Thursday, May 31, 2007

Viewing Nanquan's White Ox Through the Three Jewels

I have a view of life that sees the Three Jewels (Triratna) of Buddhism, i.e., Buddha (Awakening), Dharma (the Way of Awakening), and Sangha (companions in the Way of Awakening), as the three sides to the One Mind Jewel that make the prism of consciousness function in both blending the white light and distinguishing the "10,000" colors of the rainbow.

In this view, the Three Jewels are inherent in the structure and functioning of our One Mind such that every appearance of this fundamental trinity is a reflection of the Three Jewels. Buddha-Dharma-Sangha are thus seen from other angles as God-Holy Spirit-Son, Energy-Light Speed-Mass (E=mc2), etc.

If we look at our experience and each apparent event-item of our experience, we can understand them at each of the three levels of the Three Jewels. That is, we can take the Buddha view, the Dharma view, or the Sangha view to understand every event-item of our perception and consciousness. Simply stated, the Buddha view is complete unification without discrimination, sometimes called absolute "purity" or "emptiness." This view is the understanding that is not a dualistic understanding so it is sometimes called non-understanding, not-knowing, or prajna, i.e., non-dual wisdom.

The Dharma view is the view of things (dharmas) from the point of view of the Buddha Dharma teachings and awareness. It is understanding that uses words and concepts to untie the dependence on words and concepts. As Zen is often claimed to be against the Buddha's Sutras, I emphasize the Dharma view in analyzing Zen koans in order to show that the so-called enigmatic or illogical sayings of the Zen masters are entirely consistent with the Mahayana Sutras and to show the great subtly of appreciation the Zen masters have for the sutras.

The Sangha view is both the commonplace view of ordinary people and the sublimely ordinary view, depending on the level of one's awareness of the Buddha and Dharma reaching the Sangha level. Each of the Three Jewels may be viewed through the lens of each of the other Three Jewels which, when cross-referenced graphically, makes a window with nine panes for primary kinds of understanding. Thus viewing the Three Jewels from the Sangha view is to see Buddha as Gotama Sakyamuni the person, to see Dharma as Sakyamuni's teaching in the Sutras, and to see Sangha as the followers or believers in Sakyamuni Buddha and his teachings. To see the Three Jewels from the Buddha view is to see Buddha as the One Mind (i.e., non-dual Mind), the Dharma as the Radiance of the One Mind, and Sangha as the Manifestation of the Radiance of the One Mind. From this point of view (i.e., the Buddha view of Sangha) all things intone the Dharma because all things are the manifestation of the radiance of the Dharma.

But this essay is not about the Three Jewels,per se; it is about looking at koans through the prism of the Three Jewels.

Koans are themes of reflection considered in meditation. People, especially the uninitiated and uninformed, often say that the Zen koans are enigmatic riddles that defy logic and because they don't really mean any thing are meant to drive the logical mind to distraction. Well, that isn't exactly true. While the logical mind may be driven to distraction, that does not mean the koans are meaningless, are riddles, or are merely puzzles.

(Note on my use of the word Zen. I use Zen as a general English term for the meditation practice and the stream of Buddhism that focuses on the meditation practices derived from the Ekayana (One Vehicle) school of Buddhism originating in India and brought to China by Bodhidharma. When referring to the tradition of Zen within a particular culture, time, and place, I will use terms like "Japanese Zen" or "Chinese Chan" to indicate the narrowing of the focus.)

The koan is a direct presentation of the Three Jewels in action in the lives of the people who are presented in the koans. The koans are not intended to be riddles; they are expressions of direct realization of the One Vehicle of the One Mind as occurred in a particular interaction or teaching of one of the Zen masters. Sometimes they are examples taken from a Buddhist Sutra or a folk tale that is seen by the Zen teacher as a particularly good example to consider as a theme of reflection to see through to direct realization.

I was having an Internet discussion with a companion on the Way and presented my view on this Three Jewels analysis of koans, and he asked:

Nansen instructed the assembly and said, "All the Buddhas of the three worlds do not know that there is. Only the cats and oxen know that there is."
(Book of Serenity 69)

What questions and what levels do you see in that case? How do you apply the Three Jewels here?

As I looked at the koan in Thomas Cleary's translation of the Book of Serenity (vrey similar to the one above), something disturbed me about it. When I considered how it presented the Dharma, it seemed very obscure and illfitting. Why "cats and oxen," or as Cleary translates it, "cats and cows"? So I decided to look at the Chinese and attempt my own translation of the case.

From the Record of Composure (從容録 Cong2rong2 Lu4, Ts'ung-jung lu; J. Shoyoroku; E. a.k.a. Book of Serenity, Book of Equanimity)

Item 69. Nanquan's White Ox

舉。南泉示眾云。三世諸佛不知有(只為知有) 狸奴白牯卻知有 (只為不知有)。
Raised: Nanquan taught the assembly saying, "All Buddhas of the three worlds do not know existence. [1] The fox, the servant, and the white ox, however, do know existence. [2]"

[The critical retorts by Wansong that are inserted in the main text in parentheses are put here for easier reading of the text:]
[1] (Simply acting, they know existence)
[2] (Simply acting, they do not know existence.)

When I did this translation the Dharma understanding fell into place, because it became obvious that Cleary had left out of his translation several very crucial points for comprehending the depth of Nanquan's koan.

First, it is not the word "cats" that is used by Nanquan; the character is 狸, which means, "fox", "raccoon dog", "badger" or "wildcat." Thus the impression of domestic cats is wrong and misleading; it is the wild fox or badger or wildcat that is meant, i.e., something untamed and dangerous. Second, there are three types of beings who "do know existence, " but Cleary only mentions two and leaves out the middle person of the three: "the servant." It is by seeing the three types of beings that we become aware that Nanquan is talking about the three types of knowing (Jnana). Third, Cleary has merely the plural "cows" which leaves out the essential adjective 白 for "white" which plays an important Dharma role in both the title and the koan; it is a white ox, not any other kind or color of ox. The whiteness too, clarifies that Nanquan is talking about the three Jnanas.

Additionally it may be noted for the understanding of the reader, the character 知, here translated as "know", could just as validly be translated as "understand", "recognize", or "be aware of." And the character 有, translated here as "existence", is the same character as the "have" of the koan Zhaozhou's Dog ("Does a dog also have Buddha Nature or not?"), and may also be translated as "being," "having," or "possessing." It is a term of art in Buddhist metaphysics that is used in conjunction with the character無 (C. wu; J. mu, E. no, not, without, etc.) to indicate the polarity of being and non-being, form and emptiness. So valid alternative sentences could be:

"All Buddhas of the three worlds do not understand being."
"All Buddhas of the three worlds are not aware of possession."
"All Buddhas of the three worlds do not recognize having." Etc.

But it seems obvious to me that the wider meanings of "existence" or "being" are intended and not the narrower meanings of "to have" or "to possess."

All koans present a case of polarity-in-action that, like life itself, presents a trap for our dualistic thinking. In the most general sense, the duality trap of subject-object is present in every koan since we bring that to the table, as it is inherent in the structure of the language and in mental configurations of the consciousness from which language arises. Here in this case 69, the two key terms are "to know" (知) and "to exist" (有), so the primary polarities raised by this koan for the theme of reflection are knowing<>not knowing and existence<>non-existence (有-無). Freedom in the midst of these polarities, i.e., not being caught on the horns of the duality, is the liberation offered by koan practice.

Now let's view the koan through the Three Jewels as the three levels of understanding corresponding to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

The Buddha level of understanding is the level of non-dual "purity", emptiness, or absolute non-differentiation. It means to be completely one or unified with the koan. Here it means to realize the absolute unity of knowing and not knowing, of existence and non-existence. This is the open secret of koan work, because simply declaring the unity in language is insufficient. One must realize or manifest the undifferentiated unity with one's whole body and mind to have Buddha understanding.

Because of this direct realization of understanding, not much can be said directly about the Buddha understanding without appearing to fall into duality as language is built around duality. That is why the Zen responses that present non-duality in the language format usually appear so terse and strange to those used to dualistic language contexts.

The Dharma level of understanding is the correspondence of the koan with the Buddha Dharma. Here, the koan presents the treasury of the Dharma in a manner that is consistent with the Sutras. As I said above, Zen is sometimes accused of being against the Sutras as it has used the slogan, "Not established by characters or letters" to describe itself. What this means is that, in the context of some schools of Buddhism that claimed they were established on one or more Sutras, Zen is established by direct realization of the One Mind, not be any doctrine or teaching that is found in the words or letters of a written or spoken Sutra.

But the slogan should not be taken to mean that Zen doesn't know the meaning of the Sutras. On the contrary, the koans and statements of the Zen masters all present the Buddha's teaching as found in the Sutras in a direct form and format. Part of the reason that I advocate the Three Jewels analysis is to demonstrate that the Buddha Dharma as taught in the Sutras is to be found in the Zen koans, and in each and every one of them. This koan of Nanquan's White Ox, for example, has direct linkage to both the Lankavatara Sutra and the Lotus of the True Law Sutra.

In the Lankavatara Sutra, Buddha says:

"The triple world is no more than discrimination, there is no external world of objects; it is owing to discrimination that the multitudinousness of things appears, which, however is not understood by the ignorant. In various sutras discrimination is the subject of discourse, it is on account of ideas and names, for apart from naming no meaning is attainable."

And also, "[The nature of enlightenment] is not something that is subject to discrimination and hence perceptible, nor is it for that reason to be understood as non-existent; it is the very nature of things as they are. Non-being goes along with being, and being goes along with non-being; when non-being is not knowable, being too is not to be discriminated. Those who cling to words only, not comprehending the egolessness of an ego, are drowned in dualism; they destroy themselves, they destroy the ignorant."
(All translations of the Lankavatara are by D.T. Suzuki)

Here we see Nanquan's direct Zen teaching as previously presented in Sutra format. Nanquan's "All Buddhas of the three worlds do not know existence" has the same meaning as the Lankavatara's "The triple world is no more than discrimination." As the Buddhas of the triple world are free from discrimination, that is, they do not "know" or "recognize" existence (being, having, etc.) in a discriminating manner, nor do they understand it as non-existent (non-being, not having, etc.), because that too would be discrimination. This "not knowing" of the Buddhas is because "apart from naming no meaning is attainable."

In his short critical retorts (評唱 pingchang) embedded in the koan text, Wansong presents counterbalancing comments to remove any appearance of duality in Nanquan's statements. Wansong's comments are presenting the meaning of the teaching in the Lankavatara that says, "Non-being goes along with being, and being goes along with non-being." When Nanquan says, "All Buddhas of the three worlds do not know existence," Wansong completes truth that not-knowing goes along with knowing, and vice versa, by adding "Simply acting, they know existence" to the first sentence and adding the converse phrase to the following sentence.

(The phrase "simply acting" may also be translated using the less common usage of "just because", but I prefer to use "acting" because the character 為 (wei) is the same as found in the term wu-wei, or non-acting, which is well known in Zen and Taoist literature.)

What about that strange list of three beings who know existence? The fox, the servant, and the white ox, know existence because they are not "Buddhas" in the transcendent sense. All three live in discrimination and therefore know existence (being, having, possessing) in their living. But the manner of their living in discrimination differs dramatically.

The fox is the wild or naïve nature of everyone, the untamed and wild spirit of each of us before we embark on the road to spiritual training. The fox is the person who uses logical and dualistic thinking to deal with life and calls this type of thinking being "natural." The Lankavatara calls these fox people "the philosophers and the ignorant."

The servant is the spiritual practitioner who is in servitude carrying the yoke of practice, and thus no longer free in the sense of being wild like a fox or badger. In the Buddhist context the servant is a practitioner of one of the three vehicles whose training and discipline is given in service to the Three Jewels. The servant is either a disciple who is learning as a hearer of the teaching (sravaka), or a person of self-absorbed awareness
(pratyekabuddha). Again, from the Lankavatara, here is a good description of the two types of "servant(s)" within the Buddhist context:

The Blessed One replied: "Because there is no teaching whereby the Sravakas and Pratyekabuddhas can realise Nirvana by themselves, I do not speak of the one vehicle. Thus, Mahamati, the Sravakas and Pratyekabuddhas are disciplined, segregated, and trained in meditation according to the discourse of the Tathagata, whereby they are led to emancipation and not by themselves.
Further, Mahamati, as they have not yet destroyed the habit-energy (memory) of karma and the hindrance of knowledge, all the Sravakas and Pratyekabuddhas are unable to realise the egolessness of things and have not attained the inconceivable transformation-death, I preach to the Sravakas [and Pratyekabuddhas] the triple vehicle and not the one vehicle."

The animal-spirited fox and the human-spirited servant are presented along side the white ox. In this context the importance of the ox being white becomes apparent. The white ox is the realized Bodhisattva who, as stated in both the Lankavatara and Lotus Sutras, has transcended the three vehicles and realized the One Buddha Vehicle.

In the Parables chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Buddha tells the parable of the father calling to his children who are playing in a burning house. He promises to them three types of carts, goat-carts, deer-carts, and ox-carts to catch their curiosity. When they come out of the house and ask where are the three carts, the father gives them only the one type of cart.

"Shariputra, at that time the rich man gave to each of his sons a large carriage of uniform size and quality. The carriages were tall and spacious and adorned with numerous jewels. A railing ran all around them and bells hung from all four sides. A canopy was stretched over the top, which was also decorated with an assortment of precious jewels. Ropes of jewels twined around, a fringe of flowers hung down, and layers of cushions were spread inside, on which were placed vermilion pillows. Each carriage was drawn by a white ox, pure and clean in hide, handsome in form and of great strength, capable of pulling the carriage smoothly and properly at a pace fast as the wind."

This is why the koan is titled "Nanquan's White Ox" and not "Nanquan's Fox and Ox." or "Nanquan's Cows." Nanquan's White Ox is pointing to the "white bullock cart" of the Lotus Sutra, but it does so in the direct manner of Zen: Nanquan points to the white ox itself rather than to the cart.

The point of the white ox "knowing existence" along with the fox and servant is that the realized Bodhisattva of the One Vehicle enters the world open handed to work with and along side all beings (foxes and servants) in the field of existence. But while the fox and the servant are still limited by their dualistic views of the world, the white ox is free to roam the world (as a Buddha field) eating anywhere.

This is clarified in the longer critical retort commentary to the koan, when Wansong relates the following statement by Nanquan,
"Since I, Old Teacher Wang, was young, I have raised a single head of water buffalo. When I decided to pasture it toward the east side of the mountain stream, it did not avoid eating the water plants of another country; and also to pasture west of the mountain stream it did not avoid eating the water plants of another country. Thus, now it doesn't avoid going along with discrimination to receive a little (alt. to enjoy a little), after all, it is not noticeable (alt. able to be seen/able to see?)."

This is Nanquan's white ox knowing existence (i.e., formerly led east of the stream and west of the stream, now going long with discrimination) without any trace (i.e., color) of "Buddha" left on it. As the Lankavatara states, "the Tathagata's Prajna is spotless because of its being in accord with Mind-only." This "spotless" nature of the ox (i.e., the Tathagata's prajna) is presented here by the adjective "white," which character, 白, can also mean "clear" or "pure" and when "clear" it is the ox that eats "without being seen at all."

Nanquan is asking us directly, when knowing existence, what type of knowing are we going to realize, fox, servant, or white ox? Here once again, is how the Lankavatara summarizes these three types of knowing (Jnana) represented by the fox (worldly), the servant (super-worldly), and the white ox (transcendental).

"There are three kinds of Jnana—worldly, super-worldly, and transcendental. Now, worldly knowledge belongs to the philosophers and to the ignorant and simple-minded who are attached to the dualistic views of being and non-being. Super-worldly knowledge belongs to all the Sravakas and Pratyekabuddhas who are attached to the notions of individuality and generality. Transcendental knowledge which is free from the dualism of being and non-being, belongs to the Bodhisattvas and takes its rise when they thoroughly examine things of imagelessness, see into the state of no-birth and no-annihilation, and realise egolessness at the stage of Tathagatahood."

Thus Nanquan's apparently simple two sentences in a koan present the deep Dharma meaning of both the Lankavatara and the Lotus of the True Law Sutras.

Lastly, the Sangha understanding is the level of understanding of the practical, prosaic, and plain meaning. In one sense it is the "community" or conventional usage and meaning, but in another sense it is the most profound meaning of the Three Jewels when it is connected to the other two Jewels, because it is the culmination of the Buddha and Dharma activity made manifest in existence as Sangha activity. In the Zen sense or perspective, the Sangha understanding is what is transformed by realization. Then Sangha is the direct expression of realization as known by the phrases "chopping wood and carrying water," "having a cup of tea," "the nose is vertical, the eyes are horizontal," etc.

Sangha understanding combines the meaning of the Buddha and Dharma levels within the direct practice, as Nanquan says, "going along with discrimination to enjoy a little." To be the white ox is to manifest the Sangha understanding as a colorless bodhisattva in the profound harmony of the Dharma and Buddha understandings. To be the white ox itself is to not be caught by the horns of the polarity, since one wears the horns as one's one nature. But also, it should be remembered, that to be a fox or a servant is also manifesting the Sangha understanding of the koan, just in a limited way without the Dharma and Buddha understandings merged.

In other words, now and here, fingers are typing, click, clack, click, clack. Not knowing existence, the fingers and keys are one and the typing goes along without thought of discrimination. Knowing existence the fingers type the keys without being seen yet the thoughts emerge in the electronic field manifesting as little bits anywhere possible. ("Hey, don't forget to spell check" "Yes, yes!")

I'm afraid that this discussion of understanding will only cause grief and mislead people. These weak words are not to be taken as the "answers" to a koan. I merely hope that, by finding that there is a point of view that sees the Treasury of the True Eye of the Buddha Dharma as coherently and cogently presented in the very fabric of the koans, the koan practice will become known to people as something accessible and not simply as a strange or impossible to comprehend riddle of nonsense words.

May all beings be well,

D.T. Suzuki's translation of the Lankavatara Sutra is online at

The Chinese characters for Nanquan's White Ox are from the website of the Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association's (CBETA) Chinese Electronic Tripitaka V1.30, Normalized Version at


Anonymous said...

Strange though it may sound, the two characters li-nu
(in Chinese) really do mean "cat." Put the characters into Google image search and you will come up with Chinese paintings of cats.

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

Dear "Anonymous",
Thanks for your comment. It doesn't sound strange at all that the two characters "li-nu" do mean "cat." "Li-nu" 狸奴 would literally translate as "servant of the fox" or "low-class fox" which is a colorful folk name for a cat.
If the line is taken as "Only the cats and white oxen know" then the essential point is not changed if it means that the two kiinds of beings, (i.e., (1) bodisattvas (white oxen) and (2) disciples and pratyekabuddhas and outsiders (cats)) know, while the Buddhas don't know.

But to resolve the interpretation, the question is "Does Nanquan mean that there are two or three kinds of beings other than Buddhas?" I found the three-beings model listed in the Lankavatara Sutra to be such a good fit with the metaphor of the white ox that the three-being classification fit better. This also fit with the importance that the Lankavatara Sutra has in Zen. And it explains in a way why Cleary leaves out the "white". It doesn't make much sense to say "cats and white oxen" because the symmetry of duality would call for "black cats and white oxen."

But I can see the POV where it makes literary sense if "cats and white oxen" are the two types of beings because they are both animals and it doesn't create the oddity of the three images of foxes, servants, and white oxen having two animals and a human.
I'm going to ponder this more. So, thanks again.