his or her students to study, practice and realize this dharma; to bring it to life in their own lives.

Many of us dislike the idea of having a duty or obligation. We like to be obligation-free because we perceive obligations as confining. However, to have no obligations is, first of all, to deny the world that we actually live in. And worse—it’s to turn our back on it. It’s to believe that we have somehow come here solely through our own efforts. Yet it’s our obligations—to all the people, places and things that have sustained and supported us in our lives—that bind us to those very things and to each other. Our obligations make us mutually accountable and responsible for one another. Without that we’re just loose cannons, pursuing our own desires, trying to get what we want and then holding on to it for as long as we can.