When he was close to dying at eighty-five years of age, he was sleeping and eating less and less. It’s said that his attendant came to him and offered him some hot medicinal broth. Master Yunmen handed it back to him and said, “First, I am fine. Second, you are fine. Be sure to write a letter to request my leave from the emperor.” Then he wrote his final words to his sangha, “After my death, I permit neither the wearing of mourning clothes and conformity with worldly custom or wailing and holding a ceremony with a funeral carriage. This would be a violation of the Buddhist precepts and a source of trouble for the Ch’an school.”
This koan is a very well known case of Yunmen’s. Many of Yunmen’s teachings are very terse and can seem impenetrable. Each is said to contain three phrases or aspects—one that encompasses heaven and earth; one that follows after the waves—that is, meets the needs of the student; and one that cuts off the myriad streams of thought. His teachings are typically difficult to pass through; they allow for no intellectualizing, nothing to grasp.
In the commentary to this koan it says, “Yunmen said, ‘Medicine and disease subdue each other: the whole earth is medicine; what is your self?’ Do all of you have a way to get out? For forty-nine years, in more than three hundred assemblies, the World Honored One adapted the potential to set up the teachings—all of this was giving medicine in accordance with the disease, like exchanging sweet fruit for bitter gourds. Having purified your active faculties, he made you clean and free.”
Following his enlightenment the Buddha despaired of being able to teach what he had realized because he felt it was too subtle and difficult. He feared people wouldn’t understand it, and that it would just lead to greater confusion. But then a holy being came to the Buddha and implored him to teach, saying that while it was true that many people in the world would be unable to hear his dharma, there were those who had “little dust in their eyes” and who would be able to hear his teaching and awaken.