It is curious to me when I hear about people who very early in their training know that they want to teach the dharma. What is that direction expressing? It sounds like the possibility of teaching the dharma is akin to wanting to be a lawyer or a carpenter—an occupational choice. Is it possible to want to teach reality when we are not aware of reality? What kind of teachings of wakefulness can be offered when we are not awake? What do we teach when those teachings are framed by personal agendas and territorial expansions and power strivings? Reality, practice, and the manifestation of practice are exactly the same thing. Teaching the dharma, teaching reality—how do you do that? How do you teach impermanence? How do you teach selflessness? How do you teach karma? How do you teach reality? By using what is real. By letting reality take the central stage.

When we are using reality to share reality, there is no possibility of exhausting ourselves. Bodhisattvas are not fatigued because they are nurtured by releasing their position, their place, their attempt to fix some principle of the dharma or Buddhism. There is no fatigue when we offer the dharma to each other. No fatigue if we are not nailing things down and trying to protect them from the reality of impermanence and selflessness.

That’s the exhortation from the hermit. Don’t use your mind to try to overcome reality by force. That is not skillful, and it is oh so very tiring to everybody involved. Even a very tired-appearing Earth emerges out of that course of action. You must fit into the ancient path naturally. Watch with care for the eagerness to make some principle, some standard for the Buddhist teachings. In that moment, the mind-ground disappears. In the prologue there is the foreshadowing of that point: “If your potential does not leave its fixed position,” if you stay in that place where the hermit is holding up that staff, “you will tumble down into the poison sea.”

It’s worse than that. You’ll contribute to the poison sea with your own poison. That poison is the fixity, the deadening quality of the commonplace words that perpetuate the status quo. Don’t come up with fixed rules and forms, don’t make this into any principle, however lofty, however helpful it may seem. Rest in reality. See the reality of the staff, your absolute clarity of what it is, and then head forth. Head into the myriad peaks.

When we’re clear, when our concerns and intentions are focused, then we actually don’t need any special forms to help us along. Being open, we will be able to use everything to wake up, given the inherent wakefulness of reality. What does that look like?

One day, in front of his monastery, Hsueh-feng held up his staff and said, “This one is just for one of medium and low faculties, those who are concerned with all sorts of things.” At that time there was a perceptive monk who came forward and asked, “When you unexpectedly encounter someone of the highest potential, then what?” Hsueh-feng picked up his staff and left. But Yun-men, hearing of that said, “I’m not like that when it comes to breaking up confusion.” A monk asked, “How would you do it teacher?” Immediately Yun-men whacked him with the staff.

When your intentionality is completely clear—which means when that intentionality rests in reality—you don’t need special guidance. Hsueh-feng and all the teachers can fade away. Everything along the way will be matching, meeting and supporting you. There is no need for special teachings. Everything will work, everything will communicate the truth, everything will be skillful. Including Yun-men. There are no contradictions here. There is skillfulness.

Wherever we are, that’s precisely how things are—within these religious forms, all the nuances of the teachings, every detail of our lives. Wherever you are, however you frame the question about reality, there is a response already in place. As Maezumi Roshi says in the foreword to The Blue Cliff Record, “Knock on any door, someone will answer.”


The Blue Cliff Record or Hekiganroku is a collection of one hundred koans originally compiled in China by Zen Master Xuedou during the Song dynasty (960–1279 c.e.) and later commented on by Zen Master Yuanwu.

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