Green Koans Case 10: Jōshū's Oak Tree

Clark Strand

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

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

Oak Tree Miyazaki

Tree Temple (still from Hayao Miyazaki’s
1988 animated film My Neighbor Totoro)

Jōshū (Ch. Zhàozhōu) lived from 778 to 897 C.E. and is often said to be the greatest Ch’an master of the Tang Dynasty. Over 10% of the cases in the classic koan collections Blue Cliff Record and Gateless Gate concern him, the most famous being:

A monk asked Jōshū, “Does a dog have buddha nature?”
Jōshū answered, “Mu” (literally, “nothingness”).

Jōshū studied with Nansen as a young monk and later traveled throughout China, visiting famous Ch’an masters in order to polish his understanding. At age 80 he settled down at Kuan-yin Temple in northern China, where he taught a small group of monks until his death 40 years later. The oak tree of the story would have been located at this temple—or, following a more ancient custom, the temple might have been located at the tree.

Bodhidharma was the Indian monk traditionally said to have brought the Dhyāna (or “Meditation”) School of Buddhism to China in the 6th century C.E. Among Buddhists of the Tang period, the question “Why did Bodhidharma come to China?” was the same as asking, “Why meditate?” or “What is the meaning of Ch’an?”

Why did Bodhidharma come to China? Nowadays such questions are for dilettantes in robes. Better to say what you mean: What am I gonna get out of this? Why sit with a straight back for months or years on end?

Jōshū’s answer cuts to the chase: Did you think there was more to life than trees? Did you think there needed to be more? Who told you there needed to be more—and why did you believe them?

Give him an oak tree
And he’ll give you an oak tree.
Give a dog, a dog—
Jōshū made a good living
Giving people back the world.


reen Koans Case 1: Shakyamuni Touches the Earth
Green Koans Case 2: Shantideva's Sword

Green Koans Case 3: The Great Compassionate One's True Eye
Green Koans Case 4: One-Page Dharma
Green Koans Case 5: The Person of the Way
Green Koans Case 6: The Green Yogi
Green Koans Case 7: Rain of the Law
Green Koans Case 8: Bashō's Last Words
Green Koans Case 9: General Stone Tiger
Green Koans Case 10: Joshu's Oak Tree

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
prisca10's picture

prisca10's picture

We usually imagine ourselves separate from trees. But if we stop and allow it, as Clark points out during a Green Meditation Society Meeting, a tree will teach us something.

"Go look at it ... Go, stand next to it. Sit under it like Shakyamuni, until its stillness makes you still, and until, in your stillness, you realize the life that courses through you both, courses through all [living] things ..."

"We don't see ourselves as trees ..." continues Clark.  "We think there's something more important ... that we should be more important than a tree ... that's the reason why we suffer."

Join our meeting by watching the following video: 

prisca10's picture


"Why did Bodhidharma come to China?"

 Once we forget who and what we are, we need to fabricate stories.


"Jōshū’s answer cuts to the chase: Did you think there was more to life than trees?"

Life responds to life.  How could it be any other way?


Did you think there needed to be more?

 Once we lose sight of the tree, nothing is enough anymore. 


Who told you there needed to be more--and why did you believe them?

When we listen to one another, we no longer hear the trees. 


"Give him an oak tree.  And he'll give you an oak tree ..."

When an oak is an oak, our sight has become clear.