Seeing the Face

by Ross Bolleter Roshi

The Second Rank of Tung-shan

The Universal within the Phenomenon

An old woman, oversleeping at daybreak, encounters the ancient mirror
and clearly sees a face that is no other than her own.
Don't wander in your head and validate shadows any more.
Tonight we sit in the depths of a Spring obscured by rain. A Sesshin of rain and heart where we come to recognise the gift we bear - sluiced by rain and tears and threaded through by the ever-present cats and the little birds that sing valiantly in the rain.

Tonight we take up the second of Tung-shan's Five Ranks: The Universal in the Phenomenon. Out of compassion for his struggling students, Tung-shan wrote these profound gathas that map the relation between each of us and the Universe. This deeply mysterious connection cannot be explained or pictured - you can't whistle it either - so it's good not to get caught in abstruse ponderings, but rather to let his metaphors dance you into your depths which are also the depths of the Universe.

Tung-shan calls it The Universal in the Phenomenon. William Blake in his Auguries of Innocenceconveys the miracle of this relationship:

To see the World in a Grain of Sand
and a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
and Eternity in an hour.

A grain of sand - a wildflower - the palm of our hand - are heavens means to appear in her true colours - turning toward the sun, singing on ancient blues in the style of Bessie Smith, reaching out to connect with her ex-partner, risking hurt.

Ts'ao-shan, Tung-shan's student, and co-founder of the Ts'ao-tung (Soto) School, who incidentally may have collaborated with Tung-shan in the creation of the Five Ranks, illuminates the Universal's intimacy with the Phenomenon in this dialogue with Elder Te1 :

Ts'ao-shan asked Elder Te, "The true Dharma body is like the empty sky. It manifests the form of itself as the moon reflects in the water. How do you explain the way it corresponds?"
[Setting a trap for a tiger.]
Elder Te said, "It is like a donkey sees a well."
[This is like meeting but perhaps not recognising the other.]
Ts'ao-shan said, "That was nicely expressed, but it is only eighty percent."
[No need to be led about by this sort of evaluation. What is eighty percent after all?]
Elder Te said, "What about you, Achariya?"
[Giving his teacher an opportunity to fall in.]
Ts'ao-shan said, "It is like a well sees a donkey."

We are met and recognised - utterly. After mulling it over, stumbling about and groping for it - doing the donkey work of the Way, countless years of one-pointed concentration on Mu - we find that it has been there - glinting, rippling, refreshing us all along.

We're like the old woman oversleeping at daybreak who encounters the ancient mirror and sees a face that is no other than her own. Tung-shan's image is compelling and apt - truly the moment of grace arrives unexpectedly, often in our deepest confusion and stumbling about - although his meaning is probably, unfortunately, "Even an old woman can encounter the ancient mirror" - giving his gatha a sexist and ageist underlay. Of course, the truth is that many old women have awakened, and have embodied, walked and talked that awakening into their lives and have passed its light on to others - and they're doing it, no doubt, right now. In many instances we don't know their names, but at least in this story we know where this old teacher lived and taught.2

There was an old woman who lived near Mount T'ai which was a Mecca for pilgrims in old China. She lived at a maze of crossroad's where at times you couldn't see the mountain clearly, rather like Mount Cook which you can't see readily from some angles, and which in heavy rain and mist can be invisible, even when you're close to it - you rather feel its bulk, its immensity in the freezing grey blur.

Monks who found that Mt. T'ai was obscured would discover this old woman sitting outside her hut and then would ask her for directions. "What's the way to Mt. T'ai?" And she would reply, "Go straight ahead!" And the monk would take off, going straight ahead. Then she would murmur, "Tsk, tsk! - A good monk, but he too goes off like that!" Yes, not realising her true teaching, not realising Go straight ahead!, which is as innocent of meaning as the sound of deep rain in the night, the thump of wooden boats against the wharf in the harbour.

Irina Harford is a richly wise old lady, who sits with the Zen Group of Western Australia and takes part in most of its activities except sesshin - she feels her body won't stand up to that. But she's along for all the rest, and writes haiku and is very interested in quantum physics and its implications for the Way. As well she's a passionate student of the philosophy of religion. She wrote a poem which bears on Tung-shan's Second Rank:

Let there be light!
Three tulips in a glass comply.

Where the light comes from no one knows,3 just that when she wakes up in the morning she does not get up to do Zazen, but sits up in bed right where she is on her pillows, so that she doesn't break her movement from sleep to zazen. And in this way she keeps warm because when you're old, it's easy to get cold and be unable to get warm again.

You get up at the same time every morning in sesshin and go to the dojo and sit in zazen, and one morning you don't hear the bell. You wake in confusion - you're all over the place. With your eyes full of sleep you stumble to the bathroom, completely uncoordinated. You turn towards the window and find it's a mirror! Or is it the other way around? Your tears and laughter are splashed with the early morning light.
In the midst of the clutter and confusion of your searching for it, the sun has risen! When you first stumble into this, it's wet, trembly. You shake like a foal not yet quite safely on your pins. But something has shifted, and you will never be quite the same again. You are like Jacob Yitzhak when the Rabbi Zusya looked him straight in the eyes:4

In the course of his long wanderings, Rabbi Zusya came to the town where the father of the boy Jacob Yitzhak lived. In the House of Study he went back of the stove to pray - for this was his way - and covered his whole head with the prayer shawl. Suddenly he half turned, looked out from it, and without letting his glance rest on anything else, looked the boy Jacob Yitzhak straight in the eyes. Then he turned back to the stove and went on praying. The boy was seized with an irresistible impulse to cry. A well of tears opened up within him and he wept for an hour. Not until his tears ceased to fall did Zusya go up to him. Then he said: "Your soul has been wakened. Now go to my teacher, the Maggid of Mezritch and study with him, so that your mind may also be roused from its sleep."

We break open when we are truly seen - and the whole world ambles through our heart. We are released in laughter and tears. Rabbi Zusya allowed Jacob Yitzhak to cry himself out, to experience his awakening undisturbed. Such restraint - his prayers filled with the boy's sobbing - such openness to Yitzhak's joyful plight.
When we wake up like Jacob, we are turned about, and we find we have embarked on the path. Such conversion will continue throughout the rest of our life if we permit it to shape us, as Zusya shaped Jacob's life by sending him off to his teacher so that his mind might be aroused from its sleep. The same for us. We must undertake further koan study to deepen our beginning insight, to encourage the light to shine deeper and more brilliantly in all the mangroves and caves of our life.

Zusya acknowledges and confirms Jacob's awakening when the time is right. After our grandfather in the Dharma, Koun Yamada had his awakening, he went to see his teacher Hakuun Yasutani at three o'clock in the morning.5 His mouth trembled and words wouldn't form themselves. Finally he put his face in his teacher's lap and sobbed with joy. Yasutani stroked his back, saying, "Yes, yes - I know" - confirming Yamada's deep awakening and expressing a kinship between teacher and student as deep as life and death. After having given Koun Yamada detailed advice on how to continue his practice in the future, Hakuun Yasutani escorted him to the foot of the mountain by torch, showing him the way home.

The road home can be long. A thousand years or so ago, Yuan-wu had a glancing encounter with the ancient mirror,6 but his teacher Wu-tsu felt that it was too slight and that if Yuan-wu took this to be a true awakening he would be prey to deep self doubts later - blown about by any passing wind, at the mercy of the words of others. So he told him to stay with his koan. Yuan-wu took this as a snub and left his teacher in a huff, but before he departed Wu-tsu said to him, "Remember me when you are ill with fever." Years later, Yuan-wu indeed did become desperately ill and finally decided to return to his teacher. Wu-tsu sang him a little song popular at the time:

She calls to her serving girl, 'Little Jade'
Not because she wants something
But just so her lover will hear her voice.

And said, "That's very much like Zen, isn't it?" and Yuan-wu awoke to her calling. Listen! Listen! She is always calling - not because she needs anything but only so her lover will hear. And you are her lover when you ask, "Who is hearing?", or "What is Mu?", or "What is the source of consciousness?", or return to one in your breath counting, or open to the night sky and the rain shaking the trees, or to your dry tongue. She calls unceasingly to let you know she is near. Better than near, actually! Much better than near ?

Robert Aitken says, "The ancient mirror finally drops off its dark veneer".7 Once you saw in a glass darkly - meeting, but not recognising the other, sunk in the vastness and darkness of the mystery - now you see face to face.8 And utterly, intimately that face is no other than your own. It's you! It's yours. Everything tastes of you and you taste of everything. Your surname is written in the stars. And your Christian name? Well, don't you answer when someone calls you?

Laughter gurgles, wells up from your depths. You are shaken loose. Involuntarily you dance, and the starry sky and the night harbour get to have their fling. Like a little boat lifted from a sandbar by rising waters you are moved into the deep currents of your life. This is irrevocable; there is no way to get back to the safety of the sandbar.

There is an ancient tradition going back to the time of Ts'ao-shan - possibly it was initiated by him - of linking five hexagrams from the ancient Chinese Book of Wisdom, the I Ching, with the gathas of the Five Ranks. The hexagram traditionally associated with the second rank - The Universal in the Phenomenon is Tui/the Joyous, Lake - which seems apt. The author of the I Ching says:

Lakes resting upon one another:
The image of The Joyous.
Thus the superior person joins with their friends
For discussion and practice.

Living your enlightenment is not just sitting there and enjoying the bliss of union on your own, but of linking with others in Dharma talks and discussions: Getting beyond monologue and engaging in stimulating dialogue with congenial friends about the application of the truths of life - How do we live the Way when we are ill? When we're taking action against the destruction of old growth forests? When we've achieved great and undeserved success?

The author of the I Ching goes on to say,

In this way learning becomes many sided and takes on a cheerful lightness, whereas there is always something ponderous and one-sided about the learning of the self-taught.

This is like the early joy of discovering the Way - sitting up in the roof garden of Cafe L'Alba on summer nights with members of the Zen group of Western Australia, drinking coffee and talking about karma and enlightenment. The infectious joy of those discussions helped the early growth of Sangha. These discussions grew out of our Zazen and then watered it. Like lakes replenishing each other, when we're joined in a common enterprise we don't dry up so readily because we can draw on others for inspiration and replenishment. And Sangha is likewise the opportunity for a deep encounter with the ancient mirror. We enlighten and get enlightened by our companions in the deep underbelly of Sesshin: For the first time in the history of the universe a woman sees her friend standing at the head of the dokusan line, the cat gives a silent eloquent teisho sitting up on the teacher's mat.

You encounter the ancient mirror and see a face that is no other than your own. And after the shock and the joy come confidence and equanimity, in their time. Something has been opened and touched, and is alive and at ease. It animates our action in the world; power and energy arise from unknowable depths. Keizan, referring to Tung-shan, touches on this:9

The subtle consciousness is extremely faint;
It does not relate to discriminating thought and feeling;
In daily life it makes him preach vigorously.

What is the subtle consciousness right now? When you awaken to it, beyond your judgements and stories about it, you are enlivened and you touch others. You preach vigorously in your simple good morning, in your laughter quickened by wind and sunshine. Like Ikkyu, you teach like the seasons, and your simplest acts - picking up a cup or listening attentively - touch and enliven others.

Hakuin, after years of unremitting Zazen and many awakenings, could give teisho all day. And he was alive and piercing for whoever came before him:

Asan of Shinano10 after her mind became clear came to Hakuin who presented her with the koan, 'What is the sound of one hand?'.
She replied, "Better than the sound of one hand is to clap both hands and do business."
[Showing him how to live the subtle consciousness of the moonlit realm with vigour and delight.]
Hakuin immediately drew her a broom.
[Showing that vigour and laughingly pressing on her - 'Why don't you sweep away that delusion?']
"Sweeping away all the bad teachers in Japan, first of all Hakuin," she shot back.
[No doubt about her confidence, giving better than she gets, and testing the old Master. Insult as ultimate reverence.]
Hakuin roared with laughter.

Yes, not fazed at all. With no reputation to defend, his laughter blasts away good and bad teachers alike; and along with the sound of one hand, all contrivances are blown off the map. This goes against any wandering in the head and validating shadows. Tung-shan warns us against that. Even after the deepest experience old accustomed habits of thinking and feeling come back. Good to allow the clear stream of our tears and laughter to flush out our customary prejudices about reality, as well as our well-founded notions about why we don't feel appreciated and the like?

And Tung-shan's caution applies not only after deep realisation but in the thick of our cluttered enterprises, in the bright carnage of our lives. We need to let go of our opinions about psychologicalprocess, and directly enter the subversive moment.

If we keep validating shadows we wander for ever in a maze of our own creation.

Yet we must also acknowledge our pain and shadow, allowing the tangled mangroves of our ancient stories, our patterns of avoidance, our failure to connect and our despairs, to open to the light that flashes from the mirror. Truly, the subtle consciousness is extremely faint - faint as starlight, when we're up to our necks in the grimness of Sangha politics, obsessed with our status, defending our position within the hierarchy.

Yet we grow our life down little by little into the world, and some of the pain and achiness we feel is growing pain - the pain of doing what is scary, but what must be done. In the bone structures of our defensiveness and resistance's, in the ribcage of our fear, we encounter the ancient mirror and see a face that is no other than our own. She looks back at us intently from under her shawl and we recognise her and can't hold back our weeping and our laughter.


1 Shoyoroku (Book of Equanimity), Case 52, trans. Robert Aitken.
2 See Case 31, Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier (translation with commentary) (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), p195.
3 John Tarrant, from a Diamond Sangha transmission document.
4 Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Shocken Books, NY. (I'm grateful to Susan Murphy for drawing my attention to the powerful, moving story.)
5 Retold from John Tarrant, The Light Inside the Dark, Harper Collins, 1998: p32.
6 Ibid.
7 Robert Aitken, The Five Modes of Tung-shan (translation commentary) unpublished manuscript.
8 Adapted from St Paul, I Corinthians 13:12.
9 Case 38, Denkoroku (Transmission of the Light), trans.
Robert Aitken and Koun Yamada, unpublished manuscript, Diamond Sangha.
10 Kahawaii Koans, collected by women students of Robert Aitken, unpublished manuscript.
© Ross Bolleter