I picked this particular koan for several reasons. There is a good dharma point that’s being made in this dialogue, but there’s something else that drew me to it. When Xuefeng points to the furnace, to the fire, and says, “All the buddhas in the three worlds are in here, turning the great dharma wheel,” Xuansha wants to make the other side of that clear. He responds by quoting civil law rather than dharma law, saying “The king’s regulations are rather strict.” That really struck me. Here they are, a couple of monks, obviously aware of the precepts, which deal with stealing, plundering, self-centeredness, misuse. Why did he choose to refer to the king’s regulations as being rather strict?
In reflecting on this, I thought about how there are about 700 koans that we use in formal koan study in the Mountains and Rivers Order. There are about another 300 koans that Master Dogen collected that I’ve been working with. That’s a thousand koans. And yet you can count on one hand koans that directly address moral and ethical questions. Why? That seems odd. Dogen put a lot of emphasis on the moral and ethical teachings throughout his Shobogenzo. Why aren’t these teachings emphasized in the koans? There are countless Zen books out there, yet only a very few of them deal with the moral and ethical teachings of Zen. Why? Morality is realization. Realization is morality. They’re the same thing.
In the commentary it says, “These ancient buddhas had a family style—their words clearly show their abilities. Rolling out and rolling in, both sides are exposed.” When one side is present, there must be another side. That’s what’s happening on the surface of this koan. Xuansha is responding to his teacher, Xuefeng. Their relationship was unusual—more like a relationship between an older brother and a younger brother than between a teacher and a student. We see, particularly in the Dogen collection, lots of encounters between the two of them where they exchange positions quite easily or point out different sides of the same question.