In the case of Sheng, a few students gathered around his hermitage. He didn’t organize any special way of training. There was no monastery. He didn’t promise anything, resisting to dangle the carrot of transmission and completion of study. Still, he did his best with what he had to offer. His style was severe and minimalistic. His staff was his companion and he kept coming back to the challenge it presented. For twenty years he would face his congregation and pose the question in this koan. When we see the nature of this staff clearly and penetrate the ground of reality, why don’t we settle here?
Sheng trusted his own way of teaching right to the very end. Just before his death, he once again asked, “When the ancients got here, why didn’t they consent to stay here?” He then followed up with the final exclamation, “With my staff across my shoulder, I pay no heed to people. I go straight into the myriad peaks.” He died unconcerned, abiding in no fixed position, once again able to use completely what he had in his hands.
Besides this often repeated exchange, there was another teaching that he presented, a very short discourse: “This matter is most urgent. You must clearly apprehend it. Once you get it clear at all times you will avoid being bound up and will be at ease wherever you are. Yet don’t use your mind to overcome by force. With respect to yourself, and with respect to others, you must fit into the ancient path naturally. As soon as you get to study and analysis you are eager to make some principle into a standard for the Buddhist teaching. If you go on this way, when will you ever attain to the rest of the mind-ground? Elders, I ask you to be thoroughgoing in this way.” Don’t notice things from your concerned position, your beloved reference point. That’s overcoming reality by force. Relax your agenda.
You must clearly apprehend it; that’s the first step. Get here. Truly. Get this moment. Catch up with yourself. Allow the parts of you that extend ahead into the future to retract. Come home to what is the point of everything that you’re doing here. Discover the urgency of this matter. “This matter is most urgent.” What matter? That’s the point of all the teachings. That’s the point of all the practice. That’s the point of manifesting ourselves in harmony with reality. These three observations are not different. They cannot be separated by a second of time or a centimeter of distance, or by any metaphysical or rational caveat. What reality is, what your practice is, and who you are within your practice are exactly the same thing—at all times.
What are the characteristics of this reality? What are the characteristics of this practice? What are the characteristics of your true self, of your bodhisattvic ideal and its expression? Buddha’s teachings are only concerned with these issues. They are extended in many different ways but on the most fundamental plane there are three facts that we need to account for. These are continuously available and verifiable and they are the most urgent matter: impermanence, selflessness or emptiness, and causality. That’s it. Buddha is saying that those are the only worthy concerns for one who is concerned with the reality of life. You really don’t need to concern yourself with anything else. Everything else will emerge out of that. Become clear about that. Clarify what it means to become clear about that.
What is communicated when the hermit raises that staff and says, “When the ancients got here”? What is that reality? It has to be the reality of impermanence, selflessness and causality. Note that. Make that your body and mind, through and through. And then, don’t stay there. This was the beginning for those who came before us. They all got to that point. But then, when they got there, they kept on going. Because there is no power there. Because to remain fixed in that position is to sink into the poisonous sea. Because to speak from that position is to offer words that are commonplace, words that perpetuate the illusion, the ignorance, the unreality of trying to make things permanent. It is to perpetuate a sense of inherent self and to shirk away from the responsibility of attending wholeheartedly to causality.
Don’t stay in clarity; there is no strength there. Don’t become a salesperson for Buddhism, for Zen, for the Mountains and Rivers Order, for your own role in this grand scheme. Many of us, as soon as we get to that point, are eager to make a principle, an insight into some standard for the Buddhist teachings.