For Caoshan, there’s no pretense. He eats when he’s hungry, sleeps when he’s tired, and cries when he hears a sad story. When he gets drunk, he dances under the moonlight. What’s different between this behavior and someone who is chained to a life of pleasure? The difference is that Caoshan sees, he understands. Caoshan is not fooled by his hunger, he just eats. Not being fooled by it, he eats in accord with his appetite; when he’s had enough he stops eating. When he hears a sad tale, he cries because it’s sad. But he’s not deceived by his emotions or the emotions of others or by the story. He listens, he is utterly present to the pain, but he’s not deceived by it.

The pure household has no neighbors. What kind of household is it that has no neighbors? What if all your neighbors in the whole world lived in your house, in one room, in one body? The ten thousand things return to the one body; what is that body? Where are all the neighbors at such a time?

For long years staying in sweeping, not admitting any dust. There are no impurities, no delusions, they’ve all been swept away. But that’s not enough. It’s not enough to just not wear mourning clothes. An old master said, “One whose eyes cannot get sand in them is too restricted.” Caoshan said, “Crude mundane greed, anger, and folly (delusion) may be difficult to cut off, yet they are still light. Unconcern and non-doing purity is graver than anything.” Having realized the emptiness of what was formerly considered impure, and then to get stuck in that place of unconcerned purity, is the gravest of obstacles because it is so seductive. It is supremely seductive, because you don’t hear the cries anymore. You don’t have to live in a world that’s troubled. You don’t have to see the faces of those children whose lives were taken. You don’t have to think about the parents of that young man who committed those murders.

Where the light turns tilts the moon remaining at dawn. As the morning’s light appears at dawn, a little bit of the moon—though faint—still remains. The footnote to that says, “When negative reaches its limit, positive is born.” Within darkness there is light, but don’t grasp for that light. When you go all the way into one thing, what you encounter is everything. When the forms of the hexagrams are distinguished, then are established dawn and spring. Coming back to life after having realized the true nature of all things as being empty, free of obstruction, we encounter dawn and spring, the world. When we let go of everything, what remains? Everything.

Having freshly fulfilled filial duty—having fulfilled our obligation, having realized our own buddha nature—then we can meet the spring. Walking drunk, singing crazily, turban hanging down, ambling with tousled hair, who cares—in great peace, with no concerns, a man falling-down drunk. This who cares, or a person with no concerns means that we’re free and completely accessible to every concern. When we’re preoccupied with all our personal concerns, with all of our calling forth and repelling, then there’s not much room for anything else to get in. When we let go, then let go of letting go; when the house has been swept and we have realized the house is clear of everything, including purity, then there’s no obstruction. It’s not even a matter of the door being open. There are no doors.

The footnote to “falling-down drunk” in the main case says, “What’s not all right?” What is not all right at such a time? What is not all right when we’re no longer caught in that prison cell of judgment, of seeing everything in terms of right or wrong? Then having realized that purity—that every single thing has it’s own virtue—from that place of no concern, we can look and see the highs and lows, the damage, the destruction, the selfishness, the greed, and we can work with it. We can respond to it without fear. That’s what our work is as practitioners. That’s how we fulfill our obligation for this gift of life. Whether the object of our concern is sentient or insentient, whether it nods in gratitude or doesn’t even notice—we respond.

Whitman wrote,

The earth does not argue,
Is not pathetic, has no arrangements,
Does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten, promise,
Makes no discriminations, has no conceivable failures,
Closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out,
Of all the powers, objects, states, it notifies, shuts none out.


It’s like the sky, it’s like the ocean, it’s like the soil, it’s like a tree—it doesn’t object. The earth doesn’t scream when we pour poison onto it, when we dump our garbage into the ocean or send our polluted smoke up into the atmosphere. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t reject or shut anything out. The earth is completely open—it treats everything equally, receives everything equally—but there is an effect. There is causation. It’s fulfilling its nature.

When we get out of our own way, we can do what we were all born to do, we can fulfill our potential as human beings—to understand the nature of causation, experience the equality of all things and make our lives about giving to others. What has become very clear is that we must now learn to live like the earth lives—in perfect harmony with all life. If we can do that, then we will fulfill our obligation as human beings. Our practice is to see how, when and where we fall short, to take responsibility and take the next step with greater awareness and skillfulness. This is what we call Zen practice. It’s simply to move in accord, to repay our debt. In that sense we realize our obligations are not constraints, but rather opportunities to fulfill our vows to live an awakened life

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei is vice-abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, branch president of Zen Center of New York City: Fire Lotus Temple, and head of the National Buddhist Prison Sangha. He received dharma transmission from Daido Roshi in 1997.