Raised: Sansheng asked Xuefeng, "[If] the golden fish scales that pass through the net are not investigated. [then] what is used for food?"
Feng said, "Wait until you come out of the net, then [I'll] speak to you."
Sheng said, "A learned and virtuous one of fifteen hundred people and [you] still don't know the 'head of the word' (huatou)."
Feng said, "[I'm] an old monk in residence managing numerous affairs."
The Zen koan "Sansheng's Golden Fish Scales" is included as Case 49 of the Blue Cliff Record (碧巖錄, Biyan Lu, J. Hekiganroku) and Case 33 of The Record of the Serene (從容錄, Congrong Lu, J. Shoyoroku). Unfortunately, the translations that I have come across by the Cleary brothers, Thomas and James C., (in their The Blue Cliff Record), Thomas Cleary alone (in his The Book of Serenity) and the Sanbo Kyodan lineage (on the internet at http://perso.ens-lyon.fr/eric.boix/Koan/Hekiganroku/index.html and http://perso.ens-lyon.fr/eric.boix/Koan/Shoyoroku/index.html ) leave out the important set up to the koan's gambit: that Sansheng is asking about huatou practice. All three translations state erroneously that Sansheng is asserting that the fish has come through the net, and all three leave out the reference by Sansheng in his response to the huatou.
The word huatou (話頭, J. wato) literally means "the head (頭) of the word (話).". The word "head" is used in the sense of the headwaters of a river and so it means "the source of language" itself. Zen Master Yuanwu is the commentator of The Blue Cliff Record and the huatou, method was widely popularized by his dharma heir Dahui Zonggao. In fact because of the great success of his popularizing efforts some people have mistakenly believed that Dahui actually created the huatou method. This koan is a demonstration that huatou comes directly through Linji as Sansheng is one of Linji's great dharma heirs.
What is a huatou? The koan presents a story in words. The story embodies some kind of dilemma of duality. The zen of meditation is to turn around (Skt. pravritti, as found in the Lankavatara Sutra) the flow or light of the ideation that results in duality to be aware of the source of the ideas themselves. The huatou is the kernel or pivot point of the koan upon which the focused attention can effect this "turn around" to see the source of the words.
The most famous huatou of all is in the koan Zhaozhou's "No." (Ch. "Wu", J. "Mu"). Other well known huatou center around the word "Who" such as "Who is repeating the Buddha's name?", "Who hears?" and "Who is dragging this corpse around?" Every genuine koan has its huatou that turns the attention around to point directly to the source of mind.
In Zhaoahou's famous koan, a monk asked Zhaozhou, "Does the puppy dog have Buddha Nature?" Zhou said, "No.". The mind naturally tries to reason this out by thinking about the concepts of Buddha Nature, which living beings have or do not have Buddha Nature, etc. Zhaozhou's reply is contrary to the usually held concept that all beings have Buddha Nature so another duality arises in the mind about why does he say "No"? The huatou method is to focus attention directly on the word "No" within the frame of the inquiry of what is the "head of this word"? "What is 'No'?" means what is the source of the very idea of "No"?
The Sixth Ancestor of Zen, Huineng, stated this question in the following way. "True Suchness, as it is, is the essence of thought. Thought, as it is, is the function of True Suchness." The huatou method is to focus directly on the essence or source of thought itself without being attached to the thought. As the Great Chinese Zen master Xuyun, whose life spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, said, "Hua is actually a wandering thought. You're actually talking to yourself. Before the wandering thoughts arise, one must illuminate on them. Look to see just what is the original face? This is called looking at Huatou." ( http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/clubs/buddhism/newsletter/news35.html )
Discussing the huatou in the sentence "Who is repeating the Buddha's name?", Xuyun also said, "Before this sentence is uttered, it is called a hua t'ou (lit. sentence's head). As soon as it is uttered, it becomes the sentence's tail (hua wei).." (http://www.sinc.stonybrook.edu/Clubs/buddhism/xuyun/index.html ) The usual practice is to begin investigating a huatou by mentally uttering simple rote repetition of the huatou word or phrase. This is looking at the tail of the word not the head, but it is quite natural to begin this way. The investigation of the huatou can be said to begin with the attention going "behind" or "before" the repeated word and seeing that thoughts arise in the context of thoughtlessness as sound arises in the context of silence. The attention turns away from the word by jumping off the rote repetition to look at the question of how does the word or thought itself arise from within the context of thoughtlessness? This becomes looking directly at True Suchness or Original Face. Xuyun says, "Our minute examination should be turned inward and this is also called 'the turning inward of the hearing to hear the self-nature.'"
The fish in Sansheng's koan is none other than one's own True Suchness, Original Face, Self-nature, etc.. Sansheng's opening line says, "I don't study the golden fish scales that pass through the net." (透網金鱗未審, lit.: pass through-net-golden-fish scales-don't-study) Sansheng is saying that in his huatou practice he is not studying the words or thoughts that have already arisen in the mind, i.e., the golden fish scales that have passed through the net of the differentiating thought processes. The translations that state this sentence as "The golden fish that's passed through the net" (Cleary) or "When a fish with golden scales has passed through the net" (Sanbo Kyodan) miss this point entirely. The phrase that they translate as "golden fish" is 金鱗 and 鱗 means "fish scales" not fish. Cleary ignores this altogether and translates "fish scales" as "fish". The Sanbo Kyodan translation includes the reference to the "scales" but it inserts "fish" to make "fish with golden scales" as if it is necessarily implied.
But Sansheng is neither asserting nor implying the fish has passed through the net, he is saying the fish's golden scales, i.e., thoughts, pass through the net and he knows that these are not the subject or object of huatou practice. Sansheng's next question is the serve to Xuefeng asking how then does one do huatou practice if thought is not studied? It must be assumed that Sansheng as a Zen master in his own right has his own answer to this question and that he is putting himself in the position or role of a senior student to ask his question for the Zen drama. When teaching the huatou method Zen teachers commonly say things like, "Chew on the huatou like a dog who won't give up a bone." Sansheng's question, "[If] one doesn't study the golden fish scales that pass through the net, [then] what is used for food?" has the double entendre of asking "what is there for the meditator to chew on if one is not examining thoughts or ideas (i.e., the golden fish scales)?" and also "what does the fish (True Suchness, Original Face, etc.) itself have for food if there is no source beyond it?" (which in the theistic context is like asking "if God is the creator, who creates God?").
Xuefeng's response "Wait until you come out of the net, then I'll speak to you." has several levels of nuance. First, on the surface, it simply takes the question at its face value, and Xuefeng takes the role of the teacher saying he won't give an answer to the student because the student must find it on his own. But also Xuefeng is saying to Sansheng, "I'll wait until you stop playing games trying to catch me in your net before I talk with you." And thirdly, Xuefeng is acknowledging that Sansheng himself is the fish and when he shows himself in a straightforward manner then they can talk as equals.
Xuefeng's response is a returning challenge to Sansheng pointing out the duality of the "net" and asking, "Which side of the net are you on?" The "net" in question is known in Buddhist psychology as the Seventh Consciousness. When the undifferentiated awareness of True Suchness of the eighth consciousness passes through the seventh consciousness it is differentiated into self and environment, subject and objects. Here is how Xuyun described this process in reference to the use of the huatou:
Each of us has a mind which is the eighth consciousness (vijnana), as well as the seventh, sixth and the first five consciousnesses. The first five are the five thieves of the eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. The sixth consciousness is the thief of mind (manas). The seventh is the deceptive consciousness (klista-mano-vijnana) which from morning to evening grasps the eighth consciousness' "subject" and mistakes it for an "ego". It incites the sixth to lead the first five consciousnesses to seek external objects (such as) form, sound, smell, taste and touch. Being constantly deceived and tied the eighth consciousness-mind is held in bondage without being able to free itself. For this reason we are obliged to have recourse to this hua t'ou and use its "Vajra King's Precious Sword" to kill all these thieves so that the eighth consciousness can be transmuted into the Great Mirror Wisdom, the seventh into the Wisdom of Equality, the sixth into the Profound Observing Wisdom and the first five consciousnesses into the Perfecting Wisdom. It is of paramount importance first to transmute the sixth and seventh consciousnesses, for they play the leading role and because of their power in discriminating and discerning. While you were seeing the voidness and the brightness and composing poems and gathas, these two consciousnesses performed their (evil) functions. Today, we should use this hua t'ou to transmute the discriminating consciousness into the Profound Observing Wisdom and the mind which differentiates between ego and personality into the Wisdom of Equality. (Ibid.)
Xuefeng's response is asking Sansheng whether he has actually transmuted the seventh consciousness or is he still holding onto and held by the net's function of discrimination?
Sansheng in order to meet Xuefeng face to face, needs to push the discussion beyond this question of the duality of which side of the net one is on. Sansheng says, "Fifteen hundred learned and virtuous people [in the assembly] and you still don't know the 'head of the word' (huatou)." Sanshang thus turns the question directly back onto Xuefeng implying "I am out the net, are you?" Sansheng's response stands as if saying that if he wasn't already out of the net then he couldn't have asked the first question as he did. On the surface he is challenging Xuefeng to the very last drop of duality saying, in effect, "You are in the teacher role here, so I asked you to say something about the huatou with my first question, and yet you, the teacher of 1,500 worthy people, refuse to reveal the huatou plainly. So does that mean you do not know the huatou, that is, the source of the mind?" Here the two Zen masters are meeting face to face and their eyebrows become entangled since already within the deeper meaning of Sansheng's response is his acknowledgment that neither he nor Xuefeng can actually say anything about the huatou as an object without becoming entangled in the net. Sansheng's saying "You still don't know the huatou" is a two-edged sword: on one edge is the upside down Zen praise of Sansheng for Xuefeng who did not fall into Sansheng's net and on the other edge is the last challenge to Xuefeng: "What can you say that shows how the huatou passes through the net to transform the net itself?"
Xuefeng's response is "[I'm] an old monk in residence managing numerous affairs." (老僧住持事繁) This response is the pure taste of Zen. It is completely plain spoken with no pretence to or perfume of any transcendent meaning. Yet, because the transcendent and the mundane are a complete unity and this unity is completely realized by Xuefeng, it is a completely transcendent statement by the huatou itself in its own words. Xuefeng's "[I'm] an old monk" (老僧) directly demonstrates the Great Mirror Wisdom of the transformed eighth consciousness. Since the statement is the statement of the huatou without any intermediation by the seventh consciousness acting as a differentiating agent mistaking things as objects, the huatou says it is "dwelling in residence" (住), thus the seventh consciousness is shown in its transformed state as the Wisdom of Equality. Xuefeng's "managing" (持) is the description of the sixth consciousness transformed into the Profound Observing Wisdom and the "numerous affairs" (事繁) being managed are the five sense consciousnesses transformed into the Perfecting Wisdom.
Now all this is just the used mouthwash of this poor student and should be immediately rinsed down the drain. If these fish scales have any value at all it could only be to encourage you to follow your meditation method diligently and not be confused by such glittering golden fish scales, so that you may personally grab the fish with your own bare hands.