photo by Rina Ciampolillo


In one translation of this koan, when Xiyuan heard Tianping say, “Do not say that you understand the Buddhist teaching; I cannot find even a single person who can quote a saying,” Xiyuan said nothing. The teacher knows and is patient. He sees and he waits. What is he seeing? Why didn’t he tell Tianping to keep his mouth shut? Why didn’t he tell him that he was attached to his understanding of the dharma? One of the most important aspects of compassion is skillfulness, the wisdom of compassion. Xiyuan waited for the time to help Tianping, and one day, he seized his opportunity. He saw Tianping and called out to him, “Tianping!” Tianping looked up and Xiyuan said, “Wrong!” Tianping then took a couple of steps towards Xiyuan who again said, “Wrong!” Tianping then went up to Xiyuan who asked, “These two wrongs just now, were they my wrongs or your wrongs?” Tianping now seems to take responsibility and says, “They’re my wrongs.” Xiyuan however says, “Wrong!”

Master Hakuin, commenting on this koan, says, “This mistake is extremely difficult to see, a long sword against the sky, cold penetrating to the bones.” This “wrong” of Xiyuan’s cannot be understood intellectually. The teacher is always trying to reveal the real truth which is pervading everywhere, existing right here now. Then why is it so difficult to see? Because the self that arises gets in the way. So there needs to be a long sword, a cold that penetrates to the bones to melt all obstructions from the eyes and shatters this cage of who we think we are.

“Were these your mistakes or mine?” Hakuin says that this is like a woman who calls out to her attendant again and again, not because she wants her attendant, but because she hopes her lover will hear her voice. Xiyuan is calling out to Tianping for a purpose that is not superficially apparent. Tianping responds, “My wrongs.” Xiyuan says, “Wrong!” Hakuin says, “What a disgraceful thing to say! Just what the hell do you mean by that?” Tianping is taking responsibility. Why is Hakuin saying that’s a disgrace? Three times Xiyuan wields his long sword, and three times Tianping remains untouched. He was not yet ready to be shattered by Xiyuan’s compassionate “Wrongs,” to let go of his buddha view and dharma view and encounter his original face. It’s easy to sound like a person of the Way; it’s much more difficult to awaken to one’s real nature and then embody this in each and every moment.



photo by John Daido Loori


Xiyuan says, “Stay here for the summer and wait for me to discuss these two wrongs with you.” He’s expressing his faith in Tianping’s capacity to realize it, but Tianping immediately went away. Why? Encountering an obstacle he gives up. Even in the face of Xiyuan’s generosity, he won’t enter the dragon’s cave.

To move forward on the path, you have to surrender the place that you’re in. To continue to awaken on the path, anything gained must be relinquished. In Master Dogen’s Guidelines for Studying the Way he says, “You should not practice the Buddha’s teaching with the idea of gain. The practice of Buddha’s teaching is always done by receiving the essential instructions of a master, not by following your own ideas. In fact, Buddha’s teaching cannot be attained by having ideas or not having ideas. Only when the mind of pure practice coincides with the Way will the body and mind be calm. If body and mind are not yet calm, they will not be at ease. When body and mind are not at ease, thorns grow on the path of realization.”