Yanguan’s Fan

Yanguan’s Fan


This week Tesshin reviewed case 91 from the Blue Cliff Record called “Yanguan and the Rhinoceros Fan”


The Case:

One day, Yanguan called to his attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”

The attendant said, “It is broken.”

Yanguan said, “If the fan is already broken, bring me the rhinoceros himself.”

The attendant gave no answer.

Touzi said, “I wouldn’t mind bringing that, but the horn on its head would not be complete.”

   (Xuedou said, “I need to see that incomplete horn.”)

Shishuang said, “If I brought it back to you, nothing would remain [for me].”

   (Xuedou said, “That rhinoceros is still there.”)

Zifu drew a circle and wrote the ideograph “ox” in it. [The Chinese character for “ox” is one of the two characters for “rhinoceros.”]

   (Xuedou said, “Why didn’t you bring it out sooner?)

Baofu said, “Master, you are so advanced in years. Please engage someone else.”

   (Xuedou said, “Regrettable! All efforts have proved fruitless!”)


Tesshin next provided some background on the people cited in the case.

Yanguan (750-842, 9th generation, Hongzhou) was a disciple of Mazu (709-788, 8th gen.). He trained with Mazu for 30 years, and, after Mazu died, wandered around for thirty more years. He was over seventy when he finally settled down to teach, until he died at ninety-two. 

Touzi (819-914, 11th gen.), Shishuang (807-88, 11th gen.), Zifu (870?-940?, 13th gen.), and Baofu (868-928, 13th gen.) were later masters whose response to the case has now become a part of the case. 

Xuedou (980-1052, 16th gen.) is the original compiler of the Blue Cliff Record, and here inserts his editorial comment. This is the only case in which Yanguan appears. 


Tesshin next broke down the case piece by piece in order to ensure that everyone understood the context.  He reminded us, however, that a koan is never about the individuals in the case or the story – these only serve to illustrate the real issue at hand.  The koan is always about YOU!


Yanguan is the head of the monastery.  The ox is an elegant animal and is a persistent symbol in Zen.  The same could be said of a rhino.  This particular master had an elegant hand-crafted fan created from rhino horn which must have been very beautiful and expensive.  So, the master asks for this fan and the attendant states that it is broken.  As normal, this dialog is a Zen test.  Ok, if the fan is broken, bring me the entire rhino!  What are we talking about here?  


Tesshin recalled a time at his temple in Japan when his teacher – Ban Roshi – presided over a service in a very elaborate outfit.  Tesshin was shocked – normally, monks wear plain robes.  This is not the Zen world he knew or signed up for!  How do fancy clothes support the message of Zen?  The master is calling forth this elaborate object.  It seems almost hypocritical.  Why have expensive outfits when others are starving?    Tesshin recalled the story of Bhagwan Rajneesh who was an Indian spiritual leader who became mired in financial and sexual scandal.  At one point, he visited Tesshin’s temple and was very put off by the austerity of Japanese Zen.  He would say that “Life is about living life – and not sitting around staring at walls!”  Did he have a point?  


So, we begin to see the tension arising in this koan.  Is life about the forms like bowing and robes or is life about living life to its fullest?  Can a student be so focused on the forms, liturgy, koans that they actually miss the point of the Dharma?  Zen is an experiential tradition, and has asked this question many times over.  However, things are never so simple.  The forms, when they are practiced properly, are a pipeline into the teaching.  It is wrong to cast aside all the forms.  If you want to have fun all the time – you also miss the point as nothing has any value.  One has earned nothing and understands nothing.  


At this point, Tesshin remarked that this should sound familiar.  We again are trying to split the world into dualisms.  Is this form good or bad?  Is the answer this or that?  How many times must we be told that both answers are right AND wrong.  This is our practice.  This is what the koan is trying to explain.  What the master is REALLY saying to the attendant is, “Bring me forth the Dharma!”  The attendant is no slouch and states that the fan is broken – I cannot bring you “suchness” any more than you can tell me what suchness is!  The attendant is almost chiding the master for trying to put words to that thing which cannot be described with words.  “See you have done it now – you have broken ‘IT’.  The master says that if the fan is broken, then bring the entire rhino.  What he is saying is that if you cannot bring me the answer, then bring me your entire heart-mind.    The attendant has no answer.  Is this because the attendant is not enlightened – or is he enlightened and knew not to say anything?


Tesshin reminded us that there is nothing outside of ourselves.  We are the rhino in all our brokenness.  We just are – perfect in the way only we can be.  Get to the source of who and what you are and display that.  This is what the master is asking for!  Yanguan is saying that I don’t need perfection – I need you – as you are already perfect – not some idealized thing.  Who we are right now is the perfect Dharma.


The koan then has Shishuang saying that if he gives the Dharma to Yanguan, nothing would remain for him.  Is that true?  Of course not!  You can never give away what you are already.  


Zifu then draws an Enso (Zen circle) and puts the word for Rhino inside of it.  The enso represents all of reality everywhere and everywhen.  Everything is in the enso –  rhinos, fans, you, me, the Dharma, everything.  There is nothing outside of Zen!  So why would Zifu take the superfluous step of putting the symbol of the rhino in the enso – what is he trying to prove?


Tesshin wrapped up by talking asking the group to consider that is conceivable and inconceivable.  For instance, could kids today imagine what life would be without the Internet?  He also recounted a time at his temple when some traveling students suggest he try to do a triathlon.  He had never done that before, so it was inconceivable that he could drop everything and just do it.  He did not even have a bicycle!!  However, is that not just the ego talking?  Tesshin borrowed a bike bought some cheap sneakers and gave it a try.  Of course, he did not do well, but that was not the point.  He had fun and realized that what is possible is very different than what the ego says is possible.


A verse to cap this koan:

Bring me the rhinoceros.

No matter how big.

No matter how small.

Bring it all.

Not a sinew or smatter of horn in the hall.