Refuge of the Crowd

Wisdom of Crowds2


This week Tesshin shared a koan which actually appears in two different collections.  (Book of serenity case #50 and the Blue Cliff Record case #51.)  Tesshin mentioned that we will work on unpacking this case over a three-week period.  


First, here is the case:

When Xuefeng was living in a hermitage, two monks came to pay their respects.

When he saw them coming, Xuefeng thrust open the gate of his hermitage with his hands, jumped out, and said, “What is this?”

[One of] the monks also said, “What is this?”

Xuefeng hung his head and retired into his hermitage.

Later, the monk came to Yantou.

Yantou asked him, “Where have you come from?”

The monk said, “From Reinan.”

Yantou said, “Did you ever visit Xuefeng?”

The monk said, “Yes, we visited him.”

Yantou said, “What did he say?” 

The monk related what had happened.

Yantou said, “What else did he say?”

The monk said, “Not a word; he hung his head and retired into his hermitage.”

Yantou said, “Ah, how I regret now that in those days I did not tell him the last phrase!

If I had told it to him, no one under heaven could do anything against him.”

At the end of the summer practice period the monk came back to this conversation and asked him about its meaning.

Yantou said, “Why didn’t you ask me about it sooner?”

The monk said, “I could not dare to ask you about it.”

Yantou said, “Xuefeng was born on the same stem as I, but he will not die on the same stem.

If you want to know the last phrase, it is just this.”


After reading the case, Tesshin joked that the language and story, as always, are easy to understand.  


This week tesshin wanted to focus on the “crowd” of characters in this case.  In a normal koan, there is normally just the master and a monk.  In this example, we have Xuefeng, Yantau, and the two unnamed monks as well.  Clearly, Tau and Feng have a close relationship, however it is left unclear as to which one is teacher and student.  Tesshin promised the group that we would explore this point in a subsequent week.  At this point, Tesshin noted that the number of people is a particular “feature” of this case and proceeded to explain why.


In Buddhism, it is common to speak of the “Three Refuges,” namely the Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha.  

The Buddha and the Dharma are easy to take refuge in as they are steady and always available to us.  The statue of the buddha will not change with the weather – it is always there and relatively constant.  The Dharma contain our teachings and have been consistent in its message over the millennia.   As an example, the Blue Cliff Record you are reading today is very similar to the one studied by masters a thousand years ago.    However, the Sangha is different.  It is made up of PEOPLE who are NOT consistent, but are always changing in new ways.


This “changeability” is the point of the case according to Tesshin.  All of these people are playing off each other.  It is this dynamic which is key to the insight that they had.  Without the interplay between the characters, there would be no space for spiritual growth.  As much as we try, we cannot eliminate people on our path to liberation even if they have the potential to cause so much suffering and challenge.  In reality other people can be the greatest teachers on our path.  If you think about it, our practice would be useless and sterile without the interaction, interplay, and potentially conflict of other people.  


As an example, Tesshin talked about the Garden of Hope which is a community volunteer garden to raise food for people in need.  Last weekend, over 120 people showed up to help.  It is noteworthy how many different kinds of people were present.  They had different backgrounds, different levels of energy, different levels of gardening skills, and lastly – different preconceived notions of the purpose of the garden itself.  Nobody was the same, but they were all there together to help.  Tesshin noted that it is a great learning experience to manage all of these different people to achieve a singular goal.  Again, this is the same thing with the koan we are studying!  


What we take away from any given contact with another person will always be different.  This is not to be avoided, but serves as our most important “refuge!”  It may be tempting to us on the spiritual path try to avoid this messiness and noisiness, but they do this at their own peril.  We really do need the “wisdom of crowds” to make progress as the dusty books and inanimate statues cannot challenge our understanding like living and breathing people can.  It is a common refrain in Zen that the teachings and traditions are only a “skillful means” to get one started on the path.  Real Zen is in the day-to-day interaction with reality – namely other people.  


Towards the end of the koan, Yantou comes right out and says it…  

“Xuefeng was born on the same stem as I, but he will not die on the same stem “

Although we are all here together, we are really on our own path.  We bring our own karmic baggage with us from our own experiences.  However, this is why it is important to be together so that we can learn from each other.  This is why the Sangha is such an important refuge!  


Tesshin wrapped up by mentioning that everything is progressing well for us to start practicing together and in person at the 4th UU in September.