Chasing Buddhas
and Ancestors

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi
Koans of the Way of Reality
Master Yunmen's Zen Warnings

Featured in Mountain Record 25.3, Spring 2007

The Main Case

Master Yunmen entered the dharma hall, ascended the high seat and said, “It is well known that silence is a virtue and that clarity is common in these times, and that this generation is living at the end of the imitation period of Buddhism. So nowadays, when monks go north they call this worshipping Manjushri. And when they go south they journey to Nanyang. People who go on such pilgrimages, though they are called mendicant monks, just squander the alms of the faithful. What a shame! What a shame! When questioned, they turn out to be as ignorant as lacquer is black. They just pass their days following their fancy. Some, who manage to absorb a meager bit of the teachings, then frantically search for someone to approve them. If they manage to get approved as venerable, they immediately see themselves as superior to others, thus creating a karma of separation and misfortune.

“Don’t say, when some day the king of hell, Yama, pins you down, that nobody warned you. Whether you are an innocent beginner or a seasoned adept, you must show some spirit. Don’t vainly memorize other people’s sayings. A little bit of reality is better than a lot of illusion. Otherwise, you’ll just go on deceiving yourself. What’s the matter with you? Come forward and say a word!”

The Commentary

Many of the ancient masters maintained a wary and vigilant eye on self-styled and decadent Buddhism. Yunmen was teaching during the imitation period of Buddhism. The problem he addresses is even further complicated in this century since we are in the degenerate period of Buddhism. Master Linji warned, “Don’t have your face stamped casually with the seal of sanction and then run around saying ‘I’ve got it.’ Documents of transmission or seals of sanction are just that, documents and seals, not the dharma. They don’t liberate people, nor do they relieve suffering. The truth does. The dharma does. And this is not something that can be given to you. It can only be realized.

We should understand that degenerate Buddhism is not something that happens in the world, but rather, it’s a product of our own consciousness. We create it. We make it the living reality it becomes. It is a product of our collective and individual conditioning. It is our self-centeredness, corruption and deceit. It is our institutional mentality which manifests as corrupt government, greedy corporations, war, repression and discrimination. It is the three poisons, which reveal themselves as self-absorption, attachment, anxiety, depression, malevolence and fear.

Within heaven and earth, and through space and time, there is a jewel hidden within each one of us. How can it be found? We must learn the backward step and meet the wisdom that has no teacher. We must discover our own inherent and unconditioned compassion and give it life. Let the three poisons manifest as the three virtues. Each one of us must sweep ourselves clean of all beliefs and dogmas in order to be free and at ease.

But tell me, how will you do it? When will you do it? You are a fully equipped buddha. How will you give it life?

The Capping Verse

Buddhas and ancestors have not appeared in the world,
nor is there any truth to be given to the people.
They were just able to observe the hearts of beings and dispense medicine according to the ills.

Master Yunmen was one of the great masters who lived during the Tang dynasty in China, and he was the founder of the Yunmen school of Zen. He was noted for his very short, cryptic sayings. A monastic asked him, “What is buddha?” and Yunmen replied, “Sesame cake.” His style was to not elaborate; he didn’t give long-winded explanations. It is said that in each of his teachings were contained three aspects: one, the cutting off of myriad streams of consciousness—it can’t be figured out intellectually; two, following the waves—that is, responding in accord with circumstances; and three, covering heaven and earth—taking everything away.