Throughout his life Chih Men sought to live away from the world. He deliberately maintained strict periods of hermitage even as he taught at and maintained the monastery, even as he brought forth some twenty students that he authenticated as teachers in their own right. But he didn’t mix much with the world—only to the degree called for by the circumstances of his life. Toward the end of his life he met a military official who recognized something about Chih Men and insisted that he meet the Emperor of China to receive the purple robes of an accomplished master. Chih Men did everything possible to avoid that meeting, but finally they cornered him and forced him to accept this honor, and he did. He called the monastic community together and said, “Although this old monk’s original intention is to cover this illusory body with shabby garments and fend off the pangs of hunger with coarse food, I can do nothing about the fact that the military governor has asked the Emperor to regale me with the purple robe. If I put it on, I will go against my original intent, yet if I don’t put it on, I will go against the will of the Emperor. Leaving aside the issue of putting it on or not for a moment, you tell me, what robe did the ancestors wear? If you really know, though you wear clothes all day, you have never put on so much as a single thread. And though you eat all day, you have never chewed as much as a single grain of rice. If you don’t really know, then watch me put on this robe right now.” This is like striking Hsueh Tou across the mouth with a fan. This is pointing to that instant before a thought moves.
In this koan, when the monk comes to Chih Men and asks about the body of wisdom and the function of wisdom, Chih Men responds with these two somewhat enigmatic answers. For the body of wisdom, he says, “an oyster swallowing the bright moon.” For the function of wisdom, he answers, “a rabbit getting pregnant.” These phrases have a certain background behind them, a certain meaning, so much so that in the poem when Hsueh Tou brings them up again, as “the oyster swallowing, the mysterious rabbit,” he says there is “deep, deep meaning” here—the meaning before a first thought moves.
Both the image of the oyster swallowing the moon and the rabbit getting pregnant point to stories from Chinese folklore, stories rooted in a particular season. The time is late in October, where the land is just turning from the richness, maturity, and ripeness of autumn toward the early signs of death that November brings, with its gray mists and washed out landscapes. It’s within the night of the full moon that the oysters in their oyster-like way swim to the surface of the water and open their mouths to capture the moonlight—and to the degree to which the moon is fully exposed and those oysters reach the surface and are permeated by that moonlight, that’s how pearls are produced.
And so it goes for the rabbits—during the full moon of late October, rabbits come to the great meadow somewhere in the middle of the forest, and they, too, sit open-mouthed and immobile staring at the moon and become pregnant with the next generation of rabbits: the sons and daughters of the moon.