Daido Roshi

Wisdom Seeking Wisdom

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi
True Dharma Eye, Case 241

Xuansha Hears the Sound of a Swallow”

Featured in Mountain Record 27.1, Fall 2008


 The Main Case

Xuansha was informally addressing his monastics when he heard a swallow singing. He said to the assembly, “This is the profound dharma of real form. It skillfully conveys the essence of the true teaching.” He then descended from the teaching seat.

A monastic asking for an explanation said, “I don’t understand.”

Xuansha said, “Go away. No one will believe you.”

The Commentary

If you wish to understand the truth of this koan, you must understand that Xuansha’s “This is” is not referring to the swallow that is teaching the profound dharma of real form, nor is it referring to Xuansha, who teaches the profound dharma of real form. Then what is it pointing to? Real form is all dharmas as they are. “As they are” is neither sentient or insentient, form nor emptiness, being nor nonbeing. They are the inexpressible moment, thus!

Be that as it may, what is the meaning of Xuansha’s descending from the teaching seat, the monastic’s “I don’t understand,” and the master’s “Go away. No one will believe you”? Keep in mind that even if this monastic had said, “I understand,” Xuansha would still have had to say: “Go away. No one will believe you.” Why is this so?

The Capping Verse

A jewel, shining bright —
                there are absolutely no flaws.
Sacred and mundane, just as they are,
               intermingle freely.


This koan is taken from the fascicle “The Profound Dharma of Real Form” from Master Dogen’s 300 Koan Shobogenzo. It’s not an easy koan. On the surface it may seem so, but it’s very easy to be misled by the seemingly obvious points being made in it. We must keep in mind that it has a much deeper significance.

Xuansha, a successor of Xuefeng, had spent many years living as a fisherman on the Nantai River. He left lay life to enter monastic training in his mid-30’s—a rather late age for those days—at a temple on Lotus Mountain. He was ordained and went on to carry on various ascetic practices, fasting for long periods of time and wearing only a patched robe and a pair of straw sandals. All the other monks thought he was very unusual and called him Ascetic Bei.

It is said that Xuansha was awakened one day upon reading the words of the Surangama Sutra. After he left Xuefeng he moved to Xuansha Mountain and remained there for the next thirty years. He was a dharma brother of Yunmen, also a successor of Xuefeng. Two important schools of the five houses of Zen came out of Xuefeng’s lineage: the Yunmen School and, from Xuansha, the Fayan School. Therefore, Xuansha was a key figure in the history of Buddhism.