The Motivation to Practice

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi
Koans of the Way of Reality, Case 91
Turtle Mountain Realizes It

Featured in Mountain Record 30.2, Winter 2011

John Daido Loori Roshi (1931-2009) was the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order. Daido Roshi was a lineage holder in the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen. He originally gave this discourse in 1991.


Before you have clarified it completely, it all seems like an impenetrable forest of brambles. When you have been able to see it, you realize that from the beginning there have never been any hindrances. By means of knowledge that has no teacher, he realizes the wondrous teaching of formless form, the marvelous mind of nirvana. By means of unconditioned grandmotherly compassion, he freely kills and gives life: the exquisite dharma-dance of the birth of a buddha. But say, what was it that was realized?

Main Case

Xuefeng and Yantou accompanied one another visiting Zen masters. When they arrived at Turtle Mountain they were snowed in and forced to stop. Yantou spent his time sleeping every day, but Xuefeng sat earnestly in meditation.

One day, Xuefeng called out, “Dharma brother, wake up!”

Yantou said, “What’s the matter?”

Xuefeng replied, “This has been a pity throughout my life. When I traveled with another monk, he only upset me. Now I’m traveling with you, here, but all you do is sleep.”

Yantou shouted, “Go to bed! You meditate all the time, but it’s as if you were in a far away village inside the land of some remote place. Later, you’ll only go about deceiving people.”

Xuefeng said while pointing to himself, “This matter of the self hasn’t been clarified yet. I don’t dare cheat myself.”

Yantou said, “I thought that you would go to a solitary peak, make a small hut and spread the great teaching. How can you still go on talking like that?”

Xuefeng answered, “But this matter of the self really hasn’t been clarified yet.”

Yantou said, “If that’s so, tell me all according to your way of seeing it. If it’s correct, I’ll approve it for you; if it’s not, I’ll point that out for you, too.”

Xuefeng answered, “When I arrived for the first time at the place of Ungan, I heard him explain the meaning of form and emptiness. At that moment I attained some understanding.”

Yantou said, “Even 30 years from now, you should avoid talking about it.”

Xuefeng replied, “I also read Dongshan’s enlightenment poem. The one he wrote after crossing the river. It reads ‘earnestly avoid seeking without, it will just move further away from you. Today I am walking alone, yet everywhere I meet it. It is no other than myself, but I am now not it. It must be seen in this way to realize suchness.’ I attained some realization from this verse, too.

Yantou said, “If it’s like that you won’t even be able to save yourself.”

Xuefeng continued, “Later I asked Deshan, in the matter of the Zen school will this humble student be able to attain it or not? Deshan beat me with a stick and said, ‘What are you talking about?’ At that moment, I felt as if the bottom of a black lacquered pail had fallen out.”

Yantou shouted, “Haven’t you heard the saying: That which enters through the gate cannot be the family treasure?”

Xuefeng said, “Then how should it be?”

Yantou said, “If you want to spread the great teachings in the future, everything must emanate from your own heart. It completely covers the heaven and the great earth.”

With that, Xuefeng attained great enlightenment, made deep bows and then arose and called out several times, “Today Turtle Mountain has attained the Way! Today Turtle Mountain has attained the Way!”

Capping Verse

Spontaneously illuminated, the myriad sounds and forms—
           no creature fails to cover the ground on which it stands.
The route has opened, flowers fall and the tree has no shadow—
           when looking, who does not see?
Seeing or not seeing, Turtle Mountain walks on water,
           the stone woman gives birth to a child in the night.