Daido Roshi

Walking the Walk

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

Guishan's “Essence and Function”

Featured in Mountain Record 27.2, Winter 2008


 The Main Case

One day while they were picking tea leaves Guishan said to Yangshan: "All day today I've heard your voice but I haven't seen your form. Show me your original self."

Yangshan then shook the tea tree.

Guishan said, "You've attained its function, but you haven't realized its essence."

Yangshan said, "What does the master say?"

Guishan was silent.

Yangshan said, "The master has attained its essence, but hasn't realized its function."

Guishan said, "I spare you thirty blows of my staff."

Yangshan said, "If I receive thirty blows of the master's staff, who then will receive thirty blows from me?"

Guishan said, "I spare you thirty blows."

Later, Master Xuanzu said, "I ask you, who made the error here?"

The Commentary

The point of testing students is to know them intimately as soon as they open their mouths. An old master once said, "Immeasurably great people are turned about in the stream of words." Guishan and Yangshan were so in accord in perfect teacher-disciple identification, that in Zen dialogues, it is often difficult to tell them apart.

Daily encounters have always been the hallmark of Zen training because they provide unlimited opportunities for teaching.These two masters always took advantage of such opportunities to sharpen their understanding. Guishan challenged Yangshan to show his original self, and without a moment's hesitation Yangshan shook the tea tree. Guishan dismissed it as only seeing the function and not yet seeing the essence. Tell me, where was Yangshan's fault? Yangshan then turned the spear around and challenged Guishan, but dismissed the master's answer as only revealing the essence, but not yet the function. Tell me, where was Guishan's fault? Can it be said that both masters were at fault? Or is it that neither was at fault, and both were in accord with the teachings? Further, is it possible that one cannot express both essence and function simultaneously? Keeping in mind that thirty blows cannot be ignored, say a word.

We should understand that essence and function are a single truth. Principle and phenomena are not two realities. However, Zen practitioners inevitably fall to one side or the other. The question is, how do we leap past the dualities and show the clear, perfect reality of the single truth?

The Capping Verse

Within the myriad forms,
    a single body is revealed.
Only when you're sure for yourself,
    will you enter this truth.

Guishan and Yangshan exemplified the teacher-student relationship at its best. Described as "two mouths with no tongue," words were unnecessary for communication between them. Although Guishan had over a hundred successors, just three are renowned: Yangshan, Iron Grindstone Liu and Xiangyan. Yangshan and Guishan together formed the Guiyang School, one of the Five Houses that existed during the Golden Age of Zen. Their "family style"—each one of the Five Houses was known for a particular teaching style—dealt primarily with dualities. Of course, the concept of duality comes up in all of the koans, but Guishan and Yangshan addressed it specifically.