It’s important to understand that the transmission of the dharma is not meant to create another belief system. Neither belief nor knowledge are strong enough to cut through delusion, to transform one’s life. The truth must be realized. It must be made real, because realization is transformative. And it’s that realization that takes place between the teacher and the student. The transmission is simply an acknowledgement of that fact.

Upon his own enlightenment, the Buddha said, “I and all sentient beings enter the Way.” He was confirming the fact that each one of us is already perfect and complete, lacking nothing. That being the case, how could there be a transmission from A to B, from teacher to student? That’s one of the paradoxes of Zen that plagued even Dogen. He spent years searching for the answer to the question, since we’re already enlightened, why do we have to do anything? Why do we have to practice? It’s a good question. I have a number of students who feel the same way. Standing in excrement up to their nostrils, they say, “I don’t have to do anything. I’m already enlightened. Just don’t make a wave.”

The great master Wumen, commenting on the transmission between the Buddha and Mahakashyapa, said:

The yellow-faced Gotama is certainly outrageous. He turns the noble into the lowly, sells dog flesh advertised as sheep’s head. At that time, if everyone in the assembly had smiled, to whom would the true dharma be handed? Or again, if Kashyapa had not smiled, would the true dharma have been transmitted? If you say that the true dharma can be transmitted, then the yellow-faced old man with the loud voice deceives simple villagers. If you say it cannot be transmitted, then why was Kashyapa alone approved?

This is both the dilemma and the historical context from which the koan we’re dealing with emerges. The monastic who approached Deshan was obviously aware of this story and he wanted to know, “Who was able to hear Shakyamuni Buddha at the assembly on Vulture Peak?” “Deshan said, ‘The acarya heard it.’” But who is the acarya? Indeed, that’s the question, the pivotal point of this koan. “The monastic said, ‘I wonder what was spoken at the assembly on Vulture Peak.’” I would say, it’s not so much what was spoken, but what was not spoken that matters. “Deshan said, ‘The acarya understands it.’” It’s all one reality. That’s what needs to be seen.

The commentary says, “The meeting at Vulture Peak still resounds throughout the whole universe. Yet, this monastic is stumbling about trying to understand it.” What is it that exists throughout the whole universe? “Deshan doesn’t hold back and reveals the family secret without hesitation. Still, the monastic is unable to see it.” Then we get into the heart of the koan. “If you wish to understand the truth of this dialogue, then you must first see into the word ‘acarya.’ Is this Kashyapa, Deshan, the monastic, or is it you?”

“Acarya” means senior—senior priest, senior practitioner. It’s interesting how various translators of this koan, in their attempt to make it understandable to Westerners, decide who the acarya is. Some of them translate it as, “I heard it”—identifying the acarya with Deshan. Some of them say, “Mahakasyapa heard it”—identifying him with Mahakasyapa. One of them says, “You heard it”—identifying him with the reader. First of all, they’re all wrong, and second, they’ve destroyed the koan. If Deshan wanted to be that specific, he could have said “Mahakasyapa” or he could have said “you.”