Yuan-wu, in the commentary on the koan, expands on the statement that the hermit makes. “Whenever you study and ask questions, there aren’t so many things to be concerned with.” Precisely. There are three—impermanence, selflessness and karma. “Concerns arise because outside you perceive that mountains and rivers and the great earth exist. Within you perceive that seeing, hearing, feeling and knowing exist. Above you see that there are various buddhas that can be sought and below you see that there are sentient beings who can be saved. You must simply spit all of that out. At once. Afterwards, whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down, twenty-four hours a day you fuse everything into one.” No, you recognize everything as one. Yuanwu continues, “Then, though you’re on a tip of a hair, it’s as broad as the universe. Though you dwell in a boiling cauldron or a furnace’s embers, it’s like a land of peace and happiness. Though you dwell amidst gems and jewels in profusion, it’s like being in a thatched hut. For this kind of thing, if you are a competent adept, you get to the one reality naturally, without wasting any effort, without feeling any effort, without being burdened, because of your unconcern.”

The hermit continues, and poses the next question, a courageous question: “In the end, how is it?” What end? With complete ease, placing the staff across his shoulders, he responds, “Completely unconcerned for people, I head into the myriad peaks.” What is it like in the end? There is ease. There is a very clear relationship with everything. And there is the unfolding journey—the journey of complete awareness, of that cool availability to all beings. Complete presence and complete unreachability. Complete caring without an iota of attachment. Unfolding of the myriad peaks.

The evolution of our spiritual practice invariably takes us across the landscape of Mahayana history, from self-concern and a possibility of solitary accomplishment to discovery of our inherent connection, or rather, identity with the universe. This personal transition is necessary because it reflects how things are. We are always evolving from seeing spiritual practice as some sort of self-centered, self-improving journey into an embodiment of interconnectedness as expressed by our dedication to give ourselves up for the sake of all beings.

In the history and the teachings of the Mahayana, there are certain characteristics that define the tradition. Practice and realization rest on a deep appreciation of emptiness. The Mahayana begins with a personal verification of selflessness, of the fact that there is no inherent “you” in the midst of this life. This selfless nature, this emptiness void of emptiness is the nature of the whole universe. It is the interdependence of all the aspects of reality, and their interconnectivity. In the realization of selflessness, the universe manifests completely. The activity available within that appreciation is compassion. The impulse of compassion is precisely the same as the recognition of the non-dual wisdom of prajna, of emptiness. Upaya is skillfulness, what percolates to the surface according to what is available at the moment. It is the fluency of using what is at hand to help others wake up. It is a dedication to staying utterly open and fully participating.

Upaya is the seventh paramita. Normally we work with six paramitas—virtues or perfections— or practices of the bodhisattva. In fact, there are ten paramitas, each corresponding to a certain level in the evolution of a bodhisattva’s capacities and skills.

The first six paramitas are dana (giving), sila (the precepts or moral and ethical teachings), kshanti (patience), vajra (enthusiastic effort), samadhi (focusing of the mind) and prajna (the underlying reality of insight and the verification of the nondual nature of the mind). With these in place, it is natural for the next paramita to be upaya, skillful means. Upaya is precisely what you bring into the picture in your realization of selflessness. When we’re clear about this the staff can change into anything that is needed dependent on the circumstances that bring it forth.