What is the dust the holy being spoke of, what is the disease? Delusion, attachments, expectations, love and hate, our hard-held beliefs; all of conditioned existence is dukkha. Recognizing this is what gives us the sense that something is wrong, that we ourselves and the world itself are impure, lacking. What then is the medicine, what is the path to liberation from illness? What is liberation itself?

Ordinarily, we consider illness as a distinct state in which health is absent. Medicine helps us to move from illness to health, to eradicate the illness; health is the preferred state, the state of wholeness. Yet Yunmen says, “Medicine and illness heal each other.” What is the time when illness heals the medicine? When does medicine need healing?

The Heart Sutra says, “No suffering, no cause of suffering. No extinguishing, no path, no wisdom, no gain.” Or in the Surangama Sutra, the Buddha says, “Delusion has no root, for it has no self-nature. Fundamentally there has never been delusion and though there is some semblance of it, when one is awakened, it vanishes—for a Buddha does not beget it.”

“Medicine and disease subdue each other.” The footnote says, “A compounded form cannot be grasped.” The Buddha said that all compounded forms are dukkha. So everything in the universe being compounded, is conditioned, and appears to have solidity and its own reality. Yet, when we examine it closely we see it cannot be grasped, though this is precisely what we try to do. We grasp with conviction, with great belief in our sense that this will bring us happiness or protect us from adversity. Being compounded, a form cannot arise on its own, it has no life of its own—no self-power. It has no power to bind and no power to free. Yet, we can’t say that we aren’t hindered by life, and the history of Buddhism is the story of men and women who recognized that life is dukkha—suffering—and how they found profound spiritual freedom.


wet grass


Our grasping, our sense of separateness—these are the symptoms of the illness. In separateness we experience all the dualities which stand in opposition to each other: good versus bad, enlightened versus deluded, greed versus generosity, male versus female, liberal versus conservative. In Zen training, these dualities can take the form of teacher versus student, monastery versus the world, advancing versus regressing.