Lesson
21

Dongshan and Caoshan

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Dongshan

One of the cofounders of the Caodong school was Dongshan (Tung-shan) Liangjie. As did most great masters, he took Buddhist orders early, and one of the most enduring stories of his life has him confounding his elders, an event common to many spiritual biographies. He began as a novice in the Vinaya sect, an organization often more concerned with the letter of the law than its spirit.

One day he was asked to recite the Heart Sutra. When he came to the phrase "There is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind," he wonderingly touched his own face and then inquired of his master, "I have eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and so forth; how; then, can the sutra say there are no such things?'' The Vinaya master was dumbfounded by his iconoclasm and suggested that his bent of mind would be more readily cultivated in the Chan sect.

Although his Caodong line eventually rivaled Mazu's, his first stop was the monastery of Nanquan, one of the foremost disciples of Mazu. As he arrived, Nanquan was announcing a memorial service to be conducted the next day on the anniversary of his master's death.

Nanquan: "When we serve food for Master Mazu tomorrow, I do wonder whether he will come for it."

None of the monks made a reply but Dongshan came forth out of the crowd: "As soon as he has companions he will come."

Praising him Nanquan: "Although this man is young, he is worthy of being trained."

Dongshan: "Master, you should not make a slave out of an honorable person.''

Zen's Chinese Heritage offers a longer version of this story >>>


By the year 860 Dongshan had a monastery of his own and was besieged by disciples. He subsequently moved to Dongshan (Mt. Tung) in what is today Kiangsi province, the locale that provided his historic name. His respect for Yunyan's enigmatic wisdom was explained years later.

One day, Dongshan was conducting the annual memorial service for Master Yunyen.

A monk asked: "What instruction did you receive from the late Master Yunyen?"

"Although I was there with him, he gave me no instruction."

The monk, persisting: "Then why should you conduct the memorial service for him, if he did not instruct you?"

"It is neither for his moral character nor his teaching of Dharma that I respect him. What I consider important is that he never told me anything openly.''

Zen's Chinese Heritage offers another version of this story >>>

Yet Dongshan does not seem completely against the cultivation of enlightenment, as were some of the other, more radical Chanists. Take, for example, the following reported encounter:

A government officer wanted to know whether there was anyone approaching Chan through cultivation.

Dongshan: "When you become a laborer, then there will be someone to do cultivation.

The officer's question would have elicited a shout from Linji, a blow from Huangbo, and advice from Zhaozhou to go wash his rice bowl.