Gilding The Lily  

Dear Bobby,

At the "leaping tiger" retreat in Lawrence several weeks ago, I had two interviews with you. I was the one who practices with Katagiri Roshi (sort of tall, thin, old, no hair).

During the interviews you gave me two koans that brought me to "don't know." Now, I have written something about them. Perhaps when you have the time, you can send me a bit more Dharma teaching.

In gassho,


Reflections on Two Koans

Q: If the whole universe is on fire, by what samadhi can we avoid being burned?

A: By a samadhi of "oneness with the fire." To realize a deep samadhi of the universal fire of pain, suffering and death is to become one with it; to consume as we are consumed, to assimilate as we are assimilated.

Concretely: we have to enter fully and go straight ahead, as if putting our hand through the flame of a candle.

Q: A monk is bound hand and foot hanging by his teeth over a precipice, when he sees someone passing below who needs a word of the Dharma. It is his duty to give the word; if he does not, he fails his vows and dies. But if he opens his mouth to speak, he falls and dies. What should he do?

A: Like this monk, we are all bound hand and foot by greed and desire, beginningless greed, anger, and self-delusion." And we fear that if we were to speak a word of the Dharma, act on the truth by giving voice to it, we will surely fall into the emptiness of karmic death. Yet the true (Dharma) cause of death is birth; our concern is only how we function in between. Is life not a fall from a precipice?

Concretely: Soon enough, this shirt I wear will be a dust rag, this car I drive will be junk. A shirt is to be worn, a car is to be driven, and a monk is to give the Dharma.

December 30, 1981

Dear Leo,

Thanks for your beautiful card. It was good to hear from you. I enjoyed meeting and talking with you while I was in Kansas. How are you?

Your reflections on the two kong-ans are very wonderful, but a kong-an is never completely answered unless there is absolutely no trace left of the person answering it. So I must tell you that one more step is necessary. Soen Sa Nim often describes Zen as being like a glass of water. It quenches your thirst, probably better than any other liquid, but it has no taste. It does not shout out to you, "Hey! I'm pink! I have sparkling bubbles!" Or, "Taste me! I'm thick, rich, and chocolatey!" Water is only water.

As in all other religions and philosophies, there is the possibility in Zen practice of "gilding the lily," of adding something of your own to an already perfect glass of water. We do this because our minds are complicated -- full of many ideas about what is right, what is wrong, what is pure, what is simple, etc. So, Leo, what I am saying to you is that although your answers are very good, they are not complete.

Sometimes when a student answers a kong-an incorrectly -- very incorrectly -- the teacher says, "Your answer is like trying to hit the moon with a stick," or "You're scratching your left foot when your right foot itches." But your answers were not that far away from the truth. It is like there is a piece of slightly rose-colored cellophane between you and the truth.

So I ask you again: You're hanging from a branch by your teeth. Your hands are tied behind your back; you can't reach the tree in any way. Someone beneath the tree asks you, "Why did Bodhidharma come to China?" If you answer, you fall to your death; if you don't answer, you will be killed. How do you stay alive?

Also ... The whole universe is on fire. Through what kind of Samadhi can you escape being burned?

I hope you only go straight -- don't know, soon finish the great work of life and death, and save all people from suffering.



P.S. I hope you will send me another letter soon with the correct answers.

January 30, 1982

Dear Bobby:

Deeply appreciate your response to my efforts on the kong-ans, and the invitation to try to go further, beyond that "rose-colored, gilding" ego mind blurring the path.

Now, for a month, I have been holding that branch firmly between my teeth and hearing the question from below, "Why did Bodhidharma come to China?" The bark is rough on the mouth; the taste is sour. Perhaps I can spit hard enough to cool the fire of the universe.

From between my clenched teeth, the sound of a hard spit or a loud, from-the-belly "Mu" answers the questioner from within the concrete situation, like a finger pointing toward the Dharma: "here is one hanging between life and death!" And the questioner may realize the truth of their own peril, that he or she may be next, that he or she is also at that moment hanging between life and death. Stopping to help the monk or going on, either way the danger remains, and awareness of this immediate reality brought on by my outcry cuts through the question.

(Maybe I am gilding here again; if I were facing you in interview, I should simply clench my teeth and directly bring out the noise.)


If the whole universe is on fire, the samadhi through which I escape being burned is the samadhi of coolness; coolness of detachment and emptiness. Detachment from the fiery universe of greed and desire by entry into the emptiness beneath it, where "all five skandhas are empty." Don't we struggle toward this every time we sit?


Well, going straight to don't know ... don't know if these answers are correct. Thank you for the struggle.

Yours in gassho,


February 11, 1982

Dear Leo,

You can't spit hard enough to cool the fire of the universe. It is still on fire. Your "Mu" sounds like a whimper by the time it reaches the questioner's ears. How much longer can your clenched mind bear the rough bark and sour taste?

Someone is totally depending on you to show them the Way. What is this Way? Leo, each moment is candidly revealing itself to you. Please try to pay attention!

You wrote to me about the samadhi of coolness -- coolness of detachment and emptiness. You must be very careful. If you have detachment, you have attachment. If you have emptiness, you have fullness. If you sit on your cushion and have even a second's thought about struggling towards the emptiness beneath the fiery universe of greed and desire, you are already lost. You are lost in the dead realm of opposites. How can you keep your mind present and alive?

Once, when Soen Sa Nim was explaining to someone how to sit, he said something that I found extremely helpful. He said imagine that you have lost your only set of car keys and you have to get somewhere very desperately. Just at that time your mind is totally focused on trying to find those car keys. You don't stop and think about the nature of car keys, or about where they originally came from; nor do you stop and read books about what other people have done when they have lost something that they need very badly. You also don't try to feel detached or empty about the keys. You only look for them! Where are my keys? Where are my keys!

So again I must tell you that I can't accept your answers. You are very lucky that you have such a dilemma. Where is your mistake? What can you do? Drop the particular situations in both kong-ans and try to keep a mind that just doesn't know.

Thank you for your struggle.



                        Prev Next         close