Wearing the Buddha's Teaching

Dharma Talk by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei
Transmission of the Light, Case 43

Featured in Mountain Record 27.1, Fall 2008

The Main Case

Liangshan studied with Zen master Tongan, who asked him, “What is the business under the patchwork robe?”

Liangshan had no answer.

Tongan said, “In studying Buddhism, if you don’t reach this state, that is most miserable. You ask me and I’ll tell you.”

Liangshan said, “What is the business under the patchwork robe?”

Tongan said, “It’s within.”

Liangshan was thereupon greatly enlightened.

The Capping Verse

The water is clear to the very depths;
It shines without needing polish.

The two Chinese masters in this case, Liangshan and Tongan, were student and teacher. There’s not much information about either of them other than that they lived during the tenth century. They were part of the Dongshan lineage—therefore part of the lineage of ancestors of the Mountains and Rivers Order.

At the time that this dialogue took place, Liangshan was serving as Tongan’s personal attendant. One morning, as Tongan entered the buddha hall for morning service, Liangshan brought Tongan his “patchwork robe.” This refers specifically to the monastic robe, which is made in a traditional pattern of patchwork. It originated during the time of the Buddha when the only garment that the monastics wore was a patchwork piece of clothing created from discarded cloth—materials nobody else wanted. That quilted or patchwork quality has continued to this time. But Tongan’s question, ultimately, is not about being a monastic or a homedweller, about living in the monastery or in the city, about having a robe that’s black or gray or having no robe at all. Tongan’s question is addressing something that’s everybody’s business.


Photo by Carol Schultz


Receiving the robe, Tongan asked, “What is the business under the patchwork robe?” Every morning we chant, Vast is the robe of liberation, A formless field of benefaction, I wear the Tathagata’s teaching, Saving all sentient beings. As students of Zen, the business we are to study and realize is this vast robe of liberation, which is nothing other than a formless field of benefaction. It has no beginning or end. It is not limited by ideas of boundary or difference. Its nature is formless, and yet, being without form how can it be a field of benefaction? This is the profound teaching of the non-dual dharma, the Middle Way—not clinging to any fixed form which includes any concept of formlessness. Wearing the Buddha’s teaching is not simply about wearing a piece of cloth, although the robe itself is a teaching and is given at the time of monastic ordination and when receiving jukai, the moral and ethical teachings of Buddhism. If we are truly wearing the Buddha’s teaching, how could it be taken off? How could it be contained in a piece of cloth?