The Four Problems of Zen Buddhism (cont.)

4. The "Four Distinctions" of Lin Chi

Beneath the surface of the seemingly irrational Zen koans is there a system, order, or category which, when followed, will make Zen more intelligible?

The answer is "Yes." Many different systems have been laid down by Zen Masters to classify the koans. Among them Lin Chi's "Four Distinctions" 22 may be considered as the best and clearest, and through them many enigmatic koans may be deciphered. They were given by Lin Chi to his disciples, when he said:

Sometimes I snatch away the person, but save, or do not snatch away, the object;
Sometimes I snatch away the object, but save the person;
Sometimes I snatch away both the object and the person; and
Sometimes I snatch away neither the person nor the object. 23

To make the above quotation understandable I shall quote first Lin Chi's own abstruse explanation, then Tsu Yuan's (17th century) comment, and give in conclusion my own interpretation. But first let me give some explanation of this peculiar expression, the "Four Distinctions": "To snatch away the person" means to reject, refuse, repudiate, disapprove, or "steal away" the person who comes to the Zen Master for instructions; "to save the object" (ching) means not to disapprove the remark made by the person. The word ching as used by the Chinese Buddhists has many meanings, such as the scene, domain, sphere, object, understanding, etc. Zen Buddhists seemed to have a special usage for this word; for instance, ching-pu-sheng means a certain specific experience of Zen which has not yet arisen in the disciple. Thus ching means the specific experience or understanding within one's mind, which, of course, can be referentially treated as an "object" visualized or comprehended by the mind. For the sake of convenience, therefore, I now translate it as "object," although this should not be taken too literally.

Generally speaking, "to snatch away the person but save the object" means to disapprove or reject the questioner but not to reject his remark. The other three Distinctions can be understood by analogy.

These "Four Distinctions" are methods used by Zen Masters in dealing with their disciples on four different levels of Zen understanding.

Lin Chi's own explanation is found in his "Discourse": 24

The disciple asked: "What does it mean to snatch away the person, but save the object?"

Lin Chi answered:

"When the bright sun arises,
Embroideries cover the whole earth.
The hanging hairs of the infant
Are as white as snow."

The disciple asked again: "What does it mean to snatch away the object, but save the person?"

Lin Chi answered:

"The order of the king is sanctioned in the whole nation,
While the general is isolated from the smoke and dust
Far away beyond the borderland."

"What does it mean to snatch away both the person and the object?"

Lin Chi answered:

"While no message is forthcoming from Ping and Feng
One stays alone in the whole area."

What, then, docs it mean to snatch away neither the person nor the object?"

Lin Chi answered:

"While the Emperor ascends his royal seat,
The songs the old folks sing
Are heard in the fields."

These stanzas are very enigmatic, especially the second and third. Although the first and fourth are reasonably clear, the gist of the fourfold method is still very difficult for ordinary people to understand.

To make the passage more intelligible I now quote the explanations given by Tsu Yuan in his influential book, Mind—the Source of All Dharma.25

The disciple asked Tsu Yan: "What does it mean to snatch away the person but not snatch away [save] the object?"

Tsu Yuan answered, "In the realm of self-awareness, if one can empty his mind, what obstruction can there be from an outer object? [Therefore], when a Zen Master teaches a disciple of low capacity, he should snatch away the person but not the object."

The disciple asked: "What does it mean to snatch away the object, but not the person?"

"In the realm of self-awareness, [one] does not dwell on outer objects but reflects with his mind alone. [Therefore], the Zen Master should snatch away the object but not the person when the disciple is of average capacity."

"What does it mean to snatch away both the person and the object?"

Tsu Yuan answered: "In the realm of self-awareness, both the mind and the object are empty; whence, then, comes the delusion? Therefore, the Zen Master should snatch away both the person and the object when the disciple is well-endowed."

"What, then, does it mean to snatch away neither the person nor the object?"

Tsu Yuan said: "In the realm of self-awareness, mind naturally remains as mind and objects as objects. The Zen Master therefore takes away neither the object nor the person when the disciple is highly gifted."

These explanations may not be completely satisfactory or clear enough to illustrate the riddle of the "Four Distinctions." Nevertheless, they do give some clue by which to unravel the hidden meaning of the subject. I will therefore use some Zen stories with my own interpretations to explain how these methods are used on four different levels.

A chief monk asked Lin Chi, "Are not the teachings of the Three Vehicles and the Twelve Divisions given for illustrating Buddha-nature?" 26

Lin Chi answered, "The weeds have not yet been cleared away."

This reply employs the first method, namely, to snatch away the person but save the object. What the monk had said was correct, but from the practical Zen viewpoint one would say, "What is the use if one cannot have his Buddha-nature unfolded?"

As one Zen proverb says, "Much talk about food will never still one's hunger." Or again, "If the teaching of the Buddha cannot actually bring one to direct Enlightenment, what difference remains between common weeds and bulky sutras?" There was nothing wrong with the remark made by the monk, but the fault lay in his lack of a direct experience in Prajna-truth. This was why Lin Chi said: "The weeds have not yet been cleared away." The monk then fought back by asking, "But can the Buddha ever cheat me?" Lin Chi replied, "Where is the Buddha?"

To a person who has no direct experience of the innate Buddhahood within himself Buddha is merely a name, a notion or shadow which does not mean anything at all. This is why Lin Chi said mockingly to him, "Where is the Buddha?"

The following koan illustrates this first method even more clearly. One day when Lin Chi saw a monk approaching him, he raised his duster. The monk then bowed before him, but Lin Chi beat him. After a while another monk came. Lin Chi again raised his duster. When the monk paid no respect to him, Lin Chi beat him as well. The paying or not paying of respect was obviously not the real reason for the beatings. The fact was that as soon as Lin Chi saw these two monks he immediately knew what kind of men they were. No matter whether they bowed or not, he beat them both. This shows clearly that what Lin Chi cared for was not the outward action but the inner realization of the person.27

Now let us see how the second method, "to snatch away the object but save the person," is applied.

Lin Chi once said in a sermon, "In the lump of red flesh there is a True Man of No Position. He constandy goes in and comes out by the gate of your face. Those who have not seen him should try to do so."

A monk then came forward and asked Lin Chi, "What is this True Man of No Position?"

Lin Chi immediately descended from his seat, held the arm of the monk, and said, "Say it! Say it! [snatch away the person]."

When the monk was about to answer, Lin Chi released his arm and said disdainfully, "What kind of dry dung is this True Man of No Position!" 28

This is a typical example of "snatching away the object," i.e., the topic in question or the notion one has in mind. The koan shows how the Zen Master sets the trap with a fancy idea and a strange name and waits for the clinging-bound and the constantly pursuing disciple to fall into it. This kind of surprising shock will not only knock all notions from one's sequential thought but also bring one to the state of the beyond.

The third method, "to snatch away both the person and object," is a little deeper than the first two. The following koan is a good example of it.

One day Lin Chi was invited by his patron to give a sermon. When he ascended to his seat and was just about to preach, Ma Ku came forward and asked him, "The All-merciful One [Avalokitesvara] has a thousand arms and a thousand eyes. Which is the main eye?"

Lin Chi answered hiim, "The All-merciful One has" a "thousand eyes. Which is the main eye? Say it! Say it!"

Ma Ku then forcibly dragged Lin Chi down from the seat and sat upon it himself. Lin Chi walked very close to Ma Ku and said to him [very humbly], "I do not understand, sir."

Ma Ku was about to say something, when Lin Chi immediately dragged him down from the seat and again sat on it himself. Ma Ku then walked out of the hall. After Ma Ku had left Lin Chi also descended from the seat, and no sermon was given.29

This koan shows how both Lin Chi and Ma Ku tried to "snatch away" each other, and how both the questioner and the answerer tried to strip off from each other every bit of objective understanding and subjective attitude. The highlight is in the last part of the story: after Lin Chi had ascended the seat for the second time, Ma Ku went out of the hall. When Lin Chi saw Ma Ku leave, he also descended from the seat, and no sermon was given. If Ma Ku had not walked out, or if Lin Chi had remained on his seat as the victor, each of them would then have fallen into the trap of the other and would have been caught in the snare-of-clingings. Since it would require too many words to explain this koan in detail, I have given here a clue to its meaning and will let the reader find the explanation for himself.

Now let us come to the fourth realm of Zen understanding, "to snatch away neither the person nor the object."

Generally speaking, the koans of this category are somewhat easier to understand. The legendary first Zen koan is a typical example of this method. When Buddha Sakyamuni held the flower in his hand, smiled, but uttered not one word before the congregation, no one in the assembly understood what the Buddha meant. But Mahakasyapa smiled quiedy as if in understanding. The Buddha then said, "I have the treasure of the unmistakable teachings, the wonderful Mind of Nirvana, the true form without form, the marvelous and subtle Dharma, beyond all words, the teaching to be given and transmitted outside of the [regular Buddhist] doctrines. I have now handed it to Mahakasyapa." 30

Then there is the well-known Zen saying, "A mountain is a mountain, water is water, when hungry I eat, when drowsy I sleep; I do not search for the Buddha, or look for Dharma, yet I always make my obeisance to the Buddha."

Another interesting story may also be helpful in understanding the koans which illustrate the fourth realm of Zen understanding.

One day Lin Chi was standing in front of the hall. When he saw his Master Huang Po coming, he closed his eyes. Huang Po pretended to be frightened and returned to his room. Then Lin Chi went to his Master's room, bowed down before him, and thanked him. 31

My interpretation is this: When Lin Chi saw Huang Po coming he purposely closed his eyes, completely disregarding and rejecting his revered Master—this would snatch away both the person and object. However, Huang Po was even more profound than Lin Chi. He mockingly pretended to be frightened by this blow. Lin Chi's intention was brought out into the open, and his blow thus missed its mark. Surpassed by his Master in profundity and with his understanding sharpened, Lin Chi went to Huang Po's room to thank him and to pay his respects. If my interpretation is correct, this story shows a crossing of swords between a sage of the third realm (Lin Chi) and a sage of the fourth realm (Huang Po). The result was the complete defeat of Lin Chi—his eloquent gesture of closing his eyes was annihilated by his Master's taunt. What choice did Lin Chi have but to bow down at the feet of his Master and thank him heartily?

The above explanations of Lin Chi's Four Distinctions give some idea of how Zen Masters express themselves and instruct their disciples at different levels.

One other important point should be studied before one can hope to understand koans in an intelligible and systematic way—namely, Tung Shan's (807-869) doctrine of "The Five Ranks of Lord and Vassal" 32 (Wu Wei Chun Ch'eng), which is one of the most important subjects of Zen Buddhism. Unfortunately, there is no space to deal with it here.

Zen is the most difficult, puzzling, and complicated subject in the field of Buddhist study. To understand it on an intellectual level, one must be well-versed in the philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism and also acquainted with the unique traditions of Ch'an (Zen). In addition, one must also have some direct Zen experience through actual practice, because, after all, the essence of Zen consists in one's own direct personal experience, not in philosophical speculation. All these factors make Zen extremely difficult to study and to explain. Owing to the complexity and profundity of Zen Buddhism, no one can portray it in a flawless manner. It is impossible, therefore, to paint a perfect picture of Zen. When one side is brightly lighted, the other side is often obscured; when one aspect is stressed, another aspect is often distorted. Therefore, a balanced way of introducing Zen becomes all the more desirable and necessary.

In other words, all the important facets of Zen should be presented in an even and impartial manner. Both the negative and positive aspects should be introduced —its evasiveness as well as its immediacy, its passiveness as well as its dynamics, its intelligibility as well as its obscurity, etc.—all should be elaborated. To understand Zen one must examine it from all its different angles. One must study it historically, psychologically, and philosophically, as well as within its literary, yogic, and spiritual frames of reference. It is only through studying it from all these different angles and levels that one may reach a correct and impartial understanding of Zen.

In the foregoing chapters an attempt has been made to comment on the various facets of Zen Buddhism which, the author presumes, may not yet have been fully introduced to the West. It is not the author's ambition to present a complete and perfect picture of Zen Buddhism in this book. Rather, it is through a wish of his to provide a balanced view on the subject that this humble effort is made.

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