This koan, along with many others, puts a great deal of emphasis on being able to trust yourself. “What does it mean to not shine?” The footnote to that says, “He didn’t shine, nor was he dull. Do you understand?” From a Buddhist perspective, to shine means to manifest, it means to reach out. So, lifting up with one hand, pressing down with the other hand is reaching. Not knowing the difference between right and wrong is not reaching outside. These are two different aspects of the dharma, and we need to see them both. We need to be able to take the backward step when it’s appropriate, and we need to take the forward step and manifest in the world—shine in the world—when that’s appropriate. Then we need to see the time that is neither shining nor not shining, neither good nor bad, neither up nor down, neither self nor other.

Dogen puts this dichotomy to rest in the opening lines of Shobogenzo “Genjokoan.” He says, “When all dharmas are buddhadharma there is life and death, buddhas and creatures, enlightenment, delusion, and practice. When the ten thousand things return to the self, there are no buddhas, no creatures, no life, no death, no self, no other, no enlightenment, no delusion.” First he shows one side, then he shows the other side. And then he says, “However, the buddha way is beyond being and non-being. Therefore, there are buddhas and creatures, enlightenment and delusion, life and death.” Those opening lines set the pace for the entirety of “Genjokoan,” and all ninety-six fascicles of his master work, Shobogenzo, where he elaborates on this point from different perspectives.

The final lines in the commentary for this koan read: “It seems obvious that Yantou would know that Deshan was a truly accomplished master; he succeeded him. Why did he then say, ‘Old Deshan doesn’t know the last word of Zen?’” And further, “What is the last word of Zen?” A master composed a verse on the last word. He said, The last word. It’s already present before any words. You think it’s real. If you look right now at it, you’ll go blind.




“If you can see into this, you will know why Luoshan didn’t even bother to ask about it.” Deshan was Luoshan’s dharma grandfather. Why wouldn’t Luoshan ask about Yantou’s disapproval? He said, “I don’t want to know about Deshan.” Chances are, Luoshan already understood it, and that’s why he didn’t want to know. What did he see? What was the point of the encounters between Yantou and Xuefeng, and Yantou and Deshan?

The capping verse:

If the student's understanding equals the teacher's,
the teaching is diminished by half.
Only when the student has surpassed the teacher,
has the teaching been truly transmitted.

This has been an axiom in Zen since the beginning and there’s good reason for it. Our tendency is to go to the lowest common denominator—each generation tends to lose aspects of the dharma. So, if a successor starts far ahead, when she loses something, she will at the very least be where the teacher was, or even surpass him. I don’t want successors that are clones of me, or who have the same understanding as I do. I want successors who have surpassed me, because the changes that are going to happen in the next generation and the generation after that—I can’t see them. I have no idea what they’re going to be. So the only thing that I can do is to make sure that my successors have enough clarity that when the situation changes, they can accommodate to the shape of that vessel in order to meet the coming generations. That is what’s kept Zen so vital.

It’s difficult to trust oneself enough to maintain high standards. In order to be popular, people tend to lower their standards, and we see being popular as being successful. So, if we go back to approval and disapproval, we tend to shape our actions in order to receive others’ approval. In our case, I can tell you that any new aspect of training here at the Monastery has been met with tremendous resistance from the sangha. So much so, that some people have just left. Does that make the change right or wrong?

The bottom line of this koan is, first of all, to understand what’s really going on in these encounters, and secondly, to come away with a sense of trust in yourself. Not an intellectual trust, but a deep, visceral trust in yourself. Much of what takes place in the dokusan room is about developing that trust. I’m not going to tell you how, but a lot of what takes place in face-to-face teaching is about helping people develop a deep and abiding sense of trust in themselves, in their practice, so that ultimately this practice becomes totally personal. It’s got nothing to do with me, the lineage, the Buddha, or Buddhism. It’s purely what you, yourself, have discovered and brought to life. And that is no small thing

True Dharma Eye: Master Dogen's Three Hundred Koans is a complete, modern English translation of Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koan or Chinese Shobogenzo. This important collection of koans, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and John Daido Loori, is accompanied by John Daido Loori’s commentary, capping verse, and footnotes. (Shambhala Publications, 2005)