Encountering the Body of Wisdom

Dharma Talk by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei
Blue Cliff Record, Case 90
Zhimen’s Body of Wisdom

Featured in Mountain Record 28.1, Fall 2009


The Pointer

Even the thousand sages have not transmitted the single phrase before sound. The single thread right before us is perpetually unbroken. Purified and naked, free and unbound, hair disheveled and ears alert—tell me, what about it? To test, I cite this to see.

The Main Case

A student asked Zhimen, “What is the body of wisdom?” Zhimen said, “An oyster swallowing the bright moon.”
The student asked, “What is the function of wisdom?” Zhimen said, “A rabbit getting pregnant.”

The Capping Verse

One piece of empty solidity, beyond saying and feeling;
From this humans and gods see Subhuti.
The oyster swallowing, the mysterious rabbit—deep, deep meaning:
Having been given to Ch’an people, it makes them fight and struggle.


Wisdom, as we speak of it in Buddhism, is prajna. It’s not knowledge as we would typically understand it. It’s not anything that can be learned. We can study the teachings as one aspect of the dharma, but the dharma itself has to be directly experienced. That’s why it can’t be given, nor can it come from the outside. To directly experience wisdom we have to go beyond the intellect—which is no small thing, because we move through our lives mostly guided by the thinking mind. Even within Buddhist practice, to have a “dharma view” is considered delusion. In other words, to exchange our ordinary view for a dharma view is not yet freedom. It may be right understanding, but it’s not ultimately freeing because it’s just another idea.

A student asked Zhimen, “What is the body of wisdom?” Zhimen was a ninth- and tenth-century Chinese master and a successor of the well-known master Yunmen. Among his successors was Xuedou, the compiler of the Blue Cliff Record. To the student’s question, Zhimen responded, “An oyster swallowing the bright moon.” In Zen, the moon represents enlightenment. Yuanwu’s footnote to this line says, “Throughout the body there are no reflected images. It cuts off the tongues of everyone in the world. What’s he using ‘body’ for?” Nothing stands outside of this wisdom, there is nothing apart from it. The body of wisdom should not be taken as the physical body. But we shouldn’t misunderstand this to mean that the physical body is irrelevant, or worse, that it’s an obstacle to practice and realization. The reason we sit in stillness is so we can gain peace within the physical body and then go further, to realize our true body, the body of wisdom. To enter here, all identification with forms of self and other must be dropped away. Here, there’s nothing to know, nothing to speak of, no body to be found.