Lesson
21

Dongshan and Caoshan

3 of 7

Speaking in metaphors

Although Dongshan may have avoided the deliberate absurdities of the Linji masters, his utterances are often puzzling nonetheless. Part of the reason is that he preferred the metaphor to the concrete example. Unlike the repartee of the absurdist Linji masters, his exchanges are not deliberately illogical. Instead we find a simple reluctance to say anything straight.

But if you follow the symbolic language, you realize it is merely another clever way of never teaching with words, while still using language. His frequent speaking in metaphors can be appreciated by the following exchange, which uses language enmeshed in symbols.

Monk: "With what man of Tao should one associate, so that one will hear constantly what one has never heard?"

Master: "That which is under the same coverlet with you."

Monk: "This is still what you, Master, can hear yourself. What is it that one will hear constantly which one has never heard?"

The Master: "It is not the same as wood and stone.".

Monk: "Who is he in our country that holds a sword in his hand?"

The Master: "It is Dongshan."

Monk: "Whom do you want to kill?"

The Master: "All those who are alive will die."

Monk: "When you happen to meet your parents, what should you do?"

The Master: "Why should you have any choice?"

Monk: "How about yourself?"

The Master: "Who can do anything to me?"

Monk: "Why should you not kill yourself, too?"

The Master: "There is no place on which I can lay my hands."

The Chan teachers deliberately avoided specifics, since these might cause students to start worrying about the precise definition of words and end up bogged down in conceptual quandaries, neglecting their real nature—which cannot be reached using words. But further than this, the monk thinks he will trap the master by asking him if his injunction to kill includes his own parents. But Dongshan answered by accusing the monk—indirectly—of making discriminations. As for self-murder, Dongshan maintains his immaterial self-nature is indestructible.