Dahui, Swampland Flowers: 9 Enlightenment and Delusion (a talk by Lee Shields, September 7, 2020)

Posted by on Oct 3, 2020 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Dahui, Swampland Flowers: 9 Enlightenment and Delusion (a talk by Lee Shields, September 7, 2020)

Dahui, Swampland Flowers: 9 Enlightenment and Delusion

In the last paragraph of lecture 9 of the Swampland Flowers, Dahui directed us with the following:

If you want to cut directly through, don’t entertain doubts about buddhas and ancestral teachers, or doubts about birth and death – just always let go and make your heart empty and open. When things come up, then deal with them according to the occasion. Be like the stillness of the water, like the clarity of a mirror, (so that) whether good or bad, beautiful or ugly approach, you don’t make the slightest move to avoid them. (Then) you will truly know that the mindless world of spontaneity is inconceivable.

“The mindless world of spontaneity is inconceivable” is a wonderful, strong phrase that can stand alone.

The paragraph I read was taken from the end of lecture 9 in Swampland Flowers.  I invite you to consider Dahui with the lightness and openness you would in conventional conversation. Yes, the language and references were from olden times far away – but we’re talking about Dahui’s words because of something he is saying that is direct and relevant to each of us. He is in some ways speaking as directly as if telling us how finely to chop the onions.

With that introduction, I’d like to read a longer section from the beginning of lecture 9, and another from the end of the same lecture, including the above paragraph:

In the old days, the military commander Li Wen-ho studied with the Ch’an Master Ts’ung …and awakened to the essence of the Lin Chi School. He had a verse which said:

To study the Path, one must be an iron man:

Get hold of the mind and settle the issue immediately!

Directly seizing supreme enlightenment,

Don’t concern yourself at all with right and wrong.

Dahui continues:

How marvelous these words are! They should be considered an aid for making the seeds of illumination unfold their potential…

Buddhas are those who have comprehended and completed things in the realm of sentient beings; sentient beings are those who have not comprehended and completed things in the realm of buddhas. If you want to attain Oneness, just give up both buddhas and sentient beings at once; then there is no “comprehended and completed” or “not comprehended and completed.”…

Now, from the end of lecture 9:

…As soon as the source of sickness was pointed out to him by an old adept, Chang Ch’o, the famous scholar in the old days, understood enough to say:

Trying to eliminate passion aggravates the disease;

Rushing towards True Suchness is also wrong.

There is no obstruction in worldly circumstances according to one’s lot:

“Nirvana” and “birth and death” are equally illusions.

If you want to cut directly through, don’t entertain doubts about buddhas and ancestral teachers, or doubts about birth and death – just always let go and make your heart empty and open. When things come up, then deal with them according to the occasion. Be like the stillness of the water, like the clarity of a mirror, (so that) whether good or bad, beautiful or ugly approach, you don’t make the slightest move to avoid them. (Then) you will truly know that the mindless world of spontaneity is inconceivable.

I realize that reading was a little long – I couldn’t help myself. It would have seemed insufficiently respectful to describe the corner of a painting without giving an overview of the balance across the canvas.

There are two aspects of this entry in the Swampland Flowers that I’d like to highlight today. Let me repeat just a sentence from the beginning, and one from the end:

To study the Path, one must be an iron man: get hold of the mind and settle the issue immediately!


If you want to cut directly through, don’t entertain doubts about buddhas and ancestral teachers, or doubts and birth and death – just always let go and make your heart empty and open.


These two sentences express themes that arise repeatedly in the book. “The first theme, related to “One must be an iron man…” expresses something about the nature of effort on the Path. This is not news to you all here at retreat. We rise early and sit through the day. I’ve picked out this sentence for its reference to the importance of effort, and also because I imagine many of us hear it and in some degree measure ourselves against it. For some, the “iron man” image may emphasize something extra and distracting, rather than simply the nature of the focus that arises as your expression of Path today. It was a military man who wrote the verse; I am not surprised by the vocabulary which was meaningful to him in describing his way.


Whether or not you are an iron man or iron woman, I do hear in this passage something that I don’t doubt you already know. To study the Path, to sit an intensive retreat, to cook our meal, one must be unrelenting, and undaunted in breathing this breath. One must return without ceasing to this sound. ”Return” is the operative word here, because our minds do wander, our focus is lost.  Just as greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly, breath breathes, sound sounds, and mu mus. Whether returning with the fire of morning’s energy, or the drowsiness of the day’s last period, breath.


Gravity too is relentless, undaunted. Though always the same, it can be perceived as brutal when falling off a ladder, merciful when biking over the crest and down the other side, and graceful watching leaves twist and turn as they fall. When meeting that which comes up, in accordance to the occasion, we might respond with an exclamation of shock and fear when falling, and with a sigh of gratitude and satisfaction cresting the rise. And watching a leaf, perhaps, stop everything to observe, with a bit of surprise, and maybe even awe. Gravity is undaunted in its influence of snow-melt water, whether, in accordance to the occasion, the water flows quickly or slowly, or pools for a time. We do not conceive of good and bad about the water’s response to gravity. Can you offer the same courtesy to your practice?

We don’t know how long commander Li Wen-ho had practiced as an iron man before settling the issue immediately, though we should be cautious here. This does not mean that the totality of his practice was the decision to be an iron man, and hallelujah, he settled the issue. Nor does it mean that once settled, he never had another concern about right and wrong. If it were so we wouldn’t need to use a word like “path,” and could instead talk about a “station” which was our practice.


Whether you’ve been on this Path for a day or a decade, this sound is immediate. This breath has no history. Thinking of the week or the day or the next period is all far away. Li Wen-Ho is talking about the possibility now, with aches or ecstasy, boredom or enjoyment, or all of the above.


Notice the deep encouragement Dahui offers here as he talks about settling the issue immediately. Whether energetic or drowsy, the issue can be settled– here, now. In fact, it’s already settled with the end of this sentence.


At retreat, we have our form to assist us in remaining undaunted. We also bring our internal persistence. But persistence to what? That takes us to the last paragraph in this lecture – I’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

This reference to persistence is repeated through Swampland Flowers, demonstrating the importance of effort to Dahui. In a different passage still in the same lecture, Dahui quoted Layman P’ang:

The capacity of ordinary people’s will is meager;
Falsely they say there is difficulty and ease.
Detached from form, empty as space,
You reach complete accord with the wisdom of the buddhas.
The form of discipline too is empty as space:
The deluded people consider themselves upholding it.
Unwilling to pull out the root of the sickness,
They just fool with the flowery branches.

There is a dance in this quote – reference to meager will, and instantly adding distinction between difficulty and ease is false, and the form of discipline is empty space. Discipline is at once extolled and cautioned. It is an elegant dance of effort, no effort, and disassembly of concepts of both. It is so very easy to notice the appearance of discipline. Whether to self or other, it is easy to hold a rigid idea of what discipline, effort, and relentlessness are supposed to be.

In this passage, Layman P’ang referenced ordinary people. He is not defining fixed categories of people. He is reminding all of us: To look at something ordinary, without the distraction of difficulty and ease, to see it anew – is not “ordinary.”

When I was fairly young in my practice, there was a man I could not help but notice during one sesshin. I had not spoken to him or noticed him before the silence of the week began. From the start of sesshin, even with eyes cast down, the sighs and angst of the man were palpable to me and others, in kinhin, at breaks. I thought he was old, though I suspect he was not much older than I am now. All week he seemed to be in agony. At the gathering meal after closing ceremonies, he was one of a few asked to say a few words. His face relaxed in a way I had not yet seen. He stood and spoke succinctly and sincerely, telling us that this practice is not any easier now than in the time of our ancestors, and that no one had struggled more than he within it. And yet, he said, the ancestors have not deceived us – it is worth it, it is worth it.

Later I mentioned something of this to a couple of people who had been around the center much longer than I. One said the man was a college physics professor, and that the comments I heard at the gathering meal were the clearest my friend had ever heard him speak.

I don’t know what the gravity was that provided the impetus for this man’s practice. I never learned more of his story and never saw him again. But there was something about him that moved me and stuck with me through the years. I learned from him that practice does not have to be neat for one’s self, look neat, or good to anyone else, or fit anyone’s model. It seemed to me that he was practicing the way he could. And it meant something of great importance to him. Though not always free from angst, my practice is not his, and does not need to be. Would he have described himself as an iron man? Yes or no is not important, but he stayed with it. In my own experience, staying with it is not just enough, it is everything.

Yes, we need effort. And, yes, let go and let your heart be empty and open.

This brings us to the second theme:


Film makers highlight the experience of the ordinary – the buzz of an insect, trickle of rain in a street gutter are shown sometimes in the foreground, and sometimes in the background, consciously chosen. Ordinary. All of life reflected in this event of nothing special. You have heard this before. There is no part of what I’m saying that you haven’t experienced before. Swampland Flowers invites us to listen now, breathe now. Do nothing at all, with utter simplicity. As expressed in these Tanka. The first is by Fujiwara no Teika:

Look past the fragile blossoms,
past crimson leaves –
a thatched hut stands
by an inlet,
swallowed in autumn dusk.
(In Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. Tanka by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241), p. 100)


This next one is by Ono no Komachi:

How invisibly
it changes color
in this world,
the flower
of the human heart.
(Same Hirshfield source, poem by Ono no Komachi)


However lovely, we don’t need to look to poetry, or film to find the ordinary that is available with a heart empty and open. The ordinary is no further than me and you, no better and no worse. The ordinary is within the aching knees, and doubt of our own practice. Look no further.


Not all of us can easily write a lovely poem. Each of us can be struck by the thatched hut in fading light. Each of us can take in the shuffling sounds in the room, the sounds of your own breath, and rumbling of your own stomach. What is available to you now, as we sit together?


I fear that saying these simple sentences can still sound distant. I’m not speaking about esoteric Buddhist principles, knocking on the lectern is not skillful means, it’s literal, concrete. In the same chapter, Dahui said, “The world of spontaneity is inconceivable.” Let’s broaden that further: the world is inconceivable. Yes, I still refer to that (pointing) as the altar, and you know what I mean. That’s helpful when we are talking about which candle needs tending. And when the altar is inconceivable, no idea of “altar” and “not-altar” mediates our gaze upon it.


Again in Swampland Flowers, this from a letter in section 23, Dahui said,

I ask you to abandon at once all the joy you’ve felt in reading the scriptures yourself or when aroused and instructed by others. Be totally without knowledge and understanding, as before, like a three-year-old child – though the innate consciousness is there it doesn’t operate. Then contemplate what’s there before the thought of seeking the direct essentials arises: observe and observe.


The phrase, “…like a three-year-old child…” reminds me of times with my daughter when she was a baby. When in restaurants with friends or family, we’d be engaged with each other, talking, laughing, and barely noticing if someone came and refilled a water glass or removed a plate. But Maya would turn to each person who came to the table with the same attention she would when I or a loved one spoke. Maya observed, fully open, independent of role or title. Having read Dahui’s words a while before today, I had the chance to look around for 3-year-old teachers. Walking to work last Friday I saw a little girl release her father’s hand so she could use her new shiny rubber boots to stamp in the unruly wet grass. I saw a little boy with fingers hooked in a wire fence, squealing with glee at the chickens in the Seattle yard. A wonderful teaching it was, squealing with genuine glee at the ordinary.


I’m confident the little girl was not thinking, “Oh I wish I hadn’t jack-knifed my tricycle this morning!” I’m confident the boy was not thinking, “My fingers are getting tired of gripping this fence. When is the time keeper going to ring the bell? Ring the bell!” I can imagine what arose from the boy seeing those head-bobbing, clucking and pecking creatures, was his recognizing their “chickenness.”


We can bring our three-year-old’s eyes and ears to this breath, mu, and who hears, and see them for the first time, the only time. For the boy Friday, it was glee. For him and us, sometimes instead, according to the occasion and as befits a body exposed to the golden wind, it is tears.


One of my favorite koan dialogues is in Blue Cliff Records 27. It addresses observation without words or ideas. Cleary translated it like this:


A monk asked Yun Men, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?” Yun Men said, “Body exposed to the golden wind.” (Thomas Cleary, BCR 27)

It seems so easy for us to hear the words of Dahui and Yun-Men as if they speak in capital letters and bold type. What if instead one of them was sitting next to you as you watched a game on TV and pointed to a player and simply said, “Observe.” What if one spoke it like he was offering a cooking recipe – “after 35 minutes in the oven, put a knife in the cornbread and observe.”


In his review of the difficulty we humans have in just observing, the historian Theodore Zeldin looked at the ideas in science that persisted long after they were refuted by new observation. He wrote, “Nothing has been more difficult than to be curious about an object or a person, without being obstructed by preconceived ideas.” (An Intimate History of Humanity, p. 193.) Zeldin concluded that the proven method to lift the veil of preconceptions was through engagement with curiosity.


No need to tense with effort and thought when receiving this instruction while cooking, it is clear – look at the knife. Does it come out clean? Observing is enough. Tasting is enough. Hearing is enough. You already know how to do all these things without thought. It is enough to be a 3-year-old child as you sit, walk, and work.


We can rely on the form of intensive retreat to provide the vehicle for persistence. Within the form, Zazen, kinhin, working, chanting, we can accept the invitations of open mind and heart by observing. Just bring curiosity, lightly, simply, like a three-year-old child. It can be a relief to come to practice with no expectation of figuring something out, no need to understand, and no intention of doing so. Sure there times when figuring something out is important. But how about now?


The physicist, Richard Feynman had a story of the influence his father, Melville had on him. Walking the Catskill woods together, his father said:


“See that bird?” he says. “It’s a Spencer Warbler.” – [Feynman added parenthetically] – (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) “Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts.”

(Genius, by James Gleick, page 29)


Melville Feynman softly welcomed his son to observe a bird. The people in our lives, telling us about their day, traffic, weather invite us to see them. The sound of guns, bird calls, the tingling in a foot –invitations all. No need for words like Zen and zazen to call or answer the call, to let go and make your heart empty and open. To do so, let go into the form of retreat, and observe, observe.