Wuzu shouted at Yuanwu, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” He answered himself: “The cypress tree in the garden!”
At these words Yuanwu was suddenly awakened. He went outside the cottage and saw a rooster fly to the top of a railing, beat his wings and crow loudly. He said to himself, “Isn’t this the sound?”
~ Entangling Vines, Case 98, Notes.
The fragment above is part of a longer, multi-threaded, and at times strangely beautiful, story of interchanges between a 12th century teacher and his student, a story that Pacific Zen has integrated into our Miscellaneous Koan collection. Yuanwu (who helped compile The Blue Cliff Record) is unhappy with his teacher, Wuzu, who tells him on departure: “Remember me when you are ill with fever.” Yuanwu does, and returns to his teacher. Sometime later, a government official visits, and Wuzu asks him, “When you were young, did you read a poem which went something like:
She calls to her maid,
not because she wants something
but just so her lover will hear her voice.
The official replies, “Yes, I read it.” Wuzu says “That is very near to Zen.”
This sparks a conversation between teacher Wuzu and student Yuanwu as to whether the official really understood the poem. In a complete non-sequitur, Wuzu yells at Yuanwu the above question about Bodhidharma, and Yuanwu experiences an opening. The beauty of these next lines, however, are in their magical quality to both express certainty and uncertainty. On hearing the rooster call out, Yuanwu asks, “Isn’t this the sound?”
I have felt that way for some weeks with the Northern California fires: both a certainty of experience, and an uncertainty of outcome. Last year, our neighborhood was deeply scarred by a wildfire that swept over our property, destroying almost all the houses the region, but for some inexplicable reason, spared our own. “Isn’t this the memory?” In recent weeks, as the third fire in four years has approached within a few miles of our home, I went outside in the early dawn, and could smell the acrid smoke: “Isn’t this the smell?” A few minutes later, a squadron of red fire trucks rumbled by on the road below us: “Isn’t this the sound?” The pale and sickly morning light tried to shine through: “Isn’t this the sight?”
Later, Yuanwu wrote a poem, and took it to his teacher:
The golden duck vanishes into the golden brocade,
With a country song the drunk comes home from the woods,
Only the young beauty knows about her love affair.
Wuzu responded, “I share your joy.” We share his joy, as well.