In response to the cook, the lecturer did as he was told. He sat on his own, studied, investigated, and came to awakening. The story makes it seem very easy. Here is a man who is giving a lecture that was probably the result of many years of study, and then an unknown monk laughs out loud and tells him that he doesn’t really know what he is talking about. The story suggests that the lecturer just calmly accepts his criticism and instruction, then goes to sit by himself and comes to awakening. What this story does not tell us is the great anguish, the doubt, the groundlessness that the lecturer must have been thrown into by this pilgrim. Everything that he was basing his life on was stripped away in an instant and suddenly he was left facing a great mountain.

Trust in this dharma and in ourselves means that when facing obstacles, we may not be able to see the passage, but we know there is one. Why? Because others have come before us, and they passed through. Because we possess buddha nature, and fundamentally, there is no obstruction.

The National Teacher said to the emperor, “Patron, walk on Vairochana’s head.” The emperor said, “I don’t understand.” The National Teacher replied, “Don’t acknowledge your own pure body of reality.” What is he saying? An old master said, “As long as you are acknowledging it, as before it is after all still not so.” As long as something is being acknowledged, it is not so. The moment that you stop acknowledging it, the moment when it is not possible to acknowledge it, there is walking on Vairochana’s head. The National Teacher is not saying you should disregard your own pure body of reality, he is saying stop standing apart. Stop believing in this sense of separation, of estrangement, of alienation. It’s that sense which is the heart of our delusion. The Buddha realized that separation doesn’t exist. When a teacher says to practice “being the breath,” it’s easy to think there is something you have to do to make yourself merge with the breath. But true practice is to let go of good and evil, of right and wrong, of all conditioned existence and in that moment, when you are no longer separating yourself, there is nothing but the breath. This is returning to the natural order of things.

The koan’s verse says, The teacher of a nation is also a forced name. Like Vairochana, like Buddha, like male and female, capable and insufficient, strong and weak, any label is a forced name. The footnote that Yuanwu adds here says, “What’s the necessity for the forced name, for the flower in the sky, the moon in the water? When the wind passes over, the treetops move. Even the reflection is true to itself.” A flower doesn’t think, “I am a flower.” It can’t even conceive of such a thing. A dog fulfills dog nature without knowing any such thing; a cat is utterly a cat; a tree can’t be anything but a tree.

Nanyang alone may flaunt his good fame: In Great Tang he helped a real son of heaven— Once he had him tread upon Vairochana’s head. The footnote here says, “Why doesn’t everybody go this way? If they did, they would find heaven and earth.” Having this fulfillment is within reach of each one of us. Why don’t we find heaven and earth? There are lots of reasons why—we can think of so many good reasons to put off clarifying the great matter. That’s why practice has to intrude upon and disassemble those reasons, the logic, the explanations and justifications. That’s why it’s important to have a sense within oneself of what this life is, because there are so many reasons to look elsewhere. In our everyday lives there are so many things that need to be done; how do we take care of these many things without seeing them as separate, or distractions, from the Way? We must cease using the many things of the world—inner and outer—to distract ourselves from the real truth of the world.

The verse continues, Then his iron hammer struck and shattered the golden bones. Between heaven and earth, what more is there? It shattered the bones of being, the bones of names and status. Strip off the skin, lose the label, and go to the place where all is still and silent. The footnote says, “Set your eyes high, hold fast to your territory.” Setting one’s eyes high can mean continuing the fantasy—it can mean having an expectation—or it can be, as Master Dogen says, to aim high, to have great aspiration, not to be afraid to be the one who was born clear and unhindered, who has the great mind of Buddha, the great heart of compassion. Yet Dogen also said, “Even if you clean everything and make yourself cut off your tracks and swallow your voice and realize the great body of truth, in the school of the practitioners of the Way, this is still the view of novices and children.” It is not enough to go to that place of stillness and silence, we must turn our heads around to face the troubles of the world and truly arouse the great function. That’s why we chant, “To realize the absolute”—the dharmakaya—“is not yet enlightenment.” It is not enlightenment because it is not yet turning to the troubles of the world.

Rumi once wrote:

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.
Don’t try to see through the distances.
That’s not for human beings.
Move within, but don’t move the way fear
makes you move.

Don’t try to see to the distant places, to know what’s up ahead, to envision what’s going to happen, to understand all the complexities, to rationalize the reasons for your attachments. Rather, find your own way of moving that’s not driven by fear—that’s not driven at all. For this way is so clear and bright, it can’t be held back.

The verse concludes, I do not know who enters the Blue Dragon’s cave. The blue dragon’s cave is where the dragon of enlightenment lives, and this dragon is holding a pearl. To get that pearl, you have to enter the cave and deal with the dragon. Two thousand, five hundred years ago the Buddha realized himself and then turned back to the world to deal with the problems of ancient India. In our time, our realization must respond to what Daido Roshi lovingly called, “the great catastrophe.” So keep walking. Know that there is no place to get to, and in that knowing, keep walking


Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei is abbot and resident teacher of the Zen Center of New York City: Fire Lotus Temple, and Head of the Order for the Mountains and Rivers Order.

The Blue Cliff Record or Hekiganroku is a collection of one hundred koans originally compiled in China by Zen Master Xuedou during the Song dynasty (960-1279 c.e.).