Blue Cliff Record Case 6: Yun-Men’s Good Day

Posted by on Dec 11, 2011 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Blue Cliff Record Case 6: Yun-Men’s Good Day

Talk given by Scott Ruplin
Zenkai, Dec. 3-4, 2011

Blue Cliff Record Case 6:
Yun-Men taught by saying, “I do not ask you about before the 15th of the month. Come, give a phrase about after the 15th:”

He himself responded, “Every day is a good day”

First let’s say some words about the life and teaching of Master Yun-Men Wen Yen, who is called Ummon in Japan. Most of this information comes from The Roaring Stream, bu Foster and Shoemaker, and Zen Dust, and the book Master Yun-Men by Urs App. There’s also a pretty extensive Wikipedia entry about him. His name, and the name of the mountain where he settled, translates as “Gate of the Coulds”. The “Yun” is the Chinese word for the “Un” in the names of teachers in our line.

He was an absolutely uncompromising and extraordinary teacher. He appears 18 times in the Blue Cliff Record and 5 times in the Wumenkuan. This is partially due to the fact of his teaching at the end of the great T’ang era – in the 200 years after his death our great koan collections were all compiled. The Yun-Men school flourished as a distinct sect of Zen until the early Sung dynasty, at which point it was absorbed into Lin-Chi lines. The great Chan master Hsu-Yun (Empty Cloud – a great book by Charles Luk) traced his linage back to him, and there is a Chan sect in Taiwan and America today that does the same, through Hsu-Yun.

Yun Men was one of the first Chan teachers to call out sayings of old masters to his assembly, and to see what came of that. This must have been noted by the compilers of the Blue Cliff and other koan collections.

He was born to a poor family and trained under a “commandment master”, which is what Miura and Sasaki call a Vinaya master. This did not satisfy him, and he went on to train with many master, in an effort to penetrate the question that Urs App interprets as “not a problem that he HAS, but that he himself IS”. There’s a famous story about his resolving this angst in an encounter with Master Muzhou, a Dharma brother of Huang-Po, who brought Yun-Men to awakening by slamming his leg in the door of his hermitage so hard that he broke it and maimed Yun Men permanently, even while opening his Mind. I have heard this story quoted as a justification for “rough treatment” in American Zen. I asked Muryo Matthiessen about this and he said he would have responded “You break my leg you SOB, and I’ll break yours”. Make of that what you will!

In any case Yun-Men did resolve his doubts, and developed a dazzling array of impassioned and improvisatory teaching methods to strip away from his students all pretense and cognitive barrier. Urs App says “it is striking how little concrete and practical advice one finds in Yun Men’s instructions. Instead of telling his disciples what they should do, how they should meditate, etc, he keeps asking them the same questions. What is YOUR problem? Why are you a monk? Why are you here? App quotes:

So let me ask you all, what has so far been the matter with you? What do you lack? If I tell you that nothing whatsoever is the matter I’ve already buried you. You yourself must arrive at that realization! (App, p.48)

He developed a style that, in retrospect, was called “One Word Barrier”, or i-tzu-kuan. He pushed his disciples to not blindly rely on anything. Here’s a example from the Blue Cliff Record, in a case that gave me a few good blows:

Towards the end of summer [1], Cuiyan instructed the assembly, saying,

“All summer I’ve preached to you, my brothers. Look here, are Cuiyan’s
eyebrows still there? [2]”
Baofu said,
“The robber’s heart is terrified!”
Chonqqing said,
“They are well grown!”
Yun Men said,
“Barrier!” [3]

That’s case 8 of the Blue Cliff Record. The responses of Baofu and Chonqqing are not bad at all, and inspire. They are even radiant in the sense of interbeing and continuity of teachers and students. But they are far too elaborate for Yun-Men, who took the zen adage about not replying on words to its outer extreme edge.

So now back to our case.

Yun-Men taught by saying, “I do not ask you about before the 15th of the month. Come, give me a phrase about after the 15th’

This is a puzzling saying. It seems to refer to the phases of the moon, a common image for Awakening in Buddhist practice. Philip Kapleau says that “after the 15th” refers to life after enlightenment, or life lived in not-two-ness. But App writes that “ Yun-Men could mean, ‘I don’t want to hear about your transgressions of the last half month – tell me about your resolutions for the coming half month.’” This is in the context of a repentance ceremony. But I think that’s too literal for us here, even if that was the context of his words then.

So let’s consider that before the 15th alludes to the early years of one’s practice, where Yun Men’s question of “What the matter with YOU, or What’s your problem?’ App writes that all Yun Men’s teaching was “medicine for a disease”. It’s an awful affliction to be so lost in forms, and transience, and consumerism, and oppositionality. The mind is unceasingly creating thought forms which, while often wonderful and useful and creative, seem to have no end and all too often become ghostly creatures with their own power to dismay. Perhaps we call this anxiety today.
Tenkei Denson, in Cleary’s “Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record”, writes that “I don’t ask you about before the 15th” refers to “Getting rid of everything so that even one does not stand, not holding on to anything, not grasping or dwelling”

Just as an aside, I have often, when stuck upon a koan point in dokusan, tried to entice my own teacher into giving a similar revealing answer – this has been ineffective. He usually say something like “that would take the fun out of it”.

So Tenkei invites us to “not grasp or dwell”. What is the meaning of this comment?

We may assume that Yun-Men lived and taught in very difficult times. He was born in 864, and the T’ang dynasty, which was also The Golden Age of Zen, collapsed in 907. There was chaos for decades, until the Sung dynasty emerged in 960, four years before Yun-Men’s death. Even with all the perils of premodernity in medicine and all, this must have been an era of extraordinary tragedy. What could he have meant when he answered himself, “Every day is a good day” ?

I don’t know the Chinese word Yun-Men used, or if it really was similar to “good” as we often use it today. Americans, when faced with a loss of control or a tragedy, or even the stress of everyday life, tend to label things as bad, or not good. Then of course we vow to MAKE them good, showing our often useful but sometimes pathological bias toward mastery of phenomena. The zen teacher Bernie Glassman addresses this in his book Bearing Witness:

We can’t control anything. Things just happen, they unfold as they do. But our notions of what should happen block us from seeing what does happen.

So we forge ahead and try to make things “good”, often creating more strain and strife in the action.

This is not to say that actions are futile, or never useful. I remember a farmer in Nepal who was convinced that it was pointless to remove the large stones from his field since “every so often Lord Shiva throws them back in”. It was actually the topsoil washing away in the rain and exposing new stones, but this fellow had erred on the other side of things, and was too passive to get the farming going. Don’t dwell anywhere!

We too live in such difficult times. Just open the paper or get online and read away, and pain is everywhere. It’s been masked for many in this country by accumulated wealth, and our anxious compulsion to hide away the aged and the ill, but this is breaking apart now. And yet, every day is a good day.

There is a comment on this saying “Every Day is a good day”, by Yuan-Wu, compiler of the Blue Cliff Record during the Sung Dynasty, a couple of hundred years after Yun Men’s death. He wrote, “Whose house has no bright moon and pure wind? The sea god knows its value, he does not know its price”

Maybe Yun-Men answered his own question to give his Sangha a pointer. These were terrible times, and perhaps a bit of a leg up was in order. I can imagine him eager for his friends to obtain some refracted angle through which their own pain might be borne with less anguish. Possibly some of his students had experienced an opening of their own, in all its immortal beauty. There is sometimes a wish to abide in this place eternally, riding mountain winds high above the pain of things. But we are human , and can only glimpse the Deva realms.

There’s nothing to do in difficult times but to press forward, on and on, deeper and deeper in one’s practice. The qualities of sensitivity and perception of subtleties, and a wider capacity for empathy – these can destroy a person in chaotic times, unless one goes deeper. Ours is not a culture that greatly values one’s capacity for caring and compassion. But after the 15th it will harm you to diminish this light. This is what Yun-Men is urging his audience, and us across the gulf of time, to do.

“After the 15th”, then, summons us to engagement in, and as, the world of pain, and being open, and as Jack once said, “extending one’s arms wider, and wider, and wider”. It hurts. It is exasperating. We will be broken, again and again. We must learn, as Aitken Roshi once wrote, “to suffer fools gladly”. This is not passivity. It is full engagement in all the mad folly of the world. And nothing is left out, ever. And there are tears, and deaths, and joys, and births and extinctions of species, and still somehow “Every Day is a Good Day”. This is the precious life we have before us. Go gently, with open hands and heart, excluding nothing.