Monthly Archives: June 2014

Seeing Peach Blossoms

At the June 2014 retreat at Furnace Mountain, we looked at Case 8 from the Kattoshu collection1. Here is how it begins:

Lingyuan Zhiqin of Fuzhou was enlightened upon seeing the blossoms of a peach tree. In a verse he said:

For thirty years I sought a sword master.
How many times haves leaves fallen and new buds appeared?
But ever since seeing the peach blossoms,
From then until now I have never doubted again!

As a preface to my own reflections upon the Case, I offer a few notes on terminology:

  • Thirty years. Probably means “a lifetime of practice”. In Zen literature we often hear the Master prescribe “thirty years more practice” when you don’t get it—a demand more or less to start all over at Square One.
  • Sword master. The translator Thomas Kirchner adds in a note: “’Sword master’ indicates a master of the Way, one who wields the sword of wisdom that cuts the root of delusion.” I see it that way, too.
  • Fallen leaves. This image is associated with some insight into emptiness, or a return to the Principle from which the conditioned world flows, i.e., in the system of the Five Ranks, this would be the “absolute state … the realm of emptiness, where there has never been a single thing”2. Some other references to fallen leaves (both I think addressing the temptation to think of this sort of experience as final):
    • A monk asked Yun Men, ‘How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?’ Yun Men said: ‘Body exposed in the golden wind.’3
    • Kegon Kyujo was a Dharma heir of Tozan. Kyujo was his personal name. One day a monk asked him: ‘What is it like when a person who has experienced the great realization returns to being deluded?’ The Master replied: ‘A broken mirror does not shed its light again. It would be difficult for a fallen blossom to climb back up on the tree.’4
  • New Buds. If we follow the symbolic structure of the imagery above, then “new buds” on the tree indicate the beginnings of a return from the absolute into the world of relative conditional experience.

We practice hard, and our first memorable opening typically is associated with emptiness: the leaves of conditional experience fallen away from the tree. We go on retreats, have some intense experience of this sort, and immediately begin to come down off of that experience. We might know intellectually—because we read it somewhere—that we aren’t supposed to get attached to emptiness. If we are the avid sort of Zen students who peeks at the notes in the back of Cleary’s translation of the Blue Cliff Record then we have learned to express it philosophically: the “highest” of the Five Ranks is mutual integration of the absolute and the relative: “subtly responding to myriad circumstances without falling into various existences.” We know that the emptiness experience isn’t It, that we can’t stay there. Still we hate to leave it, hate it when the new buds appear, dread the onset of yet another season of leaves. At some level we harbor a certain dualism: we long for the sword master who will teach us to cut off the conditioned world once and for all.

So it goes, year after year in a lifetime of practice. We filter each moment through its relationship to what came before and what comes after, and this filtering creates the very cycle from which we long to leap free.

Blossoms are a brief moment between the bud and the leaf, the very epitome of the transitory. But one day Lingyuan actually saw them, without the filter, saw them complete in that moment.

What’s so compelling about a blossom, for a classical Zen author, is that what makes it so short-lived is precisely the completeness of its expression, its utter unfolded-ness. Nothing expends its inner energies so thoroughly, is so blown open, so exposed, and so vulnerable as a blossom. It has arisen so very quickly, and will fade so very soon. But the fullness of its unfolding renders complete the moment that it occupies. It fully covers the ground on which it stands.

You could say that the absolute is fully expressed in this all-out, to-the-tips expression of the relative. Better yet, you could simply see the peach blossoms.

The Japanese Master Bankei Yotaku describes his decisive realization as follows:

Gradually my illness reached a critical point, and for a full seven days I was unable to swallow any food and could get nothing down apart from some thin rice gruel. Because of this, I realized I was on the verge of death. ‘Ah well,’ I said to myself, ‘there’s nothing to be done.’ But really I had no particular regret other than the thought that I was going to die without realizing my long-cherished desire.

Just then, I had a strange sensation I my throat, and when I spit against the wall, I noticed the sputum had congealed into a jet-black lump like a soapberry, rolling down the surface. After that, the inside of my chest felt curiously refreshed, and that’ when it suddenly struck me: ‘Everything is perfectly managed with the Unborn, and because up till today I couldn’t see this, I’ve just been uselessly knocking myself out!’ Finally I saw the mistake I’d been making!

My spirit felt now felt clear and buoyant, my appetite returned … . After that, I gradually got well again and have lived to this day. So I realized my cherished desire after all, and explained things to my other too before she passed away5.

In a memoir of Bankei, his disciple Mozan Soin, apparently dissatisfied with the aesthetic quality of the sputum incident, rewrote it to conform more closely to literary conventions for enlightenment experience:

One morning he went outside to wash his face. The aroma of the plum blossoms reached his nostrils and his feeling of doubt suddenly left him, like a pail whose bottom has dropped out. Immediately he was healed of his ailment6.

How fortunate it is that each moment—regardless of whatever aesthetic value we may assign to it—unfolds with the same energy of a blossom, presenting us with the same opportunity to see it covering its own ground. (Sputum-like moments are, after all, relatively abundant.)

My tendency is to come in on things a bit late, so I offer the following verse in response to Lingyuan:

Peach blossoms fall, removing all doubts:
Not a petal is out of place!
So lifting my pack, homeward I wend—
Gentle, gentle with every step.

  1. Entangling Vines: A Classic Collection of Zen Koans, tr. Thomas Yuho Kirchner. Wisdom Publications, 2013.
  2. The Blue Cliff Record, translated by Thomas and J.C. Cleary, Shambhala Publications, 2005. The quotation is found in the notes, in the section on “Traditional Teaching Devices”.
  3. Case 27, Blue Cliff Record.
  4. From Dogen’s essay Daigo, Great Enlightenment. Translation by Hubert Nearman. See: http://www.thezensite.com/ZenTeachings/Dogen_Teachings/Shobogenzo_Complete.html.
  5. Bankei Zen, translated by Peter Haskel. Grove Press, 1984. See page 13.
  6. Quoted in Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 2, by Heinrich Dumoulin. World Wisdom, Inc., 2005. See page 312.