Tending the Flame

Dharma Discourse by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei
Book of Serenity, Case 53
Huangbo's "Dreg Slurpers"

Featured in Mountain Record 29.1, Fall 2010

The Pointer

Facing the situation, you don’t see Buddha; great enlightenment doesn’t keep a teacher. The sword that settles heaven and earth obliterates human sentiments, the ability to capture tigers and rhinos forgets holy understanding. But tell me, whose strategy is this?


The Main Case

Huangbo said to the assembly, “You people are all slurpers of dregs. If you travel like this, where will you have today? Do you know that in all of China there are no teachers of Chan?”

At that point a monk came forward and said, “What about those who guide followers and lead groups in various places?”

Huangbo said, “I don’t say there’s no Chan, just that there are no teachers.”


The Capping Verse

Paths divide, threads are dyed—too much trouble.
Leaves in clusters, flowers in rows—ruins the ancestors.
Subtly wielding the guiding handle of creation;
Vessels of water and clouds are on the potter's wheel.
Clearing away tangles and chips,
Shaving off down:
The marked balance, the jeweler's mirror,
The jade ruler and gold knife:
Old Huangbo can perceive even an autumn hair;
Cutting off the spring wind, he doesn't allow exaltation.

This koan is drawn from the Record of Huangbo, who is the teacher of Linji. In the full encounter, it says:

One day Huangbo entered into the hall to speak, and when a large assembly of monastics had gathered, he said, “What is it that you people are seeking here?” Then he used his staff to try to drive them away, but they wouldn’t leave. So he returned to his seat and said, “You people are all dreg-slurpers. If you go on a pilgrimage seeking in this way, you’ll just earn people’s laughter. When you see 800 or 1,000 people gathered somewhere, you go there. There’s no telling what trouble this will cause. When I was traveling on pilgrimage and came upon some fellow beneath the grass roots”—which refers to a teacher—“then I’d hammer him on the top of the head and see if he understood pain, and thus support him with an overflowing rice bag. If all I ever found were the likes of you here, then how would we ever realize the great matter that’s before us today? If you people want to call what you’re doing a pilgrimage, then you should show a little spirit. Do you know that today in all of great Tang, there are no Zen teachers?”

And then the dialogue continues with the monastic in this koan coming forward and asking his question. “If you travel this way,” Huangbo says, “where will you have today?” The footnote to that says, “Now is already not like the past. Later and future will not be like now.” There is the eternity of waiting for the lives we should be living to arrive, waiting for the person that we should be or could be to show up. If we try to make a life in this place, we’ll end up dying waiting.