Before Enlightenment, After Enlightenment

Dharma Talk by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei
Blue Cliff Record, Case 21
Zhimen's Lotus Flower, Lotus Leaves/em>

Featured in Mountain Record 24.2, Winter 2006

The Pointer

Setting up the banner of the teaching, establishing the essential meaning—this is adding flowers to brocade. Strip off the blinders, unload the saddle pack—this is the season of the great peace. If you can discern the phrase outside of patterns, then when one is raised you understand three. Otherwise, if you’re not yet this way, as before, humbly listen to this treatment.


The Main Case

A monastic asked Zhimen, “How is it when the lotus flower has not yet emerged from the water?”

Zhimen said, “A lotus flower.”

The monastic said, “What about after it has emerged from the water?”

Zhimen said, “Lotus leaves.”


Xuedou's Verse

Lotus flower, lotus leaves—he reports for you to know.
How can emerging from the water compare to when it has not yet emerged?
North of the river, south of the river, ask Old Wang.
Fox doubt after fox doubt.

In Buddhism, and particularly in Zen, the lotus flower is a symbol for enlightenment. Its roots are sunken in silt and debris, yet it grows out of that debris through the water and emerges into the bright sunlight as a beautiful, perfect, fragrant flower. It does not grow out of a pure, rarefied atmosphere, but from decayed matter, from the very stuff of our lives. So, the monastic is really asking Zhimen: how is it before and after enlightenment? This question is central to the buddhadharma, and is something every student wants to know.

Zhimen was a tenth century Chinese master two generations down from Yunmen. One of his disciples, Xuedou Chongxian, compiled the Blue Cliff Record, where this koan appears. “How is it when the lotus flower has not yet emerged from the water?” the monastic asks Zhimen. What is the lotus before it has realized its potential, before it reveals its beauty? Zhimen says, “A lotus flower.” The monastic persists, “What about after it has emerged from the water?” What is it then? Zhimen says, “Lotus leaves.”