The commentary goes on: “At another time, he said of his own teacher, ‘Old Deshan doesn’t know the last word of Zen.’” That’s a koan that appears in several collections, and it’s one that I really like. It’s a koan that takes place in the latter years of Deshan’s life. Deshan had a reputation for being a fiery teacher. He was known for his “twenty blows of the stick.” He would ask a question, and no matter how his students responded, Deshan would give them twenty blows of the stick. If they responded affirmatively, twenty blows of the stick. Negatively, twenty blows of the stick. Both affirmatively and negatively, twenty blows of the stick. Neither affirmatively nor negatively, twenty blows of the stick. So there was no way to escape these twenty blows of the stick. As a result, monks were terrified of Deshan. But in the latter part of his life, he became a sweet old man. Many of the commentaries refer to this stage of one’s training as “complete maturation of enlightenment.” Or it could also be that he was senile.

One day, while Xuefeng was busy cooking in the kitchen, Deshan came in carrying his bowls. It was close to the time of the noon meal. Xuefeng saw him and asked, “Old Master, what are you doing walking around with your bowls? The bell hasn’t rung yet. It’s not time for lunch.” Deshan looked at him and meekly turned around and went back to his room. Xuefeng thought he had defeated the old man in dharma combat, so he started bragging to everybody, “You should have seen it, he came with his bowls, when I said something to me, he didn’t know what to say and just went back to his room…”

The word spread, the way scuttlebutt spreads in a community, and very soon, the head monk, Yantou, heard about it. Yantou asked Xuefeng to tell him the story, and Yantou’s reply was, “Oh. Great master that he is, Deshan hasn’t yet realized the last word of Zen.” You can just imagine what went through Xuefeng’s mind then! Word got around about this until Deshan heard about it. Perhaps his attendant told him, “Everybody’s saying you don’t know the last word of Zen.” So he said, “Tell Yantou I want to see him.” Yantou went in to the abbot’s room and Deshan asked him, “What’s the matter? Don’t you approve of me?” Yantou went over to him and whispered something in his ear, which seemed to satisfy Deshan.

The next day, Deshan presented his discourse in a totally different way than ever before. At the end of the discourse, Yantou lept from his seat, clapped his hands, and said, “At last! At last! The Old Master has realized the last word of Zen.”

Needless to say, Yantou and Deshan went through this whole drama in order to teach Xuefeng something. And this term “the last word of Zen” comes up at least one other time in an encounter between Yantou and Xuefeng.

The commentary continues, “See how he has a naturally sharp and demanding edge to his personality. There was no one who could really handle him. If you want to get to the real meaning of Yantou’s two disapprovals, you must examine the two encounters. What did he mean when he said old Dongshan doesn’t know right from wrong?” That’s the first thing we need to see in this koan. Not knowing right from wrong, up from down, self from other, this from that. Dongshan was seeing the whole universe with total equanimity. So was Yantou approving or disapproving him? Then Yantou said, “He’s made a big error. At that time I lifted up with one hand and pushed down with the other.” In contrast to what Old Dongshan could see—no difference between right and wrong—Yantou was lifting up and pressing down. He was showing both sides while Dongshan could only see one side.

“What does it mean not to shine?” It’s kind of interesting how we get caught up in affirmation and negation. Of course, one of the whole points of our practice and training is to be able to be free of affirmation and negation. There are many koans that deal with exactly that. They address our preoccupation with others’ approval and the constant disapproval of ourselves.

In another koan, Master Zhaozhou went to a hermit and asked, “Are you in? Are you in?” The hermit held up a fist. Zhaozhou said, “The water is too shallow to anchor a vessel here.” And he walked away. From one perspective, he was clearly disapproving. Then he went to another hermit and called out, “Are you in? Are you in?” This hermit also held up a fist in exactly the same way. Zhaozhou said, “You are free either to give or to take away, either to kill or to give life.” And he bowed to him, clearly approving. In the commentary it says, “Both held up their fist. Why did he approve the one and disapprove the other? If you say that one hermit is superior to the other, you have not yet got the Zen eye. If you say there is no difference between the two, you have not yet got the Zen eye.”