The Staff of the Hermit of the Lotus Flower Peak

Engo’s Introduction:

If the mind cannot get beyond something and nothing, you fall into a sea of poison. If you can distinguish the true from the false in as much time as a spark flies from flint when it is struck, if you can give or take life in a flash of lightning, then you can cut off the ten directions and stand firm like a thousand foot cliff. Who would ever be so? See the following.

The Case

The hermit of the Lotus Peak held up his staff and said to the assembly, “When the Ancients got here, why did they not consent to stay here?” No one could answer, so he answered for them, “Because it is of no use on the way of life.” And then he asked, “After all, what would you do with it?” He made a verse that said, “With my staff across my shoulder, I pay no heed to people, I go straight into the myriad peaks”. And then Etcho’s verse, “To his eyes filled with sand, to his ears filled with dirt, he does not consent to stay in the myriad peaks. Falling flowers, flowing streams, very vast, he leaves no trace.
Let us discuss Engo’s introduction. “If the mind cannot get beyond something and nothing, you fall into a sea of poison.” What is there beyond ‘something and nothing’? What is there beyond ‘it is and it is not?’ It is not a rhetorical question; it is a real one. If there is nothing beyond ‘it is and it is not,’ then we are condemned to live within what Engo calls a sea of poison. The question is not only what is there beyond something and nothing, it is also what is beyond life and death? Again if death is the end, if there is nothing beyond life and death, if it is simply a matter of being born and dying, then why all the anguish, why all the suffering, why all the tribulation that goes on in between? What are we struggling to know, or to be, or to find, or to have? Humankind is engaged in a desperate struggle; we see this right down through the ages, all the wars, revolutions, all of the struggles, all of the strife, all of the creativity, the destruction, all of that has gone on between life and death. Why? Why is there this constant and tremendous explosion of creativity and destruction if it is simply a matter of living and dying?

We ask constantly, how can one live and not wonder 24 hours of the day about what is going on around us? When we just look at the political strife, the strife between nations, the greed, the poverty, and the brilliance, what is it about? What is going on? The question ‘what is beyond something and nothing’ is not an idle, rhetorical or Zen question; it is the question. The question, ‘What am I?’ has, as we will see, three elements: what is the sense of self; what is beyond the sense of self; what gives rise to the sense of self?

“If you can distinguish the true from the false in as much time as a spark flies from flint…” In other words, if you can live spontaneously, if you can see beyond dwelling in doubt “is it or is it not” “shall I or shall I not”, “will I or will I not”, the constant sense of being in a sea of indecision, if you can get beyond that, if you can give or take life in a flash of lightning… Give and take life, say yes and no, be with it as it is, or against it as it is, then you can cut off the ten directions and stand firm like a thousand foot cliff. Then you’ll no longer have to orient, locate, establish yourself as something.

The case begins by saying,” The hermit of the Lotus Peak held up his staff.” What does the staff refer to? As you know, if you’ve seen pictures of travelling Zen monks, they invariably carry a staff. It is about as tall as they are, and often used either to dig their way along rocky pathways, ford rivers and climb mountains. So, what is this staff? Shibayama said a koan is like a blind man who is poking around with his staff precariously at the edge of a cliff, and the master takes away the staff, whirls the blind man around 3 times and throws him to the ground.

The staff is what we lean on, it is our constant support and companion, it is what helps us out in difficult situations. So then, what is that? What is this staff?

The staff is the sense of self, it is the personality, it is, if you want to use the word, the ego. The master Shan Tao held up his staff and said: All the ancient Buddhas are thus, all the future Buddhas are thus, all the present Buddhas are thus. What is he saying? He is holding up his stick above his head. “All the Buddhas are thus”, what does that mean? It means they are without support, they are no longer dependent, they are no longer leaning on a staff in order to get through life. When you no longer lean on the staff, not only as a support but also as a point of reference, then you are free.

Hsueh Feng held up his staff and said, “This one is just for people of medium and low faculties.” Obviously, he holds up his staff in a different way. “This one” is what people of medium and low faculties need to lean on, with which they find their way through life. But does he hold it up in a different way? Is it the same staff? The answer to that question is given in the following mondo.

A monk asked, “When you unexpectedly encounter someone of the highest potential, then what?” When you meet someone who is fully awakened, then what? What do you do in the face of that? And Hsueh Feng picked up his staff and left.

You don’t throw away the staff. So Feng uses the staff as a staff, not as the ultimate support, not as that upon which he had to depend; but nevertheless, he uses the staff. We don’t need to kill the sense of self; we don’t need to destroy it. The sense of self is really much like a servant; it is essential if we are going to live in a social world. The idea that we are going to be completely free of it, that we will no longer need it, that we are going to get beyond needing it in a complete and utter way, is an idea that is often conveyed in Indian Hinduism. This idea that someone somehow floats six feet above the ground, is not the Zen way. At the end of the Ten Ox Herding pictures is a monk who started off searching desperately everywhere for the ox, and ends up with a bottle of beer in one hand and a bag in the other, walking through the market. In other words, the transcendent and the immanent are completely at home. There is no separation, there is no difference.

But, before we leave the last story, what about “he picked up his staff and left”? You are face to face with someone who is fully awakened, you are in the presence, what do you do? Feng picks up his staff and walks off. What does that mean? We also encounter this action in a similar way in another story. Emperor Wu had a wonderful experience of the light, of a brilliant light, and all the courtiers congratulated him, except for one monk, a Buddhist monk. The Emperor asked, “Why is it that everyone is congratulating me, but you are not?” And the monk said, “The light that you saw was the light of your guardian angel, it was not the light of Buddha.” And the Emperor asked, ‘but what is the Buddha’s light?’ And the monk turned around and left. What is this, what is being said? Don’t look outside; be in the situation. The reason you have these stories and study koans is to encourage you to inhabit the situation. Do not look upon them as you might look upon some formula, or encounter them as you might encounter some theory, something that you can hold at arm’s length, and discuss and consider and ponder and criticize. You have to be in the story, in the koan. All koans are inviting you to come in, to work from within; you are Hsueh Feng walking away. What then do you leave behind? What is beyond something and nothing?

Ummon said, “I would use a different method to break up a monk’s confusion.” And a monk asked, “What would you do?” and Ummon hit him. What is the difference between Ummon striking the monk and the monk seeing someone walk away?

Zen constantly brings out this difference, although it is often missed in Western Zen: it is the difference between essence and function. This is a vital difference and is referred to in the koan which we are now working on.

A well-known story illustrates the difference. A monk and a master are hoeing in the garden, digging up the weeds. The master asks the monk, “What is it?” And the monk stands up thrusting his hoe into the ground. And the master said, “You have got the essence; you don’t have the function.” And the monk asked, “But what is the function?” and the master went on hoeing. Sometimes you work with a koan that wants to bring out the essence: for example “Buddha just sat.” Other times you work with a koan that gets at the function: “Whenever Gutei was asked a question he would simply raise a finger.” When the ox herding pictures end with the monk in the marketplace, meeting people, working with people and buying and selling and doing all that the rest of us do, he is exercising function.

If you are simply interested in getting something that is called kensho, awakening, satori or whatever, if you are just working with that in mind, you are only working with half of what the teaching is about, and, moreover, that half itself can become its own kind of sickness. As you probably know, there is the sickness of emptiness. It is very often accompanied by what is called ‘the stink of Zen.’ You can encounter this in Zen Centers. Some people, who are purported to have had kensho, carry with them an aura, accompanied by an awful smell. The aura is one of aloofness, an “I have made it,” along with a “poor you” attitude. You get it very often also among Christian priests and nuns, this awful stink of holiness, of righteousness.

Hakuin, in the Four Ways of Knowing, talks about the dharmakaya, the Great Mirror Wisdom, the Great Mirror Knowing. This is the first ‘encounter’ that we have. It is kensho; it is total openness. But then there is the wisdom or knowing of equality; this the wisdom of “what more do you want?” Mumon puts it this way:
Hundreds of flowers in spring,
The cool breeze in summer,
The moon in autumn,
snow in winter.”
One sees everything as it is.
Then there is the wisdom or knowing of differentiation – differentiation is quite different to discrimination. For example, the koan of two monks rolling up a blind. As Yasutani would say, “Even a cracked cup is perfect.” Another master said: everything is unique; there is no difference.
And then finally, there is the wisdom or knowing of action: walking, talking, laughing, writing, speaking. This is what I am asking about when I ask: who walked through the door? This is the wisdom that we call upon to sit down or stand up. This is function. Unfortunately, when asked, “Who sits?” or, “Who stands?” most people look for something or someone, they are still trying to find something. Or they work by searching within the essence, seeking to grasp the ‘nothing’ that they conceive themselves to be. Others believe that before they can answer the question they must have had some beautiful, ineffable, experience.
I would now like to refer to something said by the Hermit of the Lotus Peak. He said, “Whenever you study and ask questions (whenever you practice) there are not so many things to be concerned with” (there is not much that you need to know, to worry about.) He says, “Concerns arise because outside you conceive that mountains and rivers and the great earth exist” (you see cars and houses and highways exist in some absolute, complete way); “within you perceive that seeing, hearing, feeling, and knowing exist“ (they are something. You say, I see with my eyes and I hear with my ears…seeing and hearing are something; one might say that they go on in the world); “above you see that there are various Buddhas that can be sought” (in other words, there is this whole realm of ideas, of the openness of the understanding the theories and so on); “and below you see that there are sentient beings who can be saved “(the ordinary saha world). “You must simply spit them all out at once(all of this that we are concerned with, all of this that takes up our time, all that we conceive of as existing whenever when we come to practice Zen).

“Afterwards, whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, 24 hours a day you fuse everything into one” (Once you have spat it all out, once, to use Dogen’s words, “You have dropped body and mind” everything is open as oneness, everything is open as one whole. In other words, you spit them out because you’ve been living in a fragmented world. After spitting them out you come back and see that fragmented world is now just one unified whole, one harmony, one totality).”Then, though you are on top of a hair it’s as broad as the universe.” (Hamlet said, I could be confined in a nutshell, yet call myself king of infinite space. Wherever you are, you are free. Whatever goes on you have this fundamental refuge); “though you dwell in a boiling cauldron or in furnace embers, it is like being in the land of peace and happiness; though you dwell amidst gems and jewels in profusion, it’s like being in a thatched hut. If you are a competent adept you get to the one reality naturally without wasting effort.” You get to the one reality.

Someone commenting on what I have just quoted said, “There are eyes in the hermit’s words but his meaning is outside the words.” So what does that mean, “there are eyes in the hermit’s words”? Zen speaks of dead words and live words, words that are blind and words that have eyes and are alive, meaningful and fill the world with light. And why does he say, “but his meaning is outside the words”? It is like a master said, “Once you have the meaning, you can throw away the words.”

In another commentary along the same line, a master said, “Seven hundred eminent monks at the fifth patriarch’s place all understood the Buddha’s teaching. There was only one workman, Hui Neng, who did not understand the Buddha’s teaching. He just understood the path, that is why he obtained the Patriarch’s robe and bowl. Tell me how far apart are the Buddha’s teaching and the path?” A monk asked a master ‘What is truth?” “Ask the wall!” retorted the master. ‘I don’t understand,” complained the monk. “I don’t understand either said the master.

So let’s continue with the case. “The hermit of the Lotus Peak held up his staff.” So let me repeat what is the meaning of this? He held up his staff, what does that implies? What staff is it that he is holding up? He said to the assembly, “When the Ancients got here, why did they not consent to stay here?” Where? He is saying: when the Ancients came to awakening why did they not stay there? No one could answer, so he answered for them. “Because it is of no use on the way of life.”

That is true. On its own awakening means nothing. Hakuin emphasizes this time and time again. This is why he wrote the book on The Four Ways of Knowing. He says, “Because it is of no use on the way of life.” And again he asks, “After all, what would you do with it?” Well you can walk around and tell everyone, telling them how you came to awakening and when you came to awakening. You can make a big fuss of it!

The hermit made a verse saying: “With my staff across my shoulder, I pay no heed to people, I go straight into the myriad peaks.” What does that mean? What are the myriad peaks? There was a master who said, “Peak after peak of snow covered mountains.” Climbing the mountain is a symbol for the work that we do. Someone said that Buddha went up the mountain for himself and went down for other people. Or it is said: One goes up the mountain for wisdom and goes down the mountain with compassion. So it is a symbol of the work; and the peak the – koan is about the hermit of the Lotus Flower peak – is the awakened state. So therefore when it starts off with “the hermit of the lotus peak held up his staff”, it means he is awakened. This is why he is saying, “I am awakened, why is it not sufficient to stay here?” and then he says, “With my staff across my shoulder (again something is being said by ‘the staff across my shoulder), I pay no heed to people (one has to understand that as well. In other words, he is not looking for guidance; he is not looking for suggestions or the support of others. He is completely and freely independent) and he goes straight into the myriad peaks”. In other words, there is not one mountain, there is not just one peak; there is peak upon peak of snow covered mountains. One does not stop, there is no stop, it is like Dogen said: “There is no beginning to awakening or end to practice, there is no beginning to practice or end to awakening.”

But how does he go into these myriad peaks? And Etcho provides us with the answer. He says, “With his eyes filled with sand, with his ears filled with dirt”. What is going on? He is blind and he is deaf; what kind of blindness, what kind of deafness is this? It is said that there are several levels of blindness. There is the blindness of the person who has never even considered the possibility that a transcendent realm is possible; and this sadly is the vast majority of people that you are going to meet. Sitting on the metro when you look round, that is if you are awake, you see everyone around is fast asleep, each has a glazed look in their eyes, a sag in their body, a sense of lostness, and this is how they live their lives. The fact that so few people hear the call is indeed a cause for very profound sorrow. This is why I continue to give workshops. It is not simply in order to bring people here to the Center; that is not it at all. Just to tell people, just to say there is a possibility, to say that you can actually find a way beyond this life of suffering, to say that, to allow people to hear it, is itself of great value. Of course again, one does have to be careful. We are not going around proselytizing, preaching, trying to persuade people they ought to practice; don’t waste your time and don’t hurt people doing this. But if people show some kind of responsiveness, if there is some interest, just fan that flame whatever it is, just a little. Not to bring them to Zen; it does not matter whether the flame bursts in as a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu flame, it does not really matter. I am not saying they are equal; it is not the point. But the idea that there is something more, there is a possibility, that we do not have to continue to live as machines, is something one can do to help.

But then there are the blind people who are working on themselves and they just cannot see what is right in front of their nose. It is there; we can’t say it more clearly. What more do you want? This is it. You do not have to take a step, you do not have to find something that you have lost – if you hear the sound of traffic, that is enough it. But it is not the sound of traffic; it is hearing the sound of traffic. Not to know how to open the eyes, to hear with the eyes, this is a form of blindness.

Next is the blindness of the one who has just come to awakening. He is dazzled; he is blinded by the truth; he is blinded by the truth because he feels that truth is something, is an experience, that he has encountered it. It is that- that is it! This is the blindness that the hermit is talking about. If the one coming to awakening does not go beyond it, he lives constantly in a worse kind of blindness than the people in the metro.

And then there is the blindness of the Buddha. It is like Bodhidharma when someone asked him, “What are you?” he said, “I don’t know”. This is the blindness of Buddha.

And what is the blindness of the hermit of the Lotus Peak? His eyes filled with sand… what kind of blindness does he have? “He does not consent to stay in the myriad peaks.” Now what is that? The hermit has said, “I go straight into the myriad peaks.” But Etcho said, “He does not consent to stay there.”

This koan is teaching us or showing us something which is so very important. I have been reading some criticisms on what is called Buddhist modernism. And the constant refrain of these articles, of these criticisms, is that the North American Buddhists use the practice in a completely self-centered way. All they want is to get to the top of the peak, all they want is awakening. And it is for this very reason that I have chosen this koan today. Are you just interested in coming to awakening for yourself? Can you answer that question honestly? And if so, then answer the question of the hermit: When the Ancients got here, when they got that that you are so desperately seeking, why didn’t they stay there? He says, “Because it is of no use.”

One of the difficulties in a lay community like ours is that we do not really work with the sangha. As you know, the three treasures in Buddhism are Buddha, which, if you like, is awakening; Dharma, which, if you like, is the teaching; and Sangha, which, if you like, are the people with whom you work. It can get broader than that but we won’t go into that. We will concentrate on this at the moment: but we don’t have what we could realy call a Sangha. Because we can’t.

One of the things we have done is to reduce workdays to the minimum, to twice a year. Other sanghas have these on a regular basis. People are expected to attend workdays regularly. For a long time, Jean and I did the work here. We used to do the shopping, the clean-up of the zendo, all of it. And the reason we did so was because members at that time had young families, many were just starting on a career and many of them just did not have the possibility of coming to sit once or twice a week in addition to doing a lot of other chores. We recognized that. And so therefore there was not the possibility of getting people to realise that when you work, when you come to a workday, you are not simply coming to amuse yourself or to make friends, you are working for the Center, you are working for the Sangha. At one tine we had ten members who were residents in the house, we had a kind of community, and we expected those ten people, as a condition of their living in the house, to attend all the sittings, morning and evening and week-ends, and as many sesshins as possible. We were trying to establish that one did not come to the Center to sit in the zendo simply in order to come to awakening. One came in order to assist others. If there are only 2 or 3 people in the zendo, there is not the power that you get when there is a full zendo. Then there is a sense of energy, of dynamism, of reality. And this is the most elementary way that anyone can help and work with the sangha.

There are now relatively few people who are doing the work involved with running a Centre. This is another way you can help. Don’t wait to be told or asked to help with the work. You are there to help the sangha. The idea that we are simply working in order that “I” can come to awakening is itself simply a continuation of the “me culture” that dominates our society at the moment. With all of this grabbing money and just being interested in what “I” can get out of the world – we are being swamped by this kind of attitude. It is no good protesting against capitalism, against commercialism or against global economy or against war, as long as you have got one idea: “I” want to come to awakening.

Remember the stirring speech that John Kennedy gave in which he said, “Do no ask what my country can do for me, ask what I can do for my country.” Don’t ask what the Center can do for me or what Zen can do for me, ask what you can do for the Center.

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4 Responses to The Staff of the Hermit of the Lotus Flower Peak

  1. Susan Sebert says:

    This text has helped me understand what one calls the human reaction to death and dying : the horror of no longer existing. So much more than mere darkness and absence.

  2. Janine says:

    Merci de nous rappeler combien il est important que chacun “mette la main à la pâte”.

  3. Insightful comments. Your exposition is concise and clear. Many thanks

  4. TRACY says:

    Are the Ox- herding pictures — or the spiritual journey as depicted in those pictures — a cycle that we go through more than once in our lifetime? that we wake up and go to sleep and that we actually experience these stages more than once in our lifetime?

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