How do you realize the realm where no wisdom can reach? – A Talk by Leland Shields (June 9, 2024)

Posted by on Jun 9, 2024 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on How do you realize the realm where no wisdom can reach? – A Talk by Leland Shields (June 9, 2024)

Upon meeting Shitou, Daowu asked, “By what method do you reveal liberating wisdom to people?”

Shitou said, “There are no slaves here. From what do you seek liberation?”

Daowu said, “How can it be understood?”

Shitou said, “So you’re still trying to grasp emptiness?”

Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings, by Andrew Ferguson.

(Please sit comfortably)

Tianhuang Daowu is you, and is me in this story, as we meet the inseparable condition of being already liberated, and not yet realizing the fact. At this moment we are completely free, and even now we can release all binds. I say these conditions are inseparable, though we regularly perceive them as in opposition to each other. There is no opposition when arms and legs respond to the abiding appeal of freedom that leads us to sit, and when sitting, we do not grasp.

When slack, we grasp for something – the bell to ring, to know the answer to that question, and to grasp for not grasping. When not grasping there is no bell until it rings, the answer is unknown, and there is no effort.

All the stories, such as this one of Daowu and Shitou, reveal how we blunder along the path of seeking and seeing. Bouncing off one wall and another, we trip, and land just here.

In the Record of Linji, we have the master taking his seat to give teisho and setting the stage for what he has to say:

Today, I, this mountain monk, having no choice in the matter, have perforce yielded to customary etiquette and taken this seat. If I were to demonstrate the Great Matter in strict keeping with the teaching of the ancestral school, I simply couldn’t open my mouth and there wouldn’t be any place for you to find footing. But since I’ve been so earnestly entreated today by the councilor, why should I conceal the essential doctrine of our school?

Kirchner, Thomas Yuho; Sasaki, Ruth Fuller. The Record of Linji (Nanzan Library of Asian Religion and Culture) . University of Hawaii Press. Kindle Edition.

Linji’s first presentation is in telling us he has no say in the matter of speaking and not speaking. As rain has no say in whether to fall or not. As you and I are already here and that fact could not be otherwise.

He goes on to tell us there is nothing to say about the Great Matter, and no place to find footing in hearing of it. Yet he took the seat rather than to conceal what is essential. Hearing that in strict teaching he couldn’t open his mouth, the essential doctrine is revealed now in ancient China, and now, here.

Linji invited those present to address him, leading to this exchange:

A monk asked, “Master, of what house is the tune you sing? To whose style of Chan do you succeed?” The master said, “When I was staying with Huangbo I questioned him three times and was hit three times.” The monk hesitated. The master gave a shout and then struck him, saying, “You can’t drive a stake into the empty sky.”


Let me read that exchange again; how is it that the monk was driving a stake in the empty sky?

(Read passage a second time)

More importantly, how are you trying to drive a stake in the empty sky? How do you try and grasp emptiness? These ancestors are speaking in the context of Zen training centers. Shitou and Linji are not driving those present into the streets or to become householders – the direction they are pointing (shouting) is consistent with sitting on a high seat and teaching, sitting in the assembly and listening, and yet radically different than what we commonly would call teaching.

We are invited to hear these shouts and encouragements, though there is no one to listen.


I spoke earlier of Tianhuang Daowu and Shirtou; here is a story of another master, Daowu Zongzhi:

The master [Daowu] left Yaoshan and went to see Nanquan. Nanquan asked, “What is your name?” The master answered, “Zongzhi.” Nanquan asked again, “How do you realize the realm where no wisdom  can reach?” Zongzhi said, “It is absolutely forbidden to speak of it.” Then Nanquan said, “You have spoken of it just now. Animal horns will grow on your head.”


As a reminder to take the essential from these stories without entangling with the literal, another source recounts the same story with Zongzhi having this conversation with Yaoshan rather than with Nanquan as quoted here. That difference changes nothing of what is being communicated here.

“How do you realize the realm where no wisdom can reach?” Our ancestors found their ways to ask students about that which is beyond words. More than beyond words, it is also beyond conceptualization, and beyond one who conceptualizes. This is a question from one person to another, and a reminder to each of us breathing this breath.

I’ve already used way too many words and concepts in the last paragraph, as if we’re talking about something complicated and distant. In saying it is forbidden to speak of it, Zongzhi offered his response without an explanation. Nanquan replies even that is more than necessary. But do you think Nanquan would have been satisfied with less?

The text continues in this way:

Three days later Zongzhi was sewing with Yunyan [his real brother and fellow monk] near the washroom. Nanquan came out and, seeing them together, he asked, “My dear Zhi, the other day we talked, didn’t we, about how we shouldn’t speak of the realm where no wisdom can reach, and about how animal horns will grow on our heads if we do. But must we practice it?” Zongzhi left and ran into the Monks’ Hall; Nanquan returned to his quarters.


Nanquan brings us back to the question we started with – we can’t talk about it, but must we practice it? This time Zongzhi responds without a word; he ran to the practice hall. Maybe he ran, it would have been fine if he walked, or if he turned toward his sewing as well. As the story continues, we learn that Nanquan was satisfied with Zongzhi’s response, while Zongzhi’s brother Yunyan was baffled.

A little while later Zongzhi came back and resumed his work. Yunyan asked him, “Dear brother, why didn’t you answer Heshang’s question a while ago?” Zongzhi said, “You are very clever.”


Yunyan did not quite understand the meaning of his brother’s remark. He went to Nanquan and said:

I do not understand why my brother Zongzhi gave no answer to your question a while ago. Will you kindly explain it to me?” To this Nanquan said, “He can live within the realm of the beasts.” Yunyan again said, “Please tell me what you mean by “He can live within the realm of the beasts.” Nanquan then said, “Did I not say, a little while back, that we should not speak of the realm where no wisdom can reach, and that if we do animals horns will grow on our heads? To understand this you should only live within the realm of the beasts.” Still Yunyan could not follow him.


Yunyan is you, and is me in this story in the moment when missing the responses of our brothers and sisters, and of the neighbors around us now, and airplanes. We miss it when we listen in order to hear.

Lili put up a bird feeder a couple of weeks ago. Knowing the persistence of squirrels she researched and learned that squirrels don’t like red pepper but birds don’t notice, so she mixed red pepper with the seed and watched to see what happened. A squirrel was the first to arrive. They (I don’t know the gender identity of the squirrel) nibbled at the ground under the feeder eating the seeds that fell during the filling. So much for red pepper. It then circled the feeder pole close by, and climbing on things around it to gauge whether the food was in jumping distance. Their physics was not strong enough to estimate jumping distance so they climbed on chairs and walls obviously too far away. Then the squirrel came back to the pole, and circled farther out. They tried to climb the pole and then circled again.

The squirrel is you, and is me. We circle the appealing seeds this way and that, often with little skill and with a lot of persistence. It went off out of sight and returned over the course of minutes and hours. I got bored and left for hours at a time, glancing back at it once in a while.

The squirrel blundered along the path of seeking and eating. Bouncing from one surface or another, until tripping on the way to land just here with the seed. I may be mistaken, but as the squirrel was seeking, my image of it is as just seeking, without an idea of self or squirrel who is climbing, jumping, and desiring. The squirrel had no choice in the matter.

Our minds are subtle, and the chairs and walls we climb can so quickly become conceptual. And so we read old texts and interact with each other, blundering our way to what is right here.

I’ll finish with one last story

[Zen master] Daoxin then traveled into the mountains. There he found …[Farong] sitting upright in meditation, completely self-absorbed, paying no attention to Daoxin whatsoever.

Daoxin asked him, “What are you doing?”

Farong responded, “Perceiving mind.”

Daoxin said, “Who is it who is perceiving mind? And what is ‘mind’?”

Farong had no answer. Standing up, he bowed.

Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings, by Andrew Ferguson.