Guishan was a very famous T’ang Dynasty master. He was the founder of the Guiyang School, one of the five great houses of Zen. He had some extraordinary successors—Yangshan, Iron Grindstone Liu (a female successor), and Xiangyan. He had a very strong lineage, one that was known for its subtleties and for its esoteric teachings.

I’ve added footnotes to each line of the koan in order to clarify it. “Guishan sat on the teaching seat. A monastic came up and said, ‘Master, please expound the dharma for the assembly.’” The footnote to that says, “Don’t be greedy. He has already given everything he has to give.” Next, “Guishan said, ‘I have already exhausted myself for you.’” Footnote says, “Poor old teacher. There is nothing left of him.” “The monastic bowed.” The footnote says, “It’s easy to bow, but what does he really mean by doing so?”

Here are the subtleties that you need to see in order to get to this koan. The key to the case is Guishan’s statement, “I’ve already exhausted myself for you.” He hadn’t raised a finger. He hadn’t done anything. Yet he said he had given everything he had to give. What was he saying? What was he implying? What kind of giving took place? We think of giving as overt action, but we don’t understand the subtleties of giving.

Giving isn’t always obvious. Frequently its presence can be easily missed—giving of love, for example, may be subtle. It can simply be an openness that permeates the atmosphere. It may have to do with the way someone looks at you, with a gesture or a phrase. Or it may be something even less tangible. And I’m not just talking about romantic love. It could be a child. It could be a dog, a ticket collector, a total stranger. So much is communicated that is beyond the verbal. We tend to latch on to words and are blind to everything else.

The commentary says, “This monastic asks Guishan to expound the dharma. Guishan says, ‘I have already exhausted myself for you.’ What is his meaning?” The only information we’re offered in this koan is that Guishan was sitting on his teaching seat when the monastic asked him to expound the dharma. How are we to get a sense of what he did or how he exhausted himself for the assembly? The next line elaborates: “If you wish to understand Guishan, you must first realize that expounding the dharma is not necessarily limited to expression in words, nor does wordlessness imply lack of expression.” If that’s so, then how is the dharma expounded? It’s said that the Buddha taught for forty-seven years and never uttered a single word, so what was his dharma? What was his teaching? What about the endless sutras that have been handed down?

There are other cases in Master Dogen’s 300 Koan Shobogenzo that are similar to this one. In one of them, Priest Longtan was making rice cakes for a living. One day he met Master Daowu. Daowu bowed to him, and said, “Be my attendant, and I will teach you the essential dharma gate.” So Longtan agreed and left his household. A year passed. Longtan inquired, “When I arrived you said you would teach me the essential dharma gate. I haven’t received any of your instructions as yet.” Daowu explained, “When you greet me, I join my palms together in gassho. When I sit, you stand beside me. When you bring me tea, I receive it from you.” Longtan was silent for a while, and Daowu added, “When you see it, you just see it. When you think about it, you miss it.” At that, Longtan realized it.