Nanquan and Zhaozhou

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Nanquan and Zhaozhou

Some of the most instructive anecdotes associated with Nanquan are those involving his star pupil, Zhaozhou. Arriving at Nanquan's monastery while still a lad, the traditional first exchange typifies their long and fruitful relationship.

Nanquan, opening with the standard question: "Where have you just come from?"

Zhaozhou: "I have .just left Shuihsiang [named for a famous state of Buddha]."

"Have you seen the standing image of Buddha?"

Zhaozhou: "What I see is not a standing image of Buddha but a supine
Enlightened One!"

Nanquan: "Are you your own master or not?"

Zhaozhou: "Yes, I am. [i.e., I already have a master.]"

Nanquan: "Where is this master of yours?"

Zhaozhou: "In the middle of the winter the weather becomes bitterly
cold. I wish all blessings on you, sir."

Zhaozhou's strange answer seems to have been his own way of signifying he had chosen Nanquan as his future master. Nanquan, for his own part, seems to have recognized in this quizzical repartee all the makings of a great Chan worthy.

The exploits of Nanquan and Zhaozhou form the core of the great anecdotal literature of Chan's Golden Age. Neither was a great innovator, a great writer, or a great organizer, but together they were able to explore the highest limits of the dialogue as a vehicle for enlightenment.

And their dialogues, incidentally, did not always necessarily require words.

One day in the monastery of Nanquan, the monks of the east and west wing had a dispute over the possession of a cat. They all came to Nanquan for arbitration.

Nanquan, holding a knife in one hand and the cat in the other: "If any one of you can say the right thing, this cat will be saved; otherwise it will be cut into two pieces."

None of the monks could say anything. Nanquan then killed the cat. 

In the evening when Zhaozhou returned to the monastery, Nanquan asked him what he would have said had he been there at the time. Zhaozhou took off his straw sandals, put them up on his head and walked out.

Nanquan: "Oh, if only you had been here, the cat would have been saved."

Zhaozhou's response used no language and was devoid of distinction, being neither positive nor negative. This is one the most celebrated stories in The Transmission of the Lamp  and one that is probably richer if we avoid subjecting it to too much commentary.

The point was specifically intended to be as simple as possible, but still this very simplicity is disturbing to the complicated intellectual mind.

There is a particularly telling story of the exchange between Nanquan and Zhaozhou concerning the Tao, meaning the way to enlightenment.

Zhaozhou to his Master, "What is the Tao?"

Nanquan: "Tao is nothing else than the ordinary mind."

Zhaozhou: "Is there any way to approach it?"

Nanquan: "Once you intend to approach it, you are on the wrong track."

Zhaozhou, continuing to inquire: "Barring conscious intention, how can we attain to a knowledge of the Tao?"

The master: "Tao belongs neither to knowledge  nor to no-knowledge. For knowledge is but illusive perception, while no-knowledge is mere confusion, If you really attain true comprehension of the Tao, unshadowed by the slightest doubt, your vision will  be like the infinite space, free of all limits and obstacles. Its truth or falsehood cannot be established artificially by external proofs."

At these words Zhaozhou came to an enlightenment. Only after this did he take his vows and become a professed monk.

To the longstanding Chan assertion that Tao is nothing less than the ordinary mind but cannot be reached by deliberate searching, Nanquan here adds an interesting new assertion: that although the person finding this enlightenment has no doubt of its reality, it cannot be proved or disproved by any objective tests. There is no way that the enlightened person can be shown objectively to have achieved his goal. The Chan masters could test enlightenment by matching the claimant's illogic against their own; if his "craziness" matched, then the disciple passed. But there is, by definition, no objective test of enlightenment. But then, how do you test the ultimate realization that there is nothing to realize other than what you knew all along? Quite simply, the master's intuition is the final authority.

Their dialogues frequently were full of electricity, as in another exchange that ended quite differently:

Zhaozhou: "Tao is not external to things; the externality of things is not Tao. Then what is the Tao that is beyond things?"

The master struck him.

Zhaozhou, taking hold of the stick: "From now on, do not strike a man by mistake."

The Master: "We can easily differentiate between a dragon .and a snake, but nobody can fool a Chan monk.''

Zhaozhou here seems to be declaring to Nanquan that his enlightenment is genuine. And Nanquan, for his part is asserting that the Master's judgment, not the monk's, is the final criterion.