Joshu’s Oak Tree

oak treeI wanted share something with a seasonal theme, given that spring is almost here. I realize that the spring equinox passed several weeks ago; a day on which the season undoubtedly arrived somewhere, perhaps in Maryland or New Jersey. However those of us who have endured the last few weeks punctuated with spells of cool, damp, weather, giving us frequent downpours of frigid rain and flooding the rivers, know that here in Maine spring has not arrived; we are mired in “mud season.” So, I thought that it would be a good time to look at a koan with a pleasant taste of nature to lift our spirits.

From the Mumonkan, Case 37:
A monk asked Joshu in all earnestness. “What is the meaning of the patriarch’s coming from the west?”

Joshu said, “The oak tree there in the garden.”

And from the Book of Serenity, Case 47:
A monk asked Zhaozhou, “What is the living meaning of Chan Buddhism?”

Zhaozhou said, “The cypress tree in the yard.”

I have to admit to being biased towards Mumon’s version with the oak tree, because I love oak trees. Just outside of Vaughn Woods in Hallowell, where I live, there is a magnificent, full, open grown oak standing in the meadow. Often, on summer evenings, I’ve stood and gazed at that tree silhouetted against the evening sky. That is the tree I see when I read this koan.

So, the monk asks a seemingly profound question, “What is the meaning of the patriarch’s coming from the west.” Generally, that question is understood to ask, what is the living meaning of Chan Buddhism, or what’s the Great Matter of Zen? Zhaozhou responds, “The oak tree in the garden.” Can’t you just see the cartoon in the New Yorker? The pilgrim struggles up the precipice reaching the old master sitting in meditation atop a boulder, his long beard reaching past his navel. “Master, please tell me what the meaning of Zen is.” The teacher motions him closer. The seeker, anticipating the fulfillment of his arduous quest, leans in, waiting to hear the words that will liberate him from his suffering. The old man whispers the resoundingly anticlimactic punch line, “The oak tree there in the garden.”

Actually, this question can also be a dangerous one. Consider the following:

Longya asked Cuiwei “What is the meaning of the founding teacher’s coming from the west?”

Cuiwei said “Pass me the meditation brace.”

Longya took the brace and gave it to Cuiwei: Cuiwei took it and hit him.

Longya said “Hit me if you will but there is no meaning to the founder’s coming from the west.”

Longya also asked Linji “What is the meaning of the founding teacher’s coming from the west?”

Linji said “Pass me the cushion.”

Longya took the cushion and gave it to Linji: Linji took it and hit him.

Longya said “Hit me if you will but there is no meaning to the founder’s coming from the west.”

There is no meaning to the founder’s coming from the west. Wack, the blow from the brace and the cushion. Does this have anything to do with the oak tree there in the garden. Zhao Zhou, Longya, Cuiwei, Linji, what are they pointing to? They are telling us that we must go where words and meanings cannot take us, where our intellect must inevitably fail. Letting go of all of our ideas and conceptions we move towards deep connection, intimacy.

Let’s look at that oak tree standing there. Strong limbs extending in all directions. Branches that are home to the squirrels who will feast on the acorns in the fall. Knurled roots wind along the surface of the ground, while the powerful taproot sinks deep into the earth, reaching cool moisture deep in the ground. Thick, leathery leaves move gently in the evening breeze. That’s it, nothing more. The sun shines and the leaves make chlorophyll, the rain falls and the roots take up moisture. In spring, the new green leaves appear. In autumn, they change color and fall off in November’s wind and rain. In winter, it stands dormant and silent. There is no why, no meaning. Just This.

But what is This? Where does this tree begin and end? The roots are the entire earth. The tree is the sky whose rain falls in the summer thunderstorm. It is the thousands of generations of beings whose bodies have nourished the soil. It is the air from which it takes up carbon dioxide, and into which oxygen is released. It is me standing there in the summer twilight. There are no boundaries. No hard separations. Molecules mingle. The tree is without a beginning or an end. Dinosaurs walking the earth, Shakyamuni lifting his eyes towards the morning star, great cities sending clouds of smog into the sky. All are there, all are boundless.

There is a wonderful story about this koan. Shido Bunan Zenji was travelling along the Tokaido road from Kyoto to Edo. He was being followed by a robber who put up at the same inn as Shido, planning to rob him during the night. The thief opened the door and peeked in. To his astonishment, what he saw there in the room was a garden with an oak tree in it. Suddenly, he heard a voice exclaim, “Who’s there?” The tree transformed into Shido sitting in meditation. The thief was so stunned that he apologized and asked to learn about this amazing technique that allowed him to change into an oak tree. The teacher taught him to do zazen and gave him a koan. In time, the man changed and lived an honest life.

Shido and the oak tree; no separation. When we face this koan, we must all do as Shido did. We must sprout leaves in spring, spread our deep shade in summer, relinquish our leaves in November, rest silent in winter and stand steadfast through the March storms. Then we will not only know this tree, we will truly realize that it, and we, are none other than the whole universe.

Master Tozan Shusho’s verse:
Words do not express the fact,
Speech does not match the student;
Attached to words one loses the reality.
Stagnating in phrases one is deluded.

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