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The Highest Meaning of the Holy Truths

Commentary on Blue Cliff Record Case 1

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Aug 01, 1997
Location: Green Gulch Farm
In topic: Koan Studies
Bodhidharma meets Emporer Wu in this famous case. Can we meet ourselves with the same integrity?



When you see smoke on the other side of the mountain, you already know there is a fire.
When you see horns on the other side of a fence, right away you know there is an ox there.
To understand three when one is raised; to judge precisely at a glance, this is the everyday food and drink of a patch-robed monk.
Getting to where she cuts off the myriad streams, she is free to arise in the east and sink in the west, to go against or to go with, in any and all directions, free to give or take away.
But say, at just such a time, whose actions are these?
Look into Xuedou’s trailing vines.

The Case

Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, "What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?"
Bodhidharma said, "Empty, without holiness."
The Emperor said, "Who is facing me?"
Bodhidharma replied, "I don’t know."
The Emperor did not understand.
After this, Bodhidharma crossed the Yang Tse River and came to the kingdom of Wei.

Later, the Emperor brought this up to master Chih and asked him about it.
Master Chih said, "Does Your Majesty know who this man is?"
The Emperor said, "I don’t know."
Master Chih said, "He is Mahasattva Avalokitsvara, transmitting the Buddha mind to you."
The Emperor felt regretful, so he wanted to send an emissary to go get Bodhidharma to return.
Master Chih told him, "Your Majesty, don’t send someone to fetch him back. Even if everyone in the whole country went to go after him, he still wouldn’t return."

The Verse

The Holy Truths are empty.
How can you discern the point?
Who is facing me?
But henceforth, he secretly crossed the river.
How could he avoid the growth of a thicket of brambles?
Though everyone in the whole country goes after him, he will not return.
Wu goes on and on, continually reflecting that.
Give up recollections.
What limit is there to the pure wind, circling the earth?
Master Xuedou looked around, to the right and left and said, "Is there any ancestor here?"
He answered himself, "There is."
"Call them here to wash this old monk’s feet."


I would like to consider with you these cases from the Blue Cliff Record. The Blue Cliff Record is a collection of 100 stories of the old Zen masters, stories that originally came from real events, and real dialogs, and were polished up for hundreds of years by thousands of monks and nuns, until the stories actually have a sheen to them from being handled by so many people, intimately, who put their own blood and sweat and pain and joy into each and every one. Even though we get a sense in these stories of the individuality and the personality and the character of the great teachers of the past who are good examples for us – each one different from the others – each one quirky and unique, we also get, more importantly, the actual life blood of the many practitioners who through the years have honed these stories down.

And now it is our turn to pick them up in our hands and add the oil and the warmth of our skins to the polish and the shine.

There is a preface to the Blue Cliff Record. It tells the story of two kings who were going to make a trade. One king owned a priceless jewel. And he was going to trade it to the other king in exchange for 15 cities. The first king sent an emissary with the jewel to the second king. The second king looked at the jewel, and at the last minute got cold feet, and wouldn’t give up the 15 cities. The emissary threatened to take the jewel and smash it into a million bits, and finally the king relented and held up his end of the bargain. And then it says in the preface:

"Unless we are willing to give up our attachments, we cannot appreciate the priceless jewel of our true nature. Each case of the Blue Cliff Record shows us not only where to find the jewel, but also how to dig it out, and cut it, and polish it to bring out its inherent beauty and magnificence."

In meditation this means that we really have to be willing to let go of all of the contents of our minds. And thus, be content to return to our breath and our posture, to return the ineffable luminosity of the present moment.

It doesn’t mean that we should judge the contents of our mind, or hate the contents of our mind, or repress the contents of our mind. But it does mean that we can’t hold on. We really have to be willing to let it all go. And then the jewel of our true nature, which is not something that we can produce or control, can shine through. So we let the jewel do its work. Our work is simply getting out of the way.

The Blue Cliff Record was compiled, and capping verses added to the stories by the monk Xuedou (shway-do) Chongxian who lived from 980 to 1052 CE. He was three generations after the famous Yunmen (yewn-men). And Yunmen was five generations after Shitou (sheer-toe) Xiqian, who wrote the "Merging of Difference and Unity" that we frequently chant. Yunmen was a great Zen teacher and a lot of people think that Yunmen was one of the first important teachers to bring up the old stories and quote them, and play with them and teach them. So it is fitting that three generations later, Xuedou would come along and make a collection like this of a hundred stories. Of course, Shitou is in our lineage, too. Right after Shitou the streams branch, and Yunmen and Xuedou are not in our line of Zen teachers.

There are a couple of important legends about this book, the Blue Cliff Record. One is that Dagui (da-gooee), who is the famous monk following after Xuedou, saw that the Blue Cliff Record was becoming very popular and pernicious, so he destroyed it. He destroyed the printed book, and tried to get a hold of the woodblocks and burn them, too. But, somehow, a contraband copy survived, and the book still exists.

Another legend is that Dogen Zenji, the night before he was to leave for Japan from China after his study there, discovered this text, the Blue Cliff Record. He was so amazed by it that he stayed up all night and copied it out by hand and brought it home to Japan, which seems a little far-fetched since the book is so long. But that is the legend. They call that version, "One Night Blue Cliff Record".

So Xuedou collected the cases together and made a verse for each one. Another monk Yuanwu, who lived from 1065 – 1135 CE, commented on Xuedou’s cases and verses. And his commentaries were given in a series of lectures that he gave in his temple. The place he was living at the time was called the Blue Cliff Her