What Passes?

What is on your Mind


This week we continued our study of “Records of the Transmission of the Lamp”  




Roshi started his talk this week by revisiting the case of Daoxin.  To reiterate, the main question being asked in this case is “what is holding you back from realization?”  As we know, Daoxin was already pretty close to his moment of realization, and this question really crystalized everything for him.  What holds you back?  Everyone could provide an answer?  Perhaps you think it is your family life, or your job, or your current financial situation.  However, these things are so minor when you really think of it.  


Roshi likened this situation to a balloon.  There is a huge volume hot gas contained in the very thin skin of the balloon.  The hot gas is our potential for realization and the impossibly thin skin are these things in our mind holding it all back.  Which is really more powerful?  The “skin” of delusion is so thin as compared to the “volume” of realization contained within it.  We are all so very close.  As with a balloon, only a small pin prick is enough to shatter the skin of delusion.  This pin prick is the purpose of our koan study.  Daoxin was primed and ready.  The volume of his enlightenment was hot and vast.  He is asked what truly is holding him back?  This was the pin prick which released him.  So Roshi asked, what is holding us back?


For this week, we moved on to case 33 which is the confirmation of the enlightenment of Hongren.  The case, again is very brief and is paraphrased below …


Zen Master Daoxin met Hongren on the road to Huangmei.

Daoxin asks, “What is your name?”

Hongren responds that he has an essence but it is not an ordinary name.

Daoxin asks, “What is that name?”

Hongren responds it is Buddha nature

Daoxin asks, “Have you no name?”

Hongren answers, “Because Buddha nature is empty, I have none.”

At this point, Daoxin realizes Hongren’s realization and hands him this bowl and robe.  (Recognizes Hongren and transmits the Dharma to him as his successor)


Roshi next provided a bit of background on this case.  It is said that in his previous life Hongren was a farmer.  He went to visit Daoxin and asked for instruction.  Unfortunately, Daoxin thought he was too old to begin instruction and sent him away.  He said, “What good are you for the Dharma?  Even if you achieve some understanding, you will not live long enough to spread it.”  The story continues that this farmer went down to a river where a maiden was washing clothes.  He makes the rather strange request of “borrowing her womb” so he could be reborn.  Amazingly, she agrees to this and the farmer is reborn as Hongren.  Needless to say, the maiden’s parents were not happy about their daughter suddenly becoming pregnant through mysterious means.  She eventually tries to abandon the baby Hongren by the river.  However, Hongren was not just any infant – he had an important future!!  As such, spirits in the form of two birds and two dogs materialized to protect the infant.  These two birds wrapped Hongren in their wings and the dogs guarded him against any danger.  The mother saw this incredible sight and realized that she had to care and raise this child as he was going to be someone very special.  Our koan picks up where this seven-year-old child is walking along the road and meets Daoxin.  The master recognizes the realization of this seven-year-old and transmits the Dharma to him.


Roshi noted that this story is really exploring Keizan’s understanding of reincarnation.  In the story the forester was an old man, but he then became a fetus again.  Obviously, the old man and the fetus are two different people.  So, what passed from one to the other?  It is clear that no physical characteristic passed from one to the other.  This includes any memories or intelligence.  So how was Hongren able to pick up from where he left off in his previous life?  What Keizan is saying is that this essence which passed has no name.  It has no physical manifestation.  It is Buddha nature.  The commentary to this case notes, “It is said that you can die and die and are born again and again.  Even though face after face and body after body is different, never for a moment are you lacking in completely clear knowing.”  This is what Hongren understood.


Roshi wrapped up by asking the group to consider what this Buddhahood is which passes from life to life.  It is at the core of all of Zen.  It is what all the koans we study point at.  This Buddhahood cannot be separated into you and other.  It cannot be separated into right and wrong.  The act of splitting up things cause us to cling to individual things.  This is the root of our suffering.  So, what is this thing?  This is what we practice to discover.