"Without a moment's hesitation Yangshan shook the tea tree." He acted immediately, without pausing to think or reflect. The question and answer arose simultaneously. This kind of response is clearly an indication of a person's clarity. When I ask the question, "What is it?" the minute someone says "Uhh..." It's wrong. Hesitancy is a dead give-away that the answer has not yet been embodied. "What's your name?" "Mary." You don't have to think about it. You know your name. When something is seen clearly, the response is immediate.
"Guishan dismissed this as only seeing the function and not yet seeing the essence." Shaking the tree—this is the function. What is the essence? What is the quality or nature of you? What identifies you? What is the most basic element or feature of you? That's what essence means. I have never forgotten the assignment given by my photography teacher, Minor White, to photograph our essence. This followed the assignment to photograph our personality—our behavioral patterns, emotional responses, individual traits, distinctive or noticeable characteristics. Then he asked us to go beyond all of that. "What is your essence?" he asked. That struck me as a very important question. It was like asking, "Who am I? Who am I really?"
The next line says, "Tell me, where was Yangshan's fault?" If you can see into it here, you've seen the koan. If you can't see into it yet, keep digging. "Yangshan then turned the spear around and challenged Guishan." Again, no hesitation. What have you got to say about it, old teacher? He walks right into the lion's mouth. "Yangshan said, "What does the master say?" Guishan was silent. Yangshan said, "The master has attained its essence, but hasn't realized its function." Guishan said, "I spare you thirty blows of my staff." Sometimes thirty blows of the staff is a punishment. By saying "I spare you," he's saying Yangshan deserves thirty blows. Sometimes it's an affirmation. Another master, Deshan, was famous for his thirty blows of the staff. If a student answered affirmatively, thirty blows of the staff; negatively, thirty blows; neither affirmatively or negatively, thirty blows; both affirmatively and negatively, thirty blows. No matter what the response, it was thirty blows.
"Can it be said that both masters were at fault?" Guishan says that Yangshan is at fault because he only saw one side of it. Yangshan said Guishan was at fault because he only saw one side of it. So are they both at fault? "Or is it that neither are at fault, and both are in accord with the teachings?" Both were indeed in accord with the teachings, but the question is, why was there no agreement between them? These are two people that are in perfect accord, but Yangshan only expressed the function and Guishan only expressed the essence. "Further, is it possible that one cannot express both the essence and function simultaneously?" If that's true, then Buddhist practitioners can't sit zazen and be activists—they can't do both. But it's not true. We can do both. The problem when we don't do both is that action is simply good-hearted. It's a loving attempt at doing the right thing. That's fine, but it's not yet the manifestation of the buddhadharma. It's not yet bringing the great heart of compassion into the fray. It's doing what every other activist organization does. My feeling is that Buddhism has something unique to offer because it's based on non-dualism. How does non-dualism function in peaceful action? In environmental action? In feeding the hungry? In responding to the AIDS pandemic? How do we take action? The kind of activism that comes from Buddhist practice is based on clearly seeing what is, what resources are available and knowing how to use them effectively in order to manifest good for everyone.