Nanquan and Zhaozhou

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The best-remembered disciple of Mazu was Nanquan Puyuan (Nan-ch'uan P'u-yuan) (748-835), founder of a famous monastery and a brilliant if short-lived lineage whose finest example was his pupil Zhaozhou Congshen (Chao-chou Ts'Ung-shen) (778-897), who came to be one of the major figures of the Golden Age of Chan and one of the best-remembered of the wild Southern masters.

Because many of legendary anecdotes associated with Nanquan involve his pupil Zhaozhou, we present them together in this lesson.


Legend says that although there were eight hundred followers of Mazu, the precocious Nanquan was immediately elevated to the position of the foremost disciple and none of the others ventured to debate with him.

As the story goes, after studying with Mazu Nanquan spent thirty years at his mountain retreat without once venturing out. When he finally acceded to the requests of the governor to come down and teach to the people on the plain, he enjoyed a great fame as a teacher of Chan, although today he is remembered by anecdotes rather than by any attributed writings. The governor himself became a student of Nanquan and plays a role in many anecdotes passed down.

The governor asked Nanquan the meaning of an early, pre-Chan Buddhist teaching that all things come from the same source and accordingly there can be no difference between right and wrong, which are themselves the same, by virtue of a common origin.

Nanquan pointed to a patch of peonies in the garden: "Governor, when people of the present day see these blossoms, it is as if they see them in a dream.''

Nanquan seems to be pointing out that the unenlightened cannot fully perceive the flower as it really is, cannot experience it directly and purely. Instead it is approached as an object apart from the viewer, the subject. It is not seen as an extension of his or her own reality. The ordinary mind permits this dichotomy of nature, but in the Zen mind, man and flower become one, merged into a seamless fabric of life.

This is the kind of statement that in later years would be isolated from the chronicles and made into a "public case" or koan, a teaching device for novices (see Lesson 23). Its meaning is not meant to be discerned through the logical processes, and even less through the medium of language. (When a later master was asked what Nanquan had meant, he answered with the equally enigmatic "Pass me a brick.")

In another story Nanquan was presented the following problem:

Lu Hsuan: "What if I told you that a man had raised a goose in a bottle, watching it grow until one day he realized that it had grown too large to pass through the bottle's neck? Since he did not want to break the bottle or kill the goose, how would he get it out?"

Nanquan (beginning quietly): "My esteemed governor . . . "

Then shouting: ". . . THE GOOSE IS OUT!"

Lu Hsuan, it is said, was enlightened on the spot. Nanquan had shown that one who posed a hypothetical question could be answered by an equally hypothetical response. There is a common Chan (and Taoist) reference to a truth being caught in the net of words. Here Nanquan shows how to extract truth from verbal encumbrances.

Another anecdote recounts a similar incident:

A monk to Nanquan: "There is a jewel in the sky; how can we get hold of it?"

Nanquan: "Cut down bamboos and make a ladder, put it up in the sky, and get hold of it!"

The monk: "How can the ladder be put up in the sky?"

Nanquan: "How can you doubt your getting hold of the jewel?""