In three successive cases in the Blue Cliff Record (Cases #57,58 and 59) a monk asks Joshu about the meaning of the Third Patriarch's famous saying: "The supreme Way is not difficult, it just rejects discrimination." Each monk is different and each presents his question in a different way, and so Joshu's response is different in each case, each time subtly illuminating a different facet of our understanding of non-discrimination.
In case 57, we find:
A monk asked Joshu, "If, 'the supreme way has no difficulty, it just rejects discrimination', what then is non-discrimination?"
Joshu said, "In the heavens and the earth, only I alone am noble."
The monk said, "That's still discrimination."
Joshu said, "Oaf! Where is the discrimination?"
The monk said nothing.
The introduction to this case says, " Before you have penetrated, it seems like a silver mountain, an iron wall. Once you have penetrated, it turn out your own self is the iron wall, the silver mountain." This is a marvelous way to put it. When we struggle in our practice, our goal seems a million mile away, the barrier of our thoughts and self-centered reactions impenetrable, as obdurate as iron and it is as hard to gain a foothold as if we were trying to climb the slope of a mountain whose surface is completely slick and slippery, like ice or silver. Yet, all along there is no barrier. There is just our self, just our experience, just this moment. How can we fail to just be our self, just be this moment? Joshu's reply, " In the heavens and earth, only I alone am noble, " echoes the words the Buddha was said to utter at birth. Tenkei comments on this line: "This is your own treasure, you know! Every individual, each one, is alone noble, no other." Our own experience is completely sufficient; your own experience is all there is.
But the monk in this case isn't satisfied. He protests "This is still discrimination." Hakuin comments that's "because he takes the "I" of "only I" to mean the personal self, the self as opposed to others." Joshu retorts, "Oaf! Where is the discrimination?"
The monk fails to get it - probably he was ready to challenge whatever Joshu said as discrimination - thinking "Gotcha!" - demonstrating his half-baked Zen understanding that as soon as you speak a single word you are already making discriminations. He completely misses the seamlessness of "I alone."
What of Joshu's retort? Isn't calling somebody an oaf the ultimate discrimination? In this case, not at all. Joshu's "Oaf" is like Rinzai's shout or slap - it fills the whole universe. It is no more "discriminating" that Joshu's own "Mu" - the "No" that completely transcends "yes" and no." Wholly occupying the moment, there is no place for discrimination to slip in.
In the next case, #58, a monk asks,
""The supreme way is without difficulty, it just rejects discrimination" - isn't this a clichÅ½ for people these days?"
Joshu said, " Once someone asked me, and I simply couldn't give an explanation for five years."
This monk points to a real danger - we can mouth the words, we can act out a pantomime of Zen - but we can fail to make it real, can fail to make it our own. Someone else's answer can never be your answer. Someone else's life can never be your life. How to re-animate old words? We might think we need to come up with a dramatic new way of saying the same thing, but Joshu takes exactly the opposite tack. "I simply couldn't give an explanation."
In the verse that accompanies this case, we read, "Flavorless talk blocks people's mouths." This is a way of praising Joshu's response - his "flavorless" answer that offers nothing to grasp onto. It's like a soup so bland you can't tell whether its sweet or salty. We can't begin to discriminate among its flavors. We might compare Joshu's to Bodhidharma's "I don't know." "I simply couldn't give an explanation." - the true manifestation of non-discrimination is right there. Aitken Roshi tells a modern version of this encounter: A Christian monk asked a Japanese Roshi, "What does the line "form is emptiness, emptiness form" mean? " The Roshi replied, "That's just a line from an old sutra, I don't know what it means." Once again, not an explanation, but a manifestation.
Finally, in case 59, another monk asks Joshu, " The supreme Way has no difficulty, it just rejects discrimination." As soon as there are words spoken, this is discrimination. How do you help people, teacher?"
Joshu said, "Why not quote this saying fully?"
The monk said, "I only remember to this point."
Joshu said, "It is just this: 'The supreme Way has no difficulty, it just rejects discrimination."
Again, the dilemma: does non-discrimination demand silence, banishing all thought, all conceptualization, and all speech? How then can you teach? Should we all be reduced to Kwatz!? Or silence?
When Joshu says, "Why don't you quote it fully - it sounds like he's asking for a missing extra line - but I like to think he means, "Why don't you quote it wholeheartedly?" Don't you know there's nothing missing? Don't you know that there's no problem? Words are just words, so use them as words are meant to be used. The introduction to this case calls this "pointing out the subtle mind of nirvana on the hundred weeds." Weeds mean delusive thoughts, but having realized the emptiness of words and thoughts we are free to use them, letting words be words, thoughts be thoughts. How do you teach? - using words, of course. The supreme way truly has no difficulty; each thing perfectly occupies its own place, its own function.
Taken together, these three cases offer a wonderful portrait of the subtlety of Joshu's Zen. Not being trapped into a single response, he replies to each questioner according to circumstances, holding up "non-discrimination" first this way, then that. He is neither trapped by words, nor confined to silence. Instead of "non-discrimination" cutting out his tongue, he speaks freely without moving his lips.
How should we bring these old stories into our own daily practice? I think the main thing is to watch how we get trapped by any picture we carry around about how Zen should look. For these monks, "non-discrimination" implied, in one way or another, an attempt to banish some parts of their minds. "Rejecting discrimination" becomes a catch phrase for trying to reject how they naturally think. We're not here to perform some kind of Zen lobotomy on ourselves, excising "discriminating" from our brains. Actually, non-discrimination means just the opposite. Rejecting discrimination means we reject the usual way we discriminate against some aspect of our selves and our lives. We discriminate against our emotions, our sexuality, our anger, our thought, and our self-image. To "reject discrimination" means to let it all back it - not to cut it out - not to differentiate your mind and your life into the good parts and bad parts, into how it's supposed to go vs. the problems that intrude. There's just your mind as it is, right now, in this moment. There is just your life, how it is, right now. Thinking and all the rest of it are part of the package. In our practice, we merely acknowledge this whole thing that we already are anyway, like it or not. It's really not so difficult.