A monk asked Master Ziyong Chengru, “Thirty blows – are they the actions of a man or an enlightened being?”
Ziyong replied, “Just as long as the fellow isn’t beaten to death.”
The monk said, “When you speak, the congregation assembles like clouds. In the end, who is the ‘great hero’ among women?”
Ziyong said, “Each and every person has the sky over their head; each and every one has the earth under their feet.”
The monk gave a shout.
Ziyong said, “What is the point of recklessly shouting like that?”
The monk bowed respectfully and Ziyong said, “The dharma does not rise up alone – it can’t emerge without reliance on the world. If I take up the challenge of speaking I must surely borrow the light and the dark, the form and the emptiness of the mountains and hills and the great Earth, the call of the magpies and the cries of the crows. The water flows and the flowers blossom, brilliantly preaching without ceasing. In this way, there is no restraint.”
Ziyong Chengru was an abbess from the Lin-chi (Rinzai) Chan tradition near Beijing who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries. She was also known for traveling widely and meeting with teachers and students from all around China. This story recounts an exchange that took place with a monk at a monastery where she was visiting and had been invited to give a Dharma talk. She was visiting the monastery to pay respects to her lineage ancestors, and it sounds like this monk is challenging her using the enigmatic and confrontational style characteristic of classical Chinese Zen.
We can imagine that after she gave her talk she asked if there were any questions, and this monk begins with a question that relates directly to the confrontational style of classical Chinese Zen. Many Zen stories of monks and their male teachers involve the teacher giving the student 30 blows with a stick. Usually the teacher is beating a student who has offered a response that the teacher deems to be too intellectual, not somehow spontaneous enough. The physical beatings were apparently thought to help shift the student from an intellectual mode to a more intuitive approach. So the monk in this story is asking a question about this kind of action – is this striking of students an expression of a truly enlightened person, or just some ordinary schlub? Ziyong responds in a pretty down-to-earth way, basically saying, well, it’s OK as long as the student isn’t beaten to death! She doesn’t seem interested in getting involved in this question of enlightenment or not, and we see this pragmatic approach throughout the exchange.
Then the monk says that her visit brought together the whole community, they all came to her talk, to see this great visiting teacher. Then he asks kind of an odd question – in the end, who is the great hero among women. Why does he ask this? Would he ask this of a male teacher? Clearly he is responding to her gender here.
Her response is very warm and down-to-earth: all of us, not just men, not just women, all of us live on the Earth with the sky overhead and the ground beneath our feet. It reminds me of the Buddha touching the ground when Mara asked the Buddha who could bear witness to the Buddha’s awakening, who could verify it? The Buddha touched the Earth as if to say the Earth itself, literally the ground of where we all live, is the witness. Awakening is our birthright just by being born on this planet. Clearly, Ziyong is pointing the monk to a place beyond gender.
The monk then gives a good, old-fashioned Zen shout, which was a fairly common way to respond in a Dharma inquiry. The shout is a way of pointing beyond words to the absolute. Ziyong doesn’t play along and just asks basically, ‘Do you have to make such a racket?’
The monk bows, basically as a way of saying that he doesn’t have anything further to offer in this exchange. Ziyong’s closing statement is so beautiful. She is saying that the Dharma isn’t from some other realm of emptiness or some cosmic thing that touched down here on the Earth. No, the Dharma, like us, is completely of this Earth. It depends completely on the world. When we speak about the Dharma, when we speak about our lives, we, like the Buddha, are immediately verified and supported by the Earth, by all beings. It’s a tremendously validating perspective.
Now, it’s not to say that we don’t need teachers or that we don’t need feedback from our friends. The monk in this story was probably well trained in the classical Chinese Zen forms, which place a very strong emphasis on meeting with a teacher. In that framework, it’s very important to get feedback about our practice. We need that, for sure; we need to talk to others because we do sometimes stray from the path and our friends and teachers can help us along. So I want to be clear that Ziyong isn’t saying that the blossoming of the flowers and the call of the magpies is the only interaction we need with others in our practice.
What she’s talking about is the deeper kind of verification that we might understand in terms of Buddha nature. All of us, without exception, have this sane, wakeful quality that is our birthright. We don’t have to receive the approval of others to get this. It’s part of the package. And it is fully expressed in the sound of the magpie, the flowing river, the mountains, the valleys.
How many times do we feel something in our hearts but don’t honor that feeling, somehow believing that we are wrong or somehow don’t have the right to our experience? When we sit quietly, especially in the natural world, when we walk in the hills, when we sit sesshin in the mountains, we feel this. We hear that the sound of the Bluejay is expounding the Dharma, we see the Buddha’s teachings in the river and in that, we realize our own liberation. Truly, as Ziyong said, there is no restraint.
I’ll conclude with a poem by WS Merwin that this story reminded me of. As I read it, think about your own experience of validation or verification. How has the presence or absence of the validation of others played out for you in your own life? To what extent have you felt the inherent validation Ziyong talks about. Do you feel that’s something you’ve had to generally look to others for? Does zazen put you in touch with that? What does this story tell us about our connection to the Earth?
The cold slope is standing in darkness
But the south of the trees is dry to the touch
The heavy limbs climb into the moonlight bearing feathers
I came to watch these
White plants older at night
Come first to the ruins
And I hear magpies kept awake by the moon
The water flows through its
Own fingers without end
Tonight once more
I find a single prayer and it is not for men
(poem by W.S. Merwin)
–Taisan Joe Galewsky