Tung-shan’s Crossed Swords – a talk by Leland Shields, March 7, 2021

Posted by on Mar 17, 2021 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Tung-shan’s Crossed Swords – a talk by Leland Shields, March 7, 2021

Within Tung-shan’s Five Ranks is this verse titled, “Proceeding Within Phenomena”:

Like two crossed swords, neither permitting retreat;
dexterously wielded, like the lotus in the midst of fire –
a natural imperative to assail heaven itself.

Robert Aitken, The Morning Star, p. 139.

Tung-shan Liang-chieh (also translated as Dongshan Liangjie) was a Tang dynasty teacher recognized as the founder of the Ts’ao-tung, Soto, line of Zen. He left us two series of 5 verses each. The first set of verses expresses modes of the fundamental world we share. Robert Aitken translated the title of this first series as “The Phenomenon and the Universal.” Today I’d like to offer the 4th mode of the Phenomenon and the Universal for our consideration together. Ross Bolleter translates the fourth mode in this way:

Approaching from the Contingent

No need to dodge when blades are crossed.
The skillful one is like a lotus in the midst of fire.
Seemingly, you yourself possess the aspiration to soar to the heavens.

Ross Bolleter, Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment (pp. 3-4). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

We all know the common expressions, “He who hesitates is lost.” And “ Look before you leap.” Each has a truth,  and a moment of application. Koans too can address a truth, a moment. Our task is to receive them now as our own, as if Tung-shan was on this Zoom call reciting his verse to each of us one-on-one. Aitken and Bolleter each take the images of two crossed swords, lotus in fire, and goal of something heavenly. Aitken’s translation is unabashedly vigorous, invoking the assailing of heaven without use of a personal pronoun. Bolleter references aspirations of heaven, speaking to us personally – “You yourself possess the aspiration…”

Assail can mean “attack,” related to, “assault.” I take Aitken Roshi as using another meaning; “confront or encounter energetically.” Growing up with the Hebrew Bible, the idea of assailing heaven for me invokes images of Moses telling God he had the wrong guy, Jonah running for it rather than taking the bad job of delivering a message, and Job again and again asking, “Why?” Each of these are stories of people who struggle hard for a time, against what is. In our Zen tradition we look for ways to recognize such encounters, banal and notable, in our own lives.

To put mode four in context, I will read you Tung-shan’s previous verse, Mode three, is this:

Emerging Within the Universal

Within nothingness the road is free of dust.
If you can simply avoid mentioning the emperor’s name,
you will surpass the eloquence of the Sui dynasty poet.

Robert Aitken, The Morning Star, pp. 138-9.

This third mode addresses spotless clarity, the experience of quiet, free from ideas of self and other. In the fourth mode we are holding today, Tung-shan invites us to the world of joy and loss, craving and satisfaction. Both Aitken and Bolleter also return us to assailing, or aspiring to heaven. Our practice does not end in silence. And so we share Zenkai together today. Tung-shan encourages us to encounter our day energetically. Bolleter’s version does not require that we be forceful in our energy, but to recognize the aspirations we seemingly have already.

There are also times in which a fierce response may be fitting, while still not being “forceful.” On occasions of my own great distress, bringing dedicated, persistent, and deep intentionality to practice has been a gift of great value. Though not required, I sometimes find I blunder through forcefulness to get to simple dedication.

There is one sword; there is another sword. There is a still point of sword meeting sword. As there is Covid-19, vaccine, a new variant. As there is nothing which can be identified, and no one to do the identification. I’m encouraged by this verse, relieved to see that conflict, difference, and misunderstanding are not necessarily errors, but integral to soaring to the heavens, in whichever direction that may be found. There have been times I wanted to make t-shirts that said, “Don’t Fool with my Equanimity,” as if my equanimity would be safe as long as you behave as I believe you should.

In the first line, “Like two crossed swords, neither permitting retreat,” it is as if the clash of steel is phenomenon and universal calling out. The subtitle Tung-shan gives each individual mode, sets the context. For the fourth mode, by “proceeding within phenomena,” in meeting the universal, we muddle along with the smell of morning coffee, and the dishes left in the sink through yesterday’s fatigue. The sigh in reaching for the sponge is the aspiration.

In sitting, a restless mind encourages our eyes to glance here and there. Sitting with a straight back and gently fixed gaze, encourages the mind to focus softly on carpet, blanket over knees, the 2 or 3 things in view. There is no retreat of thoughts, and no retreat of gently fixed eyes. Hold. Hold. Hold. Until the falling away of 2 or 3.

To understand the image of the lotus in the midst of fire, I looked to the Lotus Sutra, and found a passage from the Burton Watson translation that helped.

Vimalakirti…asked Manjushri, “What may act as the seeds of the Thus Come One?”

Manjushri said, “The body is the seed, ignorance and partiality are the seeds, greed, anger, and stupidity are the seeds…all the different kinds of earthly desires are all the seeds of the Buddha.”

[Vimalakirti asked,] “What do you mean by that?”

Manjushri replied, “… The lotus does not grow on the upland plain; the lotus grows in the mud and mire of a damp low-lying place…It is only when living beings are in the midst of the mire of earthly desires that they turn to the Buddha Law.

Chapter 8 (external link)

But if we’re talking about the lotus on the mud, I have to say that words like “Phenomena” and “Universal” sound pretty “upland” to me. Don’t worry too much about these words. Holding steady to truly see the particulars before you now, the cushion that supports you, and the floor before you, experience for yourself what is meant here by “Universal.”

I am still enamored of what I first loved about Zen; the encouragement to release my grand notions and expectations, to allow the freedom inherent when looking for no more or less than what simply is. At all times, in all ways, we are reminded to look to the ground on which we stand to find the Buddha Way; we need no other vehicle than this skin bag, with all its foibles and flaws. Just as importantly, we can find the Buddha Way in that annoying person we may see as ignorant, angry, and stupid.

This is not to say that allowing freedom was ever, or is now, easy. Free and constrained, too, are swords crossed, at a still point, encouraging us to turn to the Buddha Way. I suppose if you’re Buddha, everything you do is the Buddha Way. For the historical Buddha, living a protected life was the Buddha Way, as was seeing the old, the sick, the dead. When baldly recognizing grief, fear, anger, picking up the begging bowl was the Buddha Way.

Each of us recognized something today, such that we sit Zenkai together. Each of us sits with Buddha, as Buddha, under the Bodhi tree . We hold views, knowing when to stand and walk, to follow the chant leader, and to bow. Taking our seats and straightening spines, views are not needed; for a time nothing is expected, nothing measured, this breath breathes without need for instruction. Eyes gazing softly downward, mind casting here and there restlessly, is one sword. Breath, who hears, is another sword meeting thoughts in a still point of attention. Hold…Hold…Hold.

Swords are crossed when we sit with unbending resolve to breathe this breath, no matter the thoughts and feelings that arise. Resolve can show up as eyes softly gazing without waver, no matter the flailing of the mind, like focus on the still meeting of steel on steel.

There is no denying the restlessness of mind. There is no denying the persistence of breath.

The fourth mode is dynamic, alive with the coursing of impatient traffic and stinging tears. Crossed swords can demonstrate striving and the avoidance of harm and loss when we believe there is everything to lose. I can try to overcome you, influence you by advocating my position in politics, the workplace, or in family. Alternatively, we can meet and cross swords with nothing left to lose. Equally alive, in the moment I give up bending you to love me as I am, or to demanding you act as I insist you must for the finest of reasons. Eye to eye, all this is left is to say, “yes.” Here I am. Here you are. Now what can we do? Can we go forward together?

Here is the lotus in the midst of fire; in the heat of desire, do you see heaven?

This need not be a martial image. Lovers, family, and friends, can meet in a point of love and pain, no longer demanding themselves or the other to be otherwise, in recognition of love, and of the pain of differences. Sometimes who we wish we were, who they are, falls away. Heaven is assailed – each offering what is – I can, and I can’t, I am, and I’m not. No favor to be won, just unembellished attention to this circumstance, together or apart, without protection from the end we fear will ensue. Here.

In the still point, it is too abstract to say body and mind fall away. In the still point there is no room for an idea about body, mind, or falling away. We clash with and are confronted by something we can’t deny. As in this exchange from The Blue Cliff Record, case 46:

Another time Ch’ing asked, “What is that sound outside the gate?”

A monk said, “The sound of a snake eating a frog.”

Ch’ing said, “I knew that sentient beings suffer: here is another suffering sentient being.”

Translated by Thomas Cleary, p. 276.

Ch’ing is not being redundant in his final response. He’s speaking from the still point, recognizing he had, past tense, a concept of suffering. Confronted with the screech of the still-living frog as it’s eaten, hearing, taking it, the suffering is mine.

Zen master Ryokan was a pilgrim and hermit, wandering Japan in the 18th century and into the 19th. One contemporary of Zen master Ryokan said of him, “He did not talk about literature or ethics. He was indescribably relaxed. He taught others by his presence.” In few words, his poetry conveys the immediacy of life, while expressing the timeless. This is one such poem:

Playing with children
a shrine forest.
Let this spring day
not turn to dusk!

Translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Sky Above, Great Wind; The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan, p. 17.

The phenomena are identifiable – children, forest, day, dusk. If verbal identification were enough, we wouldn’t need a poem, the list would say it all. Ryokan’s poetry is conveyed by visual presentation as well – this one was written in seven slender lines of calligraphy on the folds of a fan. Framed by whitespace, the middle line is in the center of the fan (ibid, page 18). The poem takes us beyond the words, allowing a glanced recognition of the universal, if we don’t take it’s measure. 

Returning to the two translations of the third line of the verse of the fourth mode:

…a natural imperative to assail heaven itself.
(Robert Aitken)

Seemingly, you yourself possess the aspiration to soar to the heavens.
(Ross Bolleter)

When bringing dedication to encounter heaven, leave no space between this mind, sore back, and this breath. The encounter is not the barrier to the Way. The Buddha Way is the encounter, and true in each encounter.

If the encounter is a barrier, the myth of Buddha meeting Mara while sitting under the Bodhi tree is something to be dispatched. If the Way is the encounter, then the meeting of Buddha and Mara is the lotus in the midst of fire, a seed without which there is no morning star. And the meeting is the morning star.

With dedication, students assail heaven in almost every koan. In case 15 of the Gateless Barrier, Tung-shan Shou-ch’u, a different Tung-shan than of today’s talk (not Tung-shan Liang-chieh), assails heaven.

Tung-shan came to see Yun-men. Yun-men asked him, “Where were you most recently.”

Tung-shan said, “At Ch’a-tu.”

Yun-men said, “Where were you during the summer?”

Tung-shan said, “At Pao-tzu Monastery in Hu-nan.”

Yun-me said, “When did you leave there?”

Tung-shan said, “August 25th.”

Yun-men said, “I spare you sixty blows.”

Next day, Tung-shan came again and said, “Yesterday you said you spared me sixty blows. I don’t know where I was at fault.”

Yun-men said, “You rice bag! Do you go about in such a way, now west of the river, now south of the lake?”

With this, Tung-shan had great satori.

Robert Aitken, Gateless Barrier, page 102-3.

Throughout this exchange, Aitken Roshi translated with the phrase, “Yun-men said,” rather than “Yun-men replied.” I’m not sure that Aitken Roshi intended the distinction as meaningful, but there seemed a difference to me. Yung-men again and again directly encountering heaven.

For Tung-shan with Yun-men, after the surprise admonishment and threat, he demonstrated his commitment to the Buddha Way by returning to assail heaven once more. All was lost in the previous exchange. He returned as rice bag anyway, with nothing protected. I suspect we each have such an opportunity most days that shows ups with our own thoughts, such as, “I should have said…”, or “What could she have meant?” It is never too late to encounter that which is.

Returning to all three lines of the verse of Proceeding Within Phenomena, I want to come back to the power of the whole. Taking Ross Bolleter’s version this time::

No need to dodge when blades are crossed.
The skillful one is like a lotus in the midst of fire.
Seemingly, you yourself possess the aspiration to soar to the heavens.

There is no need to dodge, and no way to dodge. No need to retreat, and no direction that is retreat. The confluence is the place at which heaven is found.