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...the Wanderling

Te Shan burnt all this commentaries and books on Zen within hours of his awakening to the truth. Why? Zen master Munan gave Shoju his sacred book on Zen that had been passed down through seven generations of masters. Shoju threw it into burning coals.


Te Shan Hsuan Ch'ien was initially a lecturing monk and great scholar of the Diamond Cutter Sutra, known throughout Zen lore from Case 4 of the Blue Cliff Record and the 13th and 28th koans of Wumen's Mumonkan. Some say Te Shan is most famous for using his staff to strike his students, however, for me, he is more important because of what he did within hours following his Enlightenment experience.

When Te Shan left northern China on foot heading south determined to destroy what he had heard as the teaching of a special transmission outside of doctrine he was a dedicated Buddhist scholar thoroughly attached to formal learning.

One day close to the end of his southern journey he met an old woman selling refreshments by the roadside. He set down his knapsack to buy some refreshments whereupon the old woman asked what writings had he been carrying that were so dear. "Commentaries on the Diamond Cutter Sutra," he responded, commentaries which were actually books on books on ways to reality that he considered so indispensable that he had to carry them with him everywhere he went. The old woman then said "The Diamond Cutter Sutra" says 'past mind can't be grasped, present mind can't be grasped, future mind can't be grasped': which mind does the learned monk desire to refresh?" Te Shan in all his scholarly learning was rendered speechless.

By the time he reached the monastery he was completely devastated by his 'defeat', especially by a 'mere' roadside vendor. But Te Shan was no longer there to contend or do battle with the teaching of a special transmission outside of doctrine.' Within days all was behind him as Te Shan experienced Awakening under the auspices of Long T'an and the now famous 'blowing out the candle' sequence.

The morning following his Enlightenment Te Shan took all of his commentaries into the teaching hall and raising a torch over them declared to all assembled:

"Even to plumb the full depths of all your knowledge it would be no more than a piece of hair lost in the vastness of the great void; and however important your experience in things worldly it is even less than a single drop of water cast into a vast valley."

He then took the torch and set fire to his commentaries, reducing his once valuable books to ashes.[1]


Jumping forward one thousand years, Chinese Zen master Shido Munan Zenji (1603-1676) had only one successor he considered worthy, a monk by the name of Shoju. One day Munan called Shoju into his room and started to hand him an ancient, well-worn book saying, "I am getting old and as far as I know you are the only one to carry on this teaching. This book has been handed down from master to master for seven generations, in it I have added many points according to my understanding. It is very valuable and I am giving it to you to represent your successorship."

Shoju replied, "If the book is so important and valuable you should keep it, as I have received your Zen without writing and satisfied with it as it is."

The two were standing beside a brazier of hot coals as they talked. Munan continued to insist that Shoju take the book and placed it in his hands. The instant Shoju felt the book in his hands he thrust it into the fire.

So why the burning of the books? Is it because the Awakening experience is beyond words? If so, why is it beyond words? What nature of understanding lays beyond the realm of not-words? If a person did have an experience to which no complex of words could ever apply in any sense how is it he would 'know' what that experience was OR that he even had it...'know' as in the verbal, syntax word-know sense.

It should be mentioned, however, not all Awakening experiences are profound say at the level of the Buddha and Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi. Sometimes, as one finds over and over in Zen literature, the Experience can be more of a flash or short-term, and depending on the person and the depth of the experience, over a period of time the Experience can "leak" if not addressed. Sometimes too, the opposite occurs and the experience "ripens," as recorded for example, with Tung Shan, the founder of the Chinese Soto Zen lineage or the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Hui-neng. That is why there are such things as the Five Varieties of Zen and Eight Jhana Stages.

The strongest modern day example regarding Enlightenment and so-called "ripening" most likely would revolve around the venerated Indian holy man the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Although the Bhagavan was considered a Fully Awake being there were marked differences in the depth of his Awakening attributed to his First Death Experience as a young teenage boy and that of his Second Death Experience at age 32.

So said, the Enlightenment experience is not partial, that is, a person, even though the depth of an Experience may vary by "degrees," is not awakened in some parts and not others, it is totally encompassing and thus involves the 'whole person'... which by inference suggests ALL dimensions of human experience. So said then, the experience would not or could not be totally devoid of or exclude language. But, just as much as there is language included, so too included in that 'whole person' is an area that lays beyond metaphor, to which the word 'know' in knowing does not apply, hence:

To know is not to know,
Not to know is to know.

'To know' as stated in the first line is 'not to know,' the first 'to know' meaning to know in the knowing sense like book learning or understanding while the 'not to know' know meaning means the non non-knowing in the Zen sense.

The 'not to know' in the second line means the same non non-knowing referred to in the last part of the first line while the 'to know' in the last part of the second line refers to knowing in the Zen sense, which is not knowing as knowing is known in the traditional sense.

There is a clear distinction between the ideas, concepts, and symbols born of the thought processes and the actual things, physical or mental, to which those thought processes refer. Sometimes words can be superimposed over the ideas, concepts, and symbols and a clear meaning is established between two or more parties, sometimes not. Zen awakening is a difficult one though because once it is experienced it is sort of like getting the punch line to a joke you did not get the first time around and after which which you CANNOT recall or understand what there WAS not to get in the first place. However, jokes for the most part generally fall into the realm of words and can most usually be understood in the terms of words. As briefly touched upon above there exists in man's consciousness a sum of innate non-knowledge knowledge that can be grasped or drawn upon without the use or concept of words, a sort of non-lingual non-syntax beyond the verbal reservoir of 'thusness' of which it in itself resides.

How so? How can that be? It can be as simple as a pre-verbal hominid out hunting for an animal for his next meal and being able to interpret the natural signs of the animal's tracks as an animal having passed. The footprints become a 'symbol' of the sought after beast even though the hominid may not have seen the animal per se' nor have the syntax ability to construct the scene into 'words.' On a more abstract level the same hominid might need to be able to select trustworthy allies, make alliances for example, to help in the actual hunt or to leave behind with his family with the 'understanding' that favors on either side be returned, a sort of 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours,' all dealt with on a pre-verbal, non-word understanding. If that pre-verbal, non-word realm did not exist, then such experiences could not transpire, but it seems that in the past they did, which would indicate such a realm does exist.

All well and good, but how does Te Shan and Shoju burning books relate to say: us, Zen, the Enlightenment experience, and the typical run-in-the-mill everyday garden variety type general population living in Samsara person? A subtle or vague understanding that is intuitively grasped at the gut level is revealed if the veil that fogs such a person is allowed to clear. The burning of books, and by inference words, implies a no longer inner-need need.

Several years ago my younger brother was cleaning out his attic when he ran across a long forgotten box of stuff stashed away that at one time belonged to me. Among the contents of the box was a beat up 30 year old copy of D.T. Suzuki's ZEN BUDDHISM: Selected Writings of D.T, Suzuki (New York: Anchor Books, 1956), a book that had not seen the light of day in at least 20 years. The pages were faded and worn. Corner after corner of pages folded down. Pencil notes all over the margins and inside the covers. Sentences were underlined in ink. Whole paragraphs were highlighted in a now barely discernible yellow.

My brother reminded me of how I, not unlike Te Shan, used to carry that book around like a bible my last two years of high school and several years afterward. Anytime anybody said anything about anything out would come my book...always ready with a "Zen answer." Then one day something was different. Like Te Shan I somehow didn't need books much any more. Don't know why, it just was.(see)

As I turned those crumbling pages for the first time in over 20 years, the notes, the underlining, the highlights, all seemed so odd. Going back I remembered the person that gave me the book in the first place (see Zen Enlightenment). He had studied under Sri Ramana at his ashram between the wars. When I saw him the first time I was set aback by the calm serenity he seemed to abide in. I begged him to "make me like him." Time after time he brushed me off. Then one day it didn't seem like it mattered a whole heck of a lot one way or the other. He and the book didn't seem to have the same exalted meaning they once had.

If such is the case then, why would a Zen adept bother to indulge in something as mundane as a web page? For one thing, always lurking in the shadows, however distant and however heralded or unheralded, is the adept's underlying semi-allegiance to Bodhisattva Vows, vows that are not thrust upon him, but blossom from an inner light that is delicately translated into deed rather than ingested through or dispensed from words. The 'understanding' of it all is presented in an old Zen saying that goes something like:

Those who have not attained Awakening should penetrate into the meaning of Reality, while those who have already attained should practice giving verbal expression to that reality. (see)

So said however, Awakening not withstanding, there are "verbal question-construct areas" even the Buddha found need to tiptoe around that he called category mistakes. For more please go to:

AVYAAKATA: The Buddha's Ten Indeterminate Questions

Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.










T'ang Ch'an and the Myth of Bodhidharma


Bodhidharma, Hui'ko, Hui Shen, Hui Neng, Shih-t'ou Hsi-ch'ien, Zhaozhou, Moshan Liaoran,
Mugai Nyodai, Kuan Yin, Tung-Shan, Dogen

[1] The famous image of Te-shan ripping up the sutras in liberated ecstasy is the image of Te-shan in the moment of having appropriated and internalized the sutras. Is Te-shan destroying the text and subverting its authority because his Realization is in conflict with that projected by the text? Emphatically No! Te-shan's Realization is understood to be an actualization of the same 'way' that gave rise to the Buddha's Realization which is written into the sutra, just as Te-shan's Realization is imprinted into the textual account of his iconoclastic act.

That iconoclastic acts are not denunciations of an authority that has been broken and overcome is similarly implied in the life of Lin-chi. After having slapped his teacher, Huang-po, thus flaunting his freedom from Buddhist authority, Lin-chi settles down in the monastery to study under the master, possibly for as long as two decades. The liberating act of 'casting off' was incorporated into a more encompassing intention directed towards communal practice which included obedience, loyalty and learning. (BACK)

FROM: EMANCIPATION FROM WHAT: The Concept of Freedom in Classical Ch'an Buddhism

Te Shan (Deshan Xuanjian, Hsuan-chien, Tokusan Senkan) was a Dharma-heir of Longtan Chongxin. He gave transmission to Yantou Quanho and Xuefeng as well as being considered the spiritual grandfather for Wen-yen (Ummon). Famous for "Thirty blows if yes, thirty blows if no." He appears in Blue Cliff Records 4, Records of Silence 14, 22, 46, 55, and Gateless Gate 13 and 28. He appears in the Sayings and Doings of Dongshan (Dongshan yulu) 37, 54, 56, 83. Previously a lecturer on the Diamond Sutra. See Dogen's Shinfukatoku.

There is a continuing discrepancy lodged against me on a seemingly regular basis by what I call the number crunching nay saying sect when it comes to the timeline regarding my use (or possible not being able to use) Suzuki's book while in high school. The implication being my senior year and the book's publication date don't coincide, Suzuki's book not being published until the same month I graduated.

It becomes grist for the mill because of having written that my brother reminded me of how I used to carry the book around with me like a bible my last year of high school and several years afterward. Anytime anybody said anything about anything out would come my book...always ready with a 'Zen answer.' Of course, in writing what I did I am repeating what my brother said, how accurate or how well he was able to remember or recall what actually transpired relative to the time period we are talking about here, that is, me being in high school, is another question.

Many people cite that the book was not published until June 1, 1956 giving me absolutely no time to carry the book around like a bible in high school, thus me doing so just couldn't be so. Disregarding any possible error in my younger brother's ability to remember accurately what I did or didn't do in high school, an edition of the book WAS published and made available January 1, 1956 (see) to the general public --- giving me at least half a school year to carry the book around with me 'to always be ready with a Zen answer.'

I wrote what I did about my brother saying what he did because, in the fact that I had a copy of the book, there was no need to question his accuracy. However, for the number crunching nay saying sect, even though copies were available from January 1, 1956 onward, my mentor received a complimentary copy from the publisher well in advance of any official publication date, be it either January or June of '56. It was his advanced copy, of which he gave me, that I carried around with me all those months prior to graduation from high school and for so many years afterwards.

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