The Eternal Sky

Dharma Talk by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei
Book of Serenity, Case 7
"Yaoshan Ascends the Seat"

Featured in Mountain Record 25.3, Spring 2007


The Pointer

Eyes, ears, nose, tongue—each has one ability. The eyebrows are above. Warriors, farmers, crafters, merchants—each returns to a job. The unskilled one is always at leisure. How does a real Chan master devise techniques?

 

The Main Case

Yaoshan hadn’t ascended the seat (to lecture) for a long time. The temple superintendent said to him, “Everybody’s been wanting instruction for a long time—please, Master, expound the Teaching for the congregation.”

Yaoshan had him ring the bell; when the congregation had gathered, Yaoshan ascended the seat: after a while he got right back down from the seat and returned to his room. The superintendent followed after him and asked, “A while ago you agreed to expound the Teaching for the congregation. Why didn’t you utter a single word?”

Yaoshan said, “For scriptures there are teachers of scriptures, for the treatises there are teachers of treatises. How can you question this old monk?”

 

The Capping Verse

A foolish child troubles over “money” used to stop crying;
A good steed chases the wind, looking back at the shadow of the whip.
Clouds sweep the eternal sky; nesting in the moon, the crane—
The cold clarity gets into his bones, he can’t go to sleep.


This is, in a sense, a very simple koan. Yaoshan, the dharma great grandfather of Dongshan, hadn’t given a talk in a long time and there were rumblings in the sangha. “What’s going on?” “Why isn’t the old man doing his job?” The superintendent, because it was his job, went to Yaoshan and said, “You know, you haven’t given a talk for a very long time. Everybody would like to hear the dharma. Please give a teaching.” In the commentary it says in reference to this line, In the course of humanity and duty, in the capacity of host and guest, this is not out of line. It was a perfectly appropriate request, so Yaoshan had the superintendent ring the bell. The monks then assembled, eager to hear the talk. Yaoshan took his seat and after a while he got down and went back to his room. The superintendent ran after him and said, “Just a minute ago you said you were going to give a talk. Why didn’t you give a talk, why didn’t you say anything?” And Yaoshan said, “For scriptures there are teachers of scriptures, for the treatises there are teachers of treatises. How can you question this old monk?” Another translation said, “Why are you unhappy with this old monk?”

The question, of course, is did he expound the teaching? If he did, why did the superintendent ask him why he didn’t? More importantly, what was the teaching? If he didn’t, why didn’t he? An old master said, “A hut conceals deep within a thunderous tongue. Let the myriad forms explain on their own.” What was Yaoshan’s teaching?

When Manjushri asked Vimalakirti, “What is the dharma gate to nonduality?” Vimalakirti was silent. “Let the myriad forms explain on their own.” Each and every thing expresses its own nature, its own completeness. Isn’t that good medicine for an ailing planet, for a troubled people, given that all of our ailments are based on the belief in a fundamental brokenness? We think that the world is a broken place, that people are broken creatures, and that it can all be fixed by repairing the brokenness. But that hasn’t worked so far. That’s what the Buddha realized. Nothing is broken, fundamentally. Each thing expresses its own completeness. So this old master said, “Let the myriad forms explain on their own.”