In this koan, Linji, the founder of the Linji school of Zen, has a dialogue with his teacher, Master Huangbo. There’s a story about Linji that says that when he first arrived at Huangbo’s monastery, he did not go to see the master for three years. One day, the head monk said to him, “You’ve been here three years now, and you haven’t gone to see the master yet in dokusan. Why?” Linji answered, “I don’t have anything to say.” The head monk said, “Go and ask him what is truth.” And Linji, being a good monk, obeyed. He went into dokusan at the next opportunity and asked Huangbo, “What is truth?” Huangbo just hit him. The head monk was waiting for Linji outside the dokusan room and when he came out, the head monk asked, “What happened?” Linji replied, “I asked him and he hit me.” The head monk said, “Oh, go back and ask him again.” Linji did and he got hit again. This happened three times. Finally he thought, “I must have some karmic obstruction that prevents me from understanding the master’s teaching,” and feeling very dejected, he left. From Huangbo’s monastery he went to study with a hermit who was one of Huangbo’s successors. The hermit, as Zen teachers usually do, asked Linji where had had come from. Linji said, “From Huangbo’s.” “What did he have to say?” the hermit asked. And Linji said, “Three times I went in to ask the master ‘What is truth?’ and three times he hit me.” To this, the hermit replied, “You sniveling thing, you didn’t realize his grandmotherly compassion.” And then the hermit hit Linji. At this, Linji became enlightened. He then went back to Huangbo and hit him. Huangbo said, “Take this crazy monk into the zendo.” Thus he accepted Linji as a student and later transmitted the dharma to him. And as you know, with Linji began the Linji or Rinzai school, one of the two lineages that survive to this day.

One day, Huangbo found Linji planting trees in the mountain, which seemed odd. Why plant all these trees deep in the mountains? And Linji said, “First I want to create good surroundings for the temple. And second, I want to create a landmark for future generations.” Then he took his mattock and struck the ground three times.

One day, the World-honored One was walking with his congregation and he pointed to the ground with his finger and said, “This spot is a good place to build a sanctuary.” And Indra, the emperor of the gods, took a blade of grass, stuck it in the ground and said, “The sanctuary is built.” The World-honored One approved him and smiled.

In another koan, Xuefeng said to his assembly, “What we’re talking about is like a rice field. It is dependent on the people plowing the fields and planting the seeds. Do not miss receiving this gift.” Xuansha said, “Then what is the rice field?” Xuefeng said, “Look.” Xuansha replied, “Although what you said is correct, I wouldn’t say it that way.” Keep in mind that Xuansha was Xuefeng’s student. Xuefeng said, “Then how would you say it?” And Xuansha said, “One by one, each and every person.” Do you see the relationship of the karma of an action—the labor of plowing the fields and planting seeds—and how that same action creates a landmark? Everything that we do creates a landmark.

In a similar example, Dizang is planting the fields. Dizang asks the monastic, “Where are you from?” The monastic said, “The south.” Dizang asks, “How is the buddhadharma in the south?” The monastic said, “It is being discussed all over.” Dizang said, “How can it compare to my planting rice and growing food?” The monastic said, “What about the three worlds?” That is, the world of form, formlessness and desire. Dizang responded, “What is it that you call the three worlds?” At this, the monk became enlightened.

So what was Linji’s intention in hacking the ground three times with his mattock? We read about gestures like these that seem to have a deep meaning. But the commentary says, “If you ascribe dharma implications to this action, then why did Huangbo nevertheless say, ‘That may be so, but I give you thirty blows of my stick’?” Huangbo just wasn’t buying it.

That’s one of the handicaps of modern Zen in the United States. We have an absolute glut of Zen literature. Most practitioners nowadays are very well read and so they think that these gestures are filled with dharma implications and they imitate them. It’s not too difficult to look like you know something about Zen, but my question to you is, have you personally realized it? Because if you haven’t, it will not transform your life. The dharma has nothing to do with what you know or believe intellectually. It’s not about putting yourself in some cosmic realm. Then you’ll definitely miss the rice field. You’ll miss planting pine trees.