In the koan, a monk went to see Caoshan, a descendant of Dongshan. Together Dongshan and Caoshan formed the Soto or Caodong School, which is part of our lineage. This koan is set in ninth century China, and in that time and place, fulfilling one’s filial duty was all-important. Based on the teachings of Confucius, honoring one’s parents and honoring the dead were essential obligations.
The monk asked Caoshan, “How is it when the mourning clothes are not worn?” To wear mourning clothes, to grieve, to abide by customs and etiquette—to do what is expected—was extremely important in that context. The footnote to this line of the koan says, “The cicada has shed its shell but still holds the cold twig.” Cicadas leave their shells on the bark of a tree when they molt, and so the footnote is saying that not wearing the mourning clothes is like a cicada that has dropped off all of its protective armor, but still holds on to the cold twig—meaning it is not yet fully released, fully free.
Bodhidharma said that shedding the shell—forgetting the self—is the greatest dana, the greatest gift we can offer. That’s why the Buddha’s dharma is considered the supreme medicine, because it cures the ultimate illness—delusion—which is the source of all human suffering. So how is it when the mourning clothes are not worn? This monk is not talking about rejecting or turning one’s back on anything. He’s also not talking about clothes. The student who takes up this koan must not go to the words to find meaning. What then is he talking about? Caoshan said, “Today Caoshan’s filial duty is fulfilled.” Having shed the shell, one’s filial duty is fulfilled, because ultimately, the whole point of the teacher’s life is for the student to realize that her fundamental nature is empty—there is no shell.
During the last couple of weeks of Daido Roshi’s life, Ryushin and I were over at the abbacy quite a bit. It was clear that Roshi was moving closer to death. One day the three of us were sitting together, quietly talking about things, when Roshi said that he wanted to retire, to pass over all of his responsibilities.
“When?” I asked him.
He said, “Now.”