The Truth of Words and Actions

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi
The Blue Case Record, Case 11
Huangbo's Gobblers of Dregs

Featured in Mountain Record 28.2, Winter 2010 


The great capacity of buddhas and ancestors is completely within his control; the lifeline of humans and gods is entirely subject to his direction. With a casual word or phrase he astounds the crowd and stirs the masses; with one device, one object, he smashes chains and knocks off fetters. Meeting transcendental potential, he brings up transcendental matters. But tell me, who has ever come on like this? Are there any who know where he is at? To test, I cite this: look!


Huangbo, instructing the community, said, “All of you people are gobblers of dregs; if you go on traveling around this way, where will you have Today? Do you know that there are no teachers of Ch’an in all of China?” At that time a monk came forward and said, “Then what about those in various places who order followers and lead communities?” Huangbo said, “I do not say that there is no Ch’an; it’s just that there are no teachers.”


His cold severe solitary mien does not take pride in itself;
Solemnly dwelling in the sea of the world, he distinguishes dragons and snakes.
Ta Chung the Son of Heaven has been lightly handled;
Three times he personally felt those claws and fangs at work.

Huangbo was one of the great masters of Zen during the Tang Dynasty in China, around 800 A.D. He was imposing and unusual, even among the unusual masters of that time, in great part because of his physical appearance. He was seven feet tall and had a callous that allegedly grew on his forehead as a result of bowing.

Once a monastic went to see Huangbo and asked him, “You always say you don’t depend on the Buddha, you don’t depend on the Dharma, you don’t depend on the Sangha. Why do you continually bow?” In other words, if you don’t depend on these things, what are you paying respect to by bowing? Huangbo replied, “I don’t seek from the Buddha, I don’t seek from the Dharma, I don’t seek from the Sangha. I always just bow.” The monastic insisted, “But what’s the use of bowing?” Huangbo hit him. The monk said, “Too coarse,” and Huangbo said, “What place is this to talk of coarse and fine?” and hit him again.

There are a number of very colorful stories about Huangbo. One of them says that Huangbo was on a pilgrimage to Tiantai Mountain, one of the sacred mountains in China. Along the way, he met a very unusual monastic who had a kind of light in his eyes and he and Huangbo hit it off immediately. They talked and laughed together as if they had known each other for years. They decided to travel together, and after a while they came upon a swollen valley stream. Huangbo then leaned his staff up against a tree, took off his hat and sat down. The monastic tried to get him to cross the stream with him, and Huangbo said, “Please, cross over yourself.” So the stranger gathered up his robes and walked on top of the water across the stream. Looking back he called to Huangbo, “Come on, come across, come across.” And Huangbo replied, “You self-perfected fellow! If I’d known you would concoct miracles, I would have broken both your legs.” The monastic sighed and said, “You are a true vessel of the teaching of the Great Vehicle,” then he disappeared.

There are no miracles in Zen. Ultimately, what does walking on water have to do with trans- forming your life? There are a lot of spiritual magicians in the world, but we need to ask ourselves, what do these “extra-sensory” powers have to do with the question of life and death? What do they have to do with transforming the way we perceive ourselves and the universe? What do they have to do with today?—that is, with being totally present in this very moment? That’s why the monastic recognized Huangbo’s spiritual caliber.