In the koan, the monastic is asking, when “the universe is totally destroyed… is this one destroyed or not?” Dasui says, “It is destroyed.” How is that? The body, the personality, the skandas are gone. All things pass away. But how can something be destroyed if it has never come into being and can never die? What is Dasui saying? How is he helping this student? What truth is he revealing?

The pointer says, “When fish swim through, the water is muddied; when birds fly by, feathers drop down.” With every movement there’s a trace, with every question, there’s a trail. Of what? There’s a trail of the person, of her belief, of her desires, of what she’s seeking, of what she’s avoiding. When the student asks the question, that’s the fish swimming through and the water getting muddied. So the teacher is not just responding to the question, but to the question behind the question, of which the student may be unaware.

In the pointer, Dasui is described: “He clearly discriminates host and guest, he penetratingly distinguishes initiate and outsider, just like a bright mirror in its stand, like a bright pearl in the palm of the hand.” For hundreds of years in the Zen tradition, the image of the bright mirror has been used to point to the mind that doesn’t add anything, isn’t cluttered, but is naturally pure and clear. It’s the mind that naturally reflects everything that comes in front of it—without adding anything, without taking anything away. It sees things just as they are. When what appears in front of the mirror is cleverness or concealment or fear, the mirror’s reflection is muddy. As we leave traces of our self-clinging, “feathers drop down.”

Dasui responds in accord with the need. What is the need? What is the monastic really asking? The koan reveals that. Dasui says, “It is destroyed.” In the full story, the monastic refuses to accept Dasui’s answer. He leaves Dasui and goes to another master, Touzi, a contemporary, but from a different lineage. The monastic recounts the conversation he had with Dasui. Touzi turns around to the altar, lights incense, bows to the Buddha and says, “The ancient Buddha of the west river has appeared,” referring to Dasui. Then he turns to the monastic and says, “You should go back there as fast as you can and atone for your mistake.” That’s all he says. The monastic hurriedly returns to Dasui, but Dasui has already passed away. Too late! He returns to see Touzi, but Touzi’s too has died. Another opportunity lost!

So what is this monastic searching for? When Dasui said, “It is destroyed” and the monastic cannot accept the answer, what is he holding on to? Again in the Pranja Paramita Sutra, Shariputra talks about the realization of emptiness—the truth of things. The teaching of emptiness is that ultimately nothing is fixed, nothing can be grasped, nothing can be possessed. “You can’t take it with you” is true, but it means right now you can’t take it with you. And Shariputra says, “If when this is pointed out to a student of the way, to a bodhisattva, if his or her heart does not become cowed, does not despair or become despondent, if he or she doesn’t turn away or become dejected, doesn’t tremble, if he or she is not frightened or terrified, then this person, this student of the way, should be given instruction. It is precisely this that should be recognized as the wisdom of the Buddha.”

When we encounter the truth, if we don’t despair and become despondent, if we don’t become frightened, turn around and run away, then it may be that we’re ready for instruction. The Buddha talked about this as fearlessness. If we’re not ready to face the truth, then when we get a sense of it, it frightens us. Even being ready, we may be frightened. To not turn away is a very important part of Buddhist practice. Initially, we may not reflect on the profound nature of these teachings. We may simply think, “Non-attachment, that sounds good. Enlightenment—that sounds really good! I’d like some of that. Count me in.” But we may not really be considering the implications of what it means to face the truth. We can all have an idea of meeting reality, but what is the actual experience of facing oneself?