Where Is the Barrier

Dharma Talk by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei
Blue Cliff Record, Case 56
Quinshan’s One Arrowpoint Smashes Three Barriers

Featured in Mountain Record 28.2, Winter 2009

 The Pointer

The buddhas never appeared in the world—there is nothing to be given to people. The Ancestor never came from the West—he never passed on the transmission by mind. Since people of these times do not understand, they frantically search outside themselves. They are far from knowing that the One Great Matter right where they are cannot be grasped even by a thousand sages. Right now, where do seeing and not seeing, hearing and not hearing, speaking and not speaking, knowing and not knowing come from? If you are unable to apprehend clearly, then try to understand inside the cave of entangling vines. To test, I cite this: look!


The Main Case

Chan traveler Liang asked Qinshan, “How is it when a single arrowhead smashes three barriers?”

Qinshan said, “Bring out the lord within the barriers for me to see.”

Liang said, “So then knowing my fault I must change.”

Shan said, “Why wait any longer?”

Liang said, “A well–shot arrow doesn’t hit anywhere,” and (started to) leave.

Shan said, “Come here a minute.” Liang turned his head; Shan held him tight and said, “Leaving aside for a moment a single arrow- head smashing three barriers, let’s see you shoot an arrow.” Liang hesitated, so Shan hit him seven times and said, “I’ll allow this fellow will be doubting for thirty more years.”


The Capping Verse

I bring out the master within the barriers for you—
You disciples who would shoot an arrow, don't be careless!
Take an eye, and the ears go deaf;
Let go an ear, and the eyes both go blind.
I can admire a single arrowpoint smashing three barriers—
The trail of the arrow is truly clear.
You don't see?
Xuansha had words for this:
“A great adept is the primordial ancestor of mind.”

“ The buddhas never appeared in the world—there is nothing to be given to people” begins the pointer to this koan. This is a teaching we hear frequently in Zen practice; the teacher has nothing to give to the disciple. And yet, Yuanwu says, “Since people of these times do not understand, they frantically search outside themselves.” He’s speaking from more than a thousand years ago, and so we see that in this regard, not much has changed. In fact, I wonder if the frantic pace of our searching beyond ourselves hasn’t, in fact, become much greater. We’re so inundated with images from movies and advertising that show us a happiness, a love, a life that appears to be so much more than our own. Everywhere we turn—television, radio, the internet— we encounter pundits, experts and other confident people who seem to know so much and express their great certainty about all kinds of things. The Buddha realized that being born human means we are in complete possession of that which we seek to find true contentment. But if this is true, then why don’t we know it in our bones? Why are our lives so marked with dukkha?