Singing the Dragon Song

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi Sensei
Koans of the Way of Reality
Dragon Singing in a Withered Tree

Featured in Mountain Record 24.2, Winter 2006

The Main Case

Xiangyan was once asked by a monastic, “What is the Way?”

Xiangyan said, “A dragon singing in a withered tree.”

The monastic said, “What does this mean?”

Xiangyan said, “Eyeballs in a skull.”

Later, another monastic asked Shishuang, “What is the dragon’s singing in a withered tree?”

Shishuang said, “It still has joy.”

The monastic said, “What are the eyeballs in a skull?”

Shishuang said, “They still have senses.”

Later, another monastic asked Master Caoshan, “What is the dragon’s singing in a withered tree?”

Caoshan said, “Bloodstream has not stopped.”

The monastic said, “What are the eyeballs in a skull?”

Caoshan said, “Dry all the way.”

The monastic said, “I wonder, can anyone hear it?”

Caoshan said, “Throughout the entire earth, there is no one who does not hear it.”

The monastic said, “Which verse does the dragon sing?”

Caoshan said, “I don’t know which verse it is, but all those who hear it are lost.”


The Commentary

Do not mistake a withered tree for a dead tree; it abounds with life and celebrates each and every spring with new foliage. It’s just that few have realized this. As for the dragon’s song, actually, everyone is able to hear it, because it exists everywhere. And yet, there can be no dragon’s song unless there is a withered tree.

If you can see through to the point of this koan and make it your own, then your own voice will be the dragon’s song and you will be able to make use of it among the ten thousand things. If, however, you are unable to perceive it, then the worldly truth will prevail and everything will appear to be an impenetrable barrier.

You should understand that illumination and function are a single truth, principle and phenomena are not two realities. These old masters know how to simultaneously roll out and gather in. Letting go of the primary, they open the gate of the secondary.

When the great function manifests, it does not hold to any fixed standards. Sometimes a blade of grass can be used as the sixteen-foot golden body of the Buddha; sometimes the sixteen-foot golden body of the Buddha can be used as a blade of grass. All this notwithstanding, tell me, how do you understand the great function?


The Capping Verse

Letting out the hook,
just to fish out the dragons.
The mysterious devices outside of convention
are only for those who wish to know the self.

This year we are celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Mountains and Rivers Order—twenty-five years of sharing the dharma on this mountain. During the anniversary weekend held here in the summer of 2005, we combined the celebration of those twenty-five years with a Board of Governors meeting, and there were close to one hundred and seventy attendees. This allowed us to both review the changes and developments of the last five years—since the last BOG meeting—as well as look a bit into the future, specifically the birth of the Dragon Hall.