The Main Case: Yunmen's Bright Light, Blue Cliff Record
Case 86

Yunmen gave instruction, saying, 'Everyone has their own light. If you want to see it, you can't. The darkness is dark, dark. Now what is your light'?
He himself answered,
'The storeroom. The gate.'
Again he said,
'It would be better to have nothing than to have something good.'

Yunmen lived from 864 to 949, just at the tail end of the Dang dynasty. He came to awakening under Master Muzhou who was known for his uncompromising work with his students. It is said that Muzhou quit monastic life in order to look after his aged mother. He lived in a modest cottage and secretly fashioned straw sandals, leaving them at the roadside so that weary travellers could replace their worn footgear. Here is a record of Yunmen meeting Muzhou for the first time:

The moment Muzhou saw Yunmen approach, he shut the door. Thereupon Yunmen knocked at the door, and Muzhou asked:
'Who is it'?
Yunmen replied, 'It's me!'
Muzhou asked, 'What are you here for'?
Yunmen said, 'I am not yet clear about myself. Please, Master, give me guidance!'
Muzhou opened the door, cast one glance, shut it again, and withdrew.
In this manner Yunmen went to knock at the door on three consecutive days. On the third day, when Muzhou set out to open the door, Yunmen forced his way in. Muzhou seized him and said: 'Say it, say it!'
Yunmen hesitated.
Muzhou pushed him out, saying, 'Utterly useless stuff', and slammed the door. Through this Yunmen attained awakening.

In later centuries this story was embellished, and it was said that Muzhou not only pushed him out of his room, but, in slamming the door, broke his leg. The sudden pain cut through his delusions and, as he screamed in pain, he came to great awakening.

What did he realize?

Yunmen had a very incisive style of teaching. Here are some examples:

A monk asked Yunmen, 'What are the words that transcend the Buddha and the Patriarchs'?
Yunmon said, 'Sesame Ricecake.'

Another time a monk asked Yunmen, 'No thought arises - is that right or wrong'?
Yunmen said, 'Mt. Sumeru!'

Someone once said, 'Please, Master, show me the way in!'
Yunmen replied, 'Slurping gruel; eating rice.'

Yunmen forbade his students to record his teachings. He was afraid that his students would get stuck on his words. This is what he is referring to when he says, 'It is better to have nothing than to have something good.' But one of his students secretly wore a paper gown under his robe and jotted down the Master's words. And the recording of his teachings led on to the compilation of the Blue Cliff Record where no less than thirteen koans by Yunmen appear. What a treasure for us today!

In the koan I take up today, Yunmen harks back to Shitou's poem Merging of Difference and Identity that was written a hundred years earlier:

The darkness is inside the bright,
but don't look only with the eyes of the dark.
The brightness is inside the dark,
but don't look only through the eyes of the bright.

What is the light that Yunmen and Shitou speak of? In his commentary to this koan, Xuedou maps out a path of how to see into this light. He says: 'To begin to understand, you must cut off knowing and seeing, forget gain and loss, and become purified, naked, and perfectly at ease; each and everyone must investigate on their own.'

To cut off knowing and seeing, forget gain and loss means letting go of all concepts about the world and ourselves. It means opening to the moment, just as it is right now - the birds twittering in the pine trees, the cicadas shrilling in the warm autumn sun. It means experiencing the moment directly without perceiving it through a filter of desire and dislike.

This filter through which we see the world, is formed by our layers of conditioning. What are these layers? From earliest childhood we are conditioned to learn from others, to emulate others, and to adapt to what others think of us and of the world. In all of this adaptation something very important gets lost: the ability to inquire deeply without being hampered by faith, fear, hope, compliance or rebellion. If we don't inquire ruthlessly and make every experience our own, we become, in the words of Krishnamurti, second-hand people. This is why Xuedou says, 'Each and everyone must investigate on their own.'

As we go through life we spin a cocoon of concepts about ourselves and about the world. This cocoon gives us a sense of security but it also keeps us caught and unable to move. Sometimes life itself has a way of ripping this cocoon - just think about what happens if you are humiliated at work, or your partner leaves you for another: suddenly your sense of self is shaken or severely damaged.

You must cut through your layers of conditioning. But how can you actually do this? In a fundamental sense, all layers of conditioning fall away when you are completely intimate with the moment, just as it is. However, in the relative world of practice, it is important to become aware of the process of constructing the self, as it happens in the present. Usually, we understand conditioning to be something that has happened in the past. That is, we have been conditioned by our birth into family, race, culture, and our journey through life. However, in reality, conditioning - this process of constructing the self - is happening right now. The moment you listen to me and say to yourself, 'Ah - now I know I understand!' or, 'No, I don't agree with this at all' - here you are, you are spinning your cocoon of self. Now, let's investigate the function of this process of constructing the self.

The function of constructing the self is to keep fear at bay. After all, fear is, as Krishnamurti pointed out, the movement from certainty to uncertainty. We construct a fixed belief system that we call the 'self' to protect ourselves from uncertainty. If you want to know what your belief system is, just list everything that you identify yourself as: I am a woman; I am a man, I am old, young, intelligent, stupid, a writer, a postman, an athlete, a Zen student and so on. To uphold a fixed concept of self takes a tremendous lot of energy. After all, the problem is that life is ephemeral - yesterday's athlete is today's guy in the wheelchair and the scholar now nods away her days in a dementia ward. So, to maintain the illusion of a fixed self, we constantly need to reframe the past and dream up the future. Our mind is kept busy editing the 'self'.

When we sit in zazen we can get a clear view of the process. Our mind is constantly at work, reworking our memories of the past and creating stories of the future. When we investigate our thought patterns thoroughly, we notice that we spend a significant amount of time reframing memories which are connected to feelings of anger or shame, because the experiences that lie at the bottom of such emotions tend to temporarily damage our brittle concept of self. That makes us feel uncertain about who and what we are. We experience anguish in life because we continually construct, repair, and defend to the teeth our construct of self.

When we observe our mind in action, we can see that we also spend a lot of time not only in the past editing memories, but also in the future, planning and rehearsing. We do this to counteract anxiety and fear. The future is a scary place because it is unknowable. With all our planning and rehearsals we try and create a veneer of certainty in our mind where there can actually be none at all. The places of mystery, like the void, or death, conjure up great fears in our mind because these areas of darkness cannot be illuminated by the light of reason.

How then can we cut through our conditioning, how can we let go of our cocoon?

We can use the two great tools of Zen practice, enquiry and awareness. When we ask: 'What is the truth of this moment'? we can see into our stories and, as they fall away, the moment itself emerges filled with the song of the bush warbler, the roiling anger in the belly, the fear constricting your chest, the cool autumn breeze. And with this we are perfect just as we are - with nothing to add and nothing to take away.

When we let go of all concepts and truly enter the place of not-knowing, there is nothing to hang on to and no path to follow. As the poet Antonio Machado says:

You walking, your footprints are
the road, and nothing else;
there is no road, walker,
you make the road by walking.
by walking you make the road,
and when you look backward,
you see the path that you
will never step on again.
Walker, there is no road,
only wind-trails in the sea.

Letting go of all concept of 'self' is scary but it is imperative if we want to awaken to freedom. As Master Wumen says in his commentary on the koan MU: For subtle realization it is of the utmost importance that you cut off the mind road.

When you first begin to sit with a koan, such as MU or Who is Hearing?, there is a phase when you try and figure out the koan. 'I must be able to crack this!' you think. And then, after a while, thoughts begin to peter out. When you ask, What is MU?, there is no answer, just a dim blankness. This is like sitting at the bottom of a well, groping around in the dark. There is a feeling of floundering, of being stupid or even of being a failure. And a sense of all light being extinguished. You search and search, but to no avail. This very search is the light, but you cannot see it. When you find yourself in a dim and arid place in your practice, please walk on, one breath at a time, one MU at a time. Stay faithful and inquire ever more deeply. When you finally become intimate, you will laugh and cry. You will find that everything is right here, where it has always been from the very beginning.

Even after a thoroughgoing experience, the mind soon begins to grope and grasp again. It tries to frame and codify what you have just seen and fashion ideas about it. Every time you think, 'Ah, NOW I understand!', be careful! You need to discard ideas over and over again. And this can be difficult, because all human beings want to hang on to ideas that offer a sense of comfort and an illusion of wisdom. We like to harbour lofty thoughts about the meaning of life, and collect insights we have seemingly gained in our spiritual practice. This is a kind of spiritual materialism.

Do we really have to discard everything? Yunmen gives us a clear answer. He says, 'It would be better to have nothing, than to have something good.' He doesn't want us to attach meaning to anything, least of all to his own words. St John of the Cross echoes Yunmen's caution across time and religions when he says: 'The soul that is attached to anything, however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of the divine.'

This liberty, this great freedom appears when we forget the self. At that moment we are, as Xuedou says, '' purified, naked, and perfectly at ease'. There is nothing at all to hang on to - no thought of failure or attainment. At that moment there is no road, no mirror, and no teacher . The Buddha exhorted his students as he lay dying and said: 'Be a lamp unto yourselves. Only take refuge in the Truth.'

Be a lamp unto yourselves is the spirit of complete inquiry. This is Xuedou's imperative, 'Each and every one of you must see it for yourselves.' The truth that the Buddha speaks of is not the opposite of 'falsehood'. 'Truth' here is the naked moment, just as it is.

Right here and now, what is the truth of this moment?

Here is a poem by Dogen that describes the truth he found in a moment of pilgrimage:

This slowly drifting cloud is pitiful;
What dreamwalkers we become.
Awakened, I hear the only true thing -
Black rain on the roof of Fukakusa temple.

When we open to the truth of the moment, just as it is, our innate light shines. As Master Yunmen says: 'All of you - right where you stand, each and every one of you has a beam of light shining continuously, now as of old, far removed from seeing or knowing. Though it's a light, when you're asked about it you don't understand - isn't it dark and dim'?

But why can we not see our own light? Why is there only darkness when we want to perceive our light? Well, the sun cannot see the sun; the eye cannot see the eye. This is what Lao Tzu calls darkness within darkness; the gate to all mystery. How then can we walk in this darkness within darkness? Listen to Wendell Berry's poem To Know the Dark:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.

In the midst of this darkness, 'self' and 'other' are forgotten. In this realm, you find that your life goes blurry, that familiar outlines that seemed clear are now obscured. It is like waking up in your bed at night and, for a moment, not knowing where you are. All outlines seem dim and unfamiliar, as you grope for the light switch. At such a time you go about your life as if sleepwalking. And whenever you ask, What is Mu?, a silence opens up and you fall into this pit of silence again and again. At this stage, anything can be the spark that lights your Dharma candle: the call of a bird, the flush of the toilet, the warmth of the sun on your skin, the shimmer of blossoms, a sentence that you stumble across - anything can bring you to awakening when you are ready.

Now, what is your light? Yunmen himself answers: 'The storeroom. The gate.' Why does he answer on behalf of his students? Three centuries later, Master Ejo comments on Yumen's response in his treatise Absorption in the Treasury of Light:
This answering himself in their behalf is answering himself in everyone's behalf, answering himself in behalf of the light, answering himself in behalf of obscurity, answering himself in behalf of the assembly's lack of response: it is absorption in the treasury of light awakening and bringing forth radiant light.

When you look deeply, you will see that the myriad beings, the 'ten-thousand things', shine with your own light.

Now, what is your light?

© Mary Jaksch 2004

No reproduction without the authors permission please.