This is a koan that appears in Master Dogen's Three Hundred Koan Shobogenzo, his Shobogenzo fascicle "Bendowa," and in the Eihei Koroku. Clearly, Dogen found this story compelling as a teaching. In one sense it seems very simple, and because of this we should be alert. The easiest thing is to end up in the same place as Baoen.
Fayan was an important teacher of Chinese Zen, and started one of the great schools of Zen. Baoen is a monk who has been in his sangha for three years and has never come forward, never asked a question, probably never even spoken to Fayan. Fayan finally comes to him and says,"Who are you? How long have you been here?"
Even in our monastery, which is much smaller than Fayan's, it's possible for somebody to be in residential training, in a community of thirty or forty people, living together, practicing together, and to never really know that person. It is possible for someone to stay hidden if they so choose. You would think that wouldn't be possible in a place that's so devoted to laying things bare, where everything is transparent, revealed, and intensive, but sometimes what is revealed about a person is their hiddenness. Training cannot force a person to step forward, to bend, to let go. This must come freely from deep within. In Fayan's community as well, there was one who stayed back.
One day, Fayan comes to Baoen and says, "How long have you been here?"
Baoen responds, "I've been here for three years."
Fayan says to him, "You've never asked a question. You're a junior student. Why don't you ask any questions?
Baoen says, "Well, I don't want to mislead you. I confess that when I was studying with a former teacher, I attained a peaceful bliss." Fayan then directly shows Baoen that what Baoen thought had occurred—attaining peaceful bliss—had not, in fact, occurred. How is that possible? How is it possible to so deceive oneself?
To practice true dharma we have to encounter true dharma. This means both the teachings that are in accord with all that is real, as well as a true desire to encounter that truth within ourselves. The Buddha said right intention needs to be our primary motivator. It aligns us, it guidesus, it brings us back when we wander and lose ourselves. When we deeply aspire to see through all illusions, then even if we become attached to false notions of attainment, we won't be satisfied. Here, Fayan asks a penetrating question that lays Baoen bare and exposes him. Once a question is asked, the student must then be responsible to him or herself. Baoen's first impulse was to leave when Fayan did not approve him.