Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 11: Joshu Sees The Hermits

The Case:

Jõshû went to a hermit's cottage and asked, "Is the master in? Is the master in?" 
The hermit raised his fist.  Jõshû said, "The water is too shallow to anchor here," and he went away.  Coming to another hermit's cottage, he asked again, "Is the master in? Is the master in?"  This hermit, too, raised his fist.  Jõshû said, "Free to give, free to take, free to kill, free to save," and he made a deep bow.

Mumon's Comment:

Both raised their fists; why was the one accepted and the other rejected?  Tell me, what is the difficulty here?  If you can give a turning word to clarify this problem, you will realize that Jõshû's tongue has no bone in it, now helping others up, now knocking them down, with perfect freedom.   

However, I must remind you: the two hermits could also see through Jõshû.  If you say there is anything to choose between the two hermits, you have no eye of realization.  If you say there is no choice between the two, you have no eye of realization.

Mumon's Verse:

The eye like a shooting star,
The spirit like a lighting;
A death-dealing blade,
A life-giving sword.

My Analysis: 

Two hermits, one shared response, and two reactions.  It's a simple, but effective means of getting the reader to ask "why?"  Why do the hermits raise their fists?  Why does Joshu respond dismissively to one, and respectfully to the other?  When you have seemingly identical situations with different outcomes, it presents a problem that the logical brain itches to solve.  "The answer must be unstated in the text," you might think.  "Joshu can see through the hermits and knows that one is enlightened and the other isn't" is a common interpretation of this koan, though that would seem silly and mundane to me.

I've also heard some mention that there is only one hermit that Joshu visits twice.  There is no evidence to support that in the text, though it honestly doesn't matter if you view it that way, and taking that approach might even be helpful.  Assume for a moment that it is the same hermit visited twice, given the dismissive response first, and the respectful response on second visit.  In this case, we can't hide behind a made-up understanding that there is some difference in quality between the two hermits.  You're forced to acknowledge that Joshu gave two different responses to the same greeting for no discernible reason.   

And that, really, is the heart of the matter.  Any context outside of the text is outside the scope of the koan.  All we know is that, presented with the same greeting, Joshu gave different answers.  Luckily, Mumon flat-out gives you the answer to this problem.  Joshu helps others up, and knocks others down, with perfect freedom.  If you find that his differing responses make no sense, you're correct; his freedom is perfect--it is not bound by anything, including the need to make logical sense.  Logic, reaction, words: these are tools to be used, ripe to be manipulated, and Joshu does so without any regard for making sense to those he's speaking to.  If this seems frustrating, then perhaps ask yourself what a logical, reasonable response would be, having greeted a hermit and being responded to silently, with a raised fist.  Ask also what kind of response a raised fist is to a greeting.  If you're accepting that, and questioning the response, I'm afraid you've given yourself no foothold to judge from.  

Mumon goes on to make the point even clearer:  "If you say there is anything to choose between the two hermits, you have no eye of realization.  If you say there is no choice between the two, you have no eye of realization."  These statements appear contradictory, but they aren't.  If you say that there is any reason to choose one over the other, you're not getting it.  If you say that there is no choice, you're still not getting it.  Joshu chooses one and not the other.  Clearly the choice can be made, even when there is no logical reason supporting the choice, again, because Joshu is not bound to logic to make his decisions. 

We see this kind of behavior frequently in Joshu.  While other masters slap, or cut off fingers, or break students' legs, or shout violently, Joshu simply speaks mild-mannered words that shake logical perception to its core.  If you seek to attach meaning to his words instead of viewing them as the expression of perfect freedom, then you yourself are a slave to logic, rather than allowing it to be the tool you manipulate.


  1. I also think it's about transcending praise and blame.... in the case of the hermits.

  2. It's said koans are like paintings... there is always more to see & discover....