By John Lee Pendall
One day, a monk asked Yunmen, “What is the Buddha’s body?”
Yunmen said, “A piece of dried shit.”
Yunmen was a giant in Chinese Zen (Chan).
He was such a huge figure that his students decided to create a whole Zen school around his teachings and methods.
The Record of Yunmen is one of the more interesting classic texts. Yunmen had a very forward, aggressive style, much like Linji and Huangbo, yet he was also famous for his “one word barriers” and turning phrases.
It’s hard to say whether the in your face attitude these teachers had was an “afflicted” part of their personalities that they never dealt with, or a sign of how much they cared about the Dharma and their students. It’s also impossible to say whether their apparent anger was “real” to them, or just a passing moment on the surface of their minds.
One thing’s for sure—they would’ve triggered a lot of people if they were around these days. Triggering people was Zen teacher 101. Dozens of the old koans are basically people trolling each other.
What do you make of Yunmen’s reply, and what is the monk even asking?
“What is the Buddha’s body” is a weird question. I’ve never once had anyone ask me that on Facebook. Was the monk asking about Siddhartha’s physical body or something else? If it was his physical body, the obvious answer is, “Dust,” since the Buddha had already been dead for a thousand years or so. Or we could get flowery with it and say, “The earth, wind and water,” since that’s what his body really was and what it returned to. Or we can get all mysterious with it and say, “Mind,” or, “Just This.”
Maybe the monk wasn’t talking about Siddhartha, he could’ve been talking about our True Nature. In that case, “What is the Buddha’s body?’ is akin to asking, “Who am I?’ or, “What’s our True Nature?”
No matter what the monk had in mind, Yunmen’s reply was, “A piece of dried shit.” Why would he say that? At first glance, it’s for the shock value. Yunmen was challenging the sanctity of Buddhahood and basically tossing the monastic version of Right Speech out the window. In Zen, insight doesn’t usually happen on the cushion, it happens in day-to-day life when something overturns our stream of thought.
Our minds usually get pushed off their perches several times a day, but if attention and mindfulness aren’t ripe, then we don’t typically notice the interruption. There’s a momentary gap whenever attention shifts from one thing to another. We can fall into that gap if we’re ready to.
On the surface, Yunmen was trying to bring the monk to that click-out experience so that he could see Buddha for himself. The Record doesn’t say whether he did or not, but it was noteworthy enough for someone to remember it and write it down.
Yunmen’s vulgar remark roots the practice in everyday life. He was just being a normal person, speaking normally. The Record of Yunmen has many examples of him basically saying, “I’m just a dude, what do you want from me?”
Ordinariness is as close as the old Zen schools came to finding something sacred in life.
If we want something more, then we’re gonna keep spinning in circles and causing problems for people. There’s no man behind the curtain, just more curtain.
On a deeper level, Yunmen is challenging our dualistic notions of reality. Most of us have this tendency to think that certain things are good (Buddha) and others aren’t (Mara). A clear blue sky is good, a tornado is not; a long life is good, dying young is not; being free of suffering is good, suffering is not. Zen practice usurps all these notions and folds them all under Suchness.
Nothing to gain, nowhere to go, no one to be. “No, no, no, no, I don’t smoke it no more,” across the board. All this suffering is like a bad trip from the LSD we forgot we took. Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” Yunmen is following up by closing the circle: “Nothing holy, nothing unholy.”
A piece of dried excrement has the same nature as a newborn, a mountain, you, me, and Buddha. Without pushing away what we don’t like, or pulling toward us what we do, “What is this?”
Our True Nature isn’t something hidden or guarded by people in colorful robes; it’s out in the open and free for everyone to see. Every second of our lives points to it, depends on it, and rises from and returns back to it. It’s not a mystery we can solve by chanting, bowing, or sitting for nine years in a cave. Those thing don’t lead to insight, they arise from it. This might sound like some kinda counter-cultural view, but it’s actually mainstream Zen.
So, there we have it, 800 words about a dead guy and a dried turd. Not a bad way to spend a weekday morning. Take care of yourselves and get some rest.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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