Tuesday, February 10, 2009


In the koan collection Mumonkan (The Gateless Gate), Case 37 is titled Oak Tree in the Garden. It goes like this.

A monk asked Zen Master Joshu, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China?”

Joshu answered, “The oak tree in the garden.”

Oak-tree-in-the-garden reminds me a little of a British movie that came out several years ago. It was called Blowup, and it was about a photographer who takes pictures in a park, then realizes he has filmed a murder. Later his film disappears, as well as his prints. Other strange happenings make him wonder if what he saw really occurred. At the end of the movie the fellow joins a mime troupe in an imaginary ball game that questions reality.

Most people don’t “get it.” But the story is eminently clear.

This is a magnificent koan because it makes perfect sense. I know, I know, for most people it makes no sense whatsoever. For most people it’s cryptic, obscure, and enigmatic.

Depending on the translator of the Chinese or the Japanese text, Joshu’s tree is sometimes an oak, sometimes a cypress, sometimes a peach. It’s in the garden, or it’s in the courtyard, or it’s in the field.

The words of what and where are not important. Many people take the language literally, and they think there is something symbolic about oak or cypress, or garden or field.

The words themselves don’t matter.

Oak tree in the garden.

Who was Bodhidharma?

He was an Indian Buddhist who presumably introduced Zen to China in A.D. 520. D.T. Suzuki states that Bodhidharma was the forefather of Zen because Zen’s history began with Bodhidharma coming from India to China.

Bodhidharma was a monk who became unhappy with the way Buddhism had developed in India. He felt it had strayed far from the simple pronouncements of the Buddha and was slipping back into pantheism. So one day he set off for China.

Bodhidharma wasn’t interested in joining any of the several schools of Buddhism that flourished in China at that time. Instead, he hoped to find, or teach, the fundamentals of Buddhism that had been established long before.

He believed in the direct method of Zen, which involved seeing undeviatingly into enlightenment and not pussyfooting around with the levels of edification and the rituals that were then popular.

The Buddha had broken from the complex practices of Hinduism. His idea was based on what became known as the Four Noble Truths.

Remember those?

1. Human existence involves suffering and dissatisfaction.

2. Suffering and dissatisfaction are the human condition because humans are possessive, greedy, and self-centered.

3. Possessiveness, greed, and egotism can be understood and overcome.

4. The overcoming is brought about by following a pattern of behavior that will create a change in viewpoint.

So, what was, and is, the point of Buddhism?

The point of Buddhism is seeing into one’s true nature.

Getting back to Bodhidharma’s motives, we can only speculate but there’s a good chance that the message of seeing into one’s true nature comprised a major part of his undertaking.

I guess we could call Bodhidharma a missionary. He wasn’t what is commonly thought of as a religious proselytizer who was out to convert others to his way of thinking, but he certainly was a person with a dedicated undertaking.

Robert Aitken, in his interpretation of Case 37, notes that Bodhidharma’s message must be differentiated from his essence of mind, and this is where things fall into place.

When the Chinese master Lin-chi was asked about Bodhidharma’s meaning he stated that if Bodhidharma had had any meaning he could not have saved himself.

What is often presented as Case 37 is usually an abbreviated version of the koan. In its full form, after Joshu said, “The oak tree in the garden,” the monk responded by saying, “Please don’t teach me with reference to outside things.”

Joshu responded, “I don’t teach you with reference to outside things.”

“So, tell me then,” the monk said. “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?”

Joshu answered, “The oak tree in the garden.”

The monk must have felt like gnawing a slab of oak wood. He must have felt there was nowhere to turn, nothing to hold onto.

A later Japanese master, named Kanzan, who founded the temple called Myoshinji, added a thoughtful statement to Case 37 when he said, “The koan of the oak tree has the function of a bandit. It steals everything from you.”

So, when there is nothing left, what remains?

Joshu suggests that it is only where there is void that everything is now.

To say again, it is only where there is void that everything is now.

Radical Zen, The sayings of Joshu is a book that, unfortunately, is out of print. It imagines a further conversation in which the monk asks Joshu if the oak tree has Buddha nature.

Joshu answers, “Yes, it has.”

The monk asks, “When does the oak tree attain Buddhahood?”

Joshu says, “Wait until the great universe collapses.”

The monk persists, “When does the universe collapse?”

Joshu says, “When the oak tree attains Buddhahood.”

Do you get it?


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