Daido Roshi

Inconceivably Wondrous

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi
Koans of the Way of Reality

Changsha’s “Illusory Thinking”

Featured in Mountain Record 26.1, Fall 2007


 The Main Case

Changsha was once asked by Government’s Secretary Du, “When you chop an earthworm into two pieces, both pieces keep moving. I wonder, in which piece is the buddha nature?”

Changsha said, “Don’t have illusory thoughts.”

Du said, “How are we to understand that they are both moving?”

Changsha said, “Understand that air and fire are not yet scattered.”

Du said nothing.

Changsha called Du, and Du responded, “Yes?”

Changsha said, “Isn’t that your true self?”

Du said, “Apart from my answering, is there another true self?”

Changsha said, “I can’t call you Emperor.”

Du said, “If so, would my not answering also be my true self?”

Changsha said, “It’s not a matter of answering me or not. But since the beginningless kalpa, the question to answer or not has been the root of birth and death.” Then he recited a verse:

Students of the Way don’t know the truth.
They only know their past consciousness.
This is the basis of endless birth and death.
The deluded call it the original self.

The Commentary

The buddha nature is inconceivably wondrous. It has nothing to do with cosmic consciousness or the divine self. Buddha nature exists in life and in death, as well as prior to life and death and after life and death.

Aside from the words and ideas, Secretary Du doesn’t understand the truth of the buddhadharma. Caught up in his illusory thinking, he searches for buddha nature. Like searching for nature in the midst of nature, like a fish trying to find water, he only seems to mire himself more deeply with each question, while Master Changsha compassionately tries to extricate him.

Before there ever was scattering or no scattering, movement and stillness, being and nonbeing, there has always been buddha nature. Sutras, koans, words, silence, the cooing of an infant, images, gestures, right action, the sounds of the river valley and the form of the mountain are all expressions of the buddha nature.

The Buddha said, “All living beings totally exist as buddha nature.” Master Dogen said, “Total existence is the buddha nature.” Mountains, rivers, and the earth are all the ocean of buddha nature. Also, “To express the buddha nature further, it is fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles.” I ask you, isn’t this nature itself? Isn’t this nothing other than the manifestation of the Diamond Net of Indra?

Buddha nature is all-inclusive—sentient as well as insentient. Indeed, if we examine this teaching carefully, we see that all phenomena of this great earth are constantly expressing the truth of the universe—the buddha nature. It’s the natural order of things. Do you hear it? Can you see it? If not, then heed the instructions of the great Master Dongshan and see with the ear and listen with the eye. Only then will you understand this ineffable reality.

This is a truth that is not to be found in metaphors, images, or thoughts. Indeed, it’s not like anything. And yet, it is not hidden. Don’t be deluded. It is nothing other than what you do morning and night.

The Capping Verse

Bright day, blue sky—
        in a dream he tries to explain his dream.
See! The myriad forms arising and vanishing,
        constantly reveal the buddha nature.


The buddha nature is inconceivably wondrous. It has nothing to do with cosmic consciousness or the divine self,” says the commentary to this koan. There are endless explanations of buddha nature—ideas, theories and all kinds of scholarly commentary on it. Within Buddhism, buddha nature is a doctrinal phrase that differs from school to school and is known by many names: self nature, true nature, original nature, original face, emptiness, prajna, nirvana. In Mahayana Buddhism, it’s called the tathagarbha—the buddha womb or true self—and references to it are found in the Paranirvana Sutra.