CASE #26: Ryūtan Blows Out a Light
Tokusan kept asking Ryūtan about Zen far into the night. Ryūtan finally said, “It’s late. Why don’t you just go to bed?” Tokusan made his bows and lifted the blinds to withdraw, but he was met by darkness. Turning back to Ryūtan, he said, “It’s pitch black outside.” Ryūtan lit a lantern and handed it to Tokusan. But just as Tokusan reached for it, Ryūtan blew out the light. At that Tokusan came to sudden realization and made a deep bow.
Ryūtan asked, “What have you realized?” Tokusan replied, “From now on, I will not doubt the words of the old master who is renowned everywhere under the sun.”
Tokusan Chin., Deshan Xuanjian (780-865). A well-known Ch’an master and the subject of many classical koans, Tokusan was a contemporary of Jōshū. As a young monk, he became a scholar of the Buddhist scriptures, specializing in the Diamond Sutra, about which he wrote a commentary. He considered the Ch’an teachings a form of heresy at first and became determined to stamp them out. Once he encountered the proprietress of a tea shop, an old woman well versed in the teachings of Ch’an. He asked for a “snack,” inspiring a bit of wordplay from the old woman, due to the fact that the Chinese word also meant “to light up the mind.” She asked what he was carrying in the wicker basket on his back, and Tokusan said it was the Diamond Sutra. The woman quoted a portion from the sutra which says, “Past mind is unattainable, present mind is unattainable, future mind is unattainable,” and asked Tokusan, “Which mind do you intend to light up?” Tokusan could not answer.
Note that this koan appears as the first half of Case 28 in the Gateless Gate. In the second half of that case, Ryūtan appears the following day in the main hall of Ryūtan’s monastery. There he burns his Diamond Sutra commentary and all his notes before the assembled monks.
Far into the night There is a long-standing, largely secret tradition in Buddhism of offering esoteric teachings in the middle of the night. Perhaps Tokusan was forcing the issue, trying to get such teachings from Ryūtan.
Pitch black The whole point of Ryūtan’s teaching was to awaken Tokusan to the night. When Tokusan tells him that it’s dark outside, Ryūtan makes a show of giving him a light, only to extinguish it, leaving him in darkness once again.
Sudden realization The meaning of this phrase is made clear by Tokusan’s praise of Ryūtan: “From now on, I will not doubt the words of the old master who is renowned everywhere under the sun.” What Ryūtan is renowned for ‘under the sun,’ however, cannot be understood by daylight consciousness. “Biology, not ideology” is the basic teaching of Ch’an.
Tokusan is pushy, asking so many question of Ryūtan. Just go to bed, says the old master, sending him off stumbling through the night. The light was just a pretext for making the darkness visible. The night is what Ryūtan wanted to show him all along.
Which one is better:
Stubbing your toe in the dark,
Or having a light
You believe is the answer,
When it was the problem all along?