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Boat Monk

To: alt.philosophy.zen,alt.zen
From: Michael Dediu 
Subject: Re: Boat Monk
Date: Thu, 22 May 1997 12:39:54 -0700

> I've always viewed the idea of sudden impact inspired enlightenment as
> being a method of showing the student how far he/she has come. A bit
> like when you climb a mountain without looking behind you; its all
> seemingly unrewarding effort until finally you turn around, see how far
> you've come, and look at the magnificent view.
> Do others see it this way?
> Gassho
> Dirk

Long ago, in China, the great Zen Master Yak Sahn had two chief
disciples -- Un Am and Dok Song.  Both of them received transmission
from him and became Zen Masters themselves.  Un Am was a
powerfully-built, tireless man, with a voice like agreat bronze bell and
a laugh that made the ground shake.  He soon became very famous as a
teacher;  many hundereds of disciples came to study with him.  Dok Song,
on the other hand, was a small, thin man, whose nature was so reserved
that people rarely took notice of him.  Only now and then he would say
or do something that echoed in their minds for days afterwards.

When Master Yak Sahn died, Dok Song went to Un Am and said,
-- You are a great Zen Master.  You have many students, many temples.  I
approve of this.  But my way is different.  It leads to mountains,
rivers, and clouds.  After I have gone, please find one good student and
send him to me, so that I can pay my debt to our Master.

With these words, Dok Song left for the province of Hwa Jong.  There, he
put aside his monk's clothing, let his hair grow, and bought a small
boat, in which he would row people from one bank of the river to the
other.  So Dok Song lived the life of a simple ferryman, in perfect
obscurity and freedom.

Many years passed.  In the nearby province of Hon Am, there lived a
young man named Son Hae.  He had become a monk at the age of nine and
had studied the sutras diligently since then, learning from all the
foremost scholars in the area and mastering many volumes of Mahayana
texts.  Eventually, he acquired a reputation as one of the greatest
Dharma teachers in the country, and people from all over came to hear
his lectures and stay at his temple.

One day, after a particular fine lecture, someone asked him:
-- Master, please explain to me -- what is the Dharma eye?
-- The Dharma body does not exist.

-- And what is the Dharma eye?
-- The Dharma eye is without flaw.

Suddenly, from the back of the lecture hall, there was a burst of
laughter.  Son Hae paused for a few moments in the shocked silence that
followed, then descended from the podium and walked down the aisle to
the back of the hall.  He stopped in front of the old monk who had
laughed, bowed once, and said,
-- Forgive me, Venerable Sir, but where is my mistake?
The monk smiled, in deep appreciation of Son Hae's humility.
-- Your teaching is not incorrect but you haven't even glimpsed the
ultimate Dharma.  What you need is the instruction of a keen-eyed
-- Won't you be kind enough to teach me?
-- Why don't you go to Hwa Jong province?  There's a certain boatman
there who will show you the way.
-- A boatman?  What kind of boatman can he be?
-- He may look like an ordinary boatman, but go speak to him.  You'll
So Son Hae dismissed his many students, put aside his monk's clothing
and travelled to Hwa Jong.

After several days, Son Hae found the boatman.  He turned out to be a
skinny old man, shabbily dressed, who indeed looked like any other
boatman and merely nodded as Son Hae stepped into the ferry.  He rowed a
few strokes, then let the boat drift and said,
-- Venerable Sir, what temple are you staying at?
Son Hae took this innocent question as a Dharma challenge:
-- What is like it doesn't stay; what stays isn't like it.
-- Then what can it be, said Dok Song
-- Not what is before your eyes
-- Where did you learn this?
-- The eye can't see; the ear can't hear.
-- HO! the Master shouted
Son Hae could find nothing to say.  A few moments passed.  The Master
-- Even the truest statement is a stake in the ground, which a donkey
can the tethereed to for the thousand aeons.
Son Hae was by now thoroughly at a loss.  Again the Master spoke:
-- I have let down a thousand feet of fishing line;  the fish is just
beyond the hook.  Why don't you say something?
Son Hae opened his mouth, but no words came out.  Then the Master swung
round his oar and hit him full on, with such force that he was hurled
into the river.  He came up, sputtering and gasping, he grabbed the side
of the boat.  As he was pulling himself up, the Master shouted:
-- Tell me! Tell me!
Again he had nothing to say, so the Master knocked him back into the

When he surfaced, he trod water and nodded three times.  The Master
beamed with pleasure, and, extending his oar, pulled him back into the
boat.  For a few minutes they sat looking at each other.  Then the
Master said,
-- You can play with the silken line at the end of the rod, but as long
as you don't disturb the clear water, you will be doing well.
-- What are you trying to accomplish by letting down the fishing line?
-- A hungry fish swallows bait and hook together.  If you think in terms
of existence or non-existence, you will be caught and cooked for dinner.
Soen Hae laughed and said, 
-- I don't understand a word you're saying.  I can see your tongue
flapping, but where is the sound?
-- I have been fishing in this river for many years, and only today have
I caught a golden fish.
Son Hae clapped his hands over his ears.
-- That's right.  Just like this -- how wonderful!  the Master said. 
Now you are a free man.  Wherever you go, you must leave no traces.  In
all the years that I spent studying with Master Yak Sahn, I learned
nothing but that.  Now you understand, and I have paid my debt.

All day and all night the two men drifted on the river, talking and not
talking.  When dawn came, they rowed to shore, and Son Hae stepped our
of the boat.  The Master said:
-- Goodbye, you needn't think of me again.  Everything else is

Son Hae walked away.  After a while, he turned around for one last look.
The Master waved at him from the middle of the river, then rocked back
and forth until the boat capsized.  Son Hae watched for the Master's
head surface, but it never did.  He could only see the overturned boat
slowly floating downstream and out of sight.

-- The Boat Monk, From "Dropping Ashes on the Buddha", Seung Sahn

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