Blow Out the Candle

Tokusan was a great scholar of the Diamond Sutra. He heard of the Zen school and travelled south to challenge it, carrying his notes and translations of the Diamond Sutra on his back. Reaching an inn, he asked the old lady inn-keeper for some tea and cakes. The old woman asked, "Your worship, what's all that writing you are carrying?" "That's the manuscript of my notes and commentary on the Diamond Sutra," Tokusan replied. The old woman observed, "In that sutra it says, does it not, that the past mind is gone, the present mind is ungraspable, and the future mind is unattainable. Which mind do you intend to use for the tea and cakes?"

Tokusan could not answer her question. He asked her if there were a Zen Master nearby, and she directed him to Ryutan, a great Master. That night Tokusan visited Ryutan and asked him many questions well into the night. Finally, Ryutan said, "The night is getting old; why don't you retire?" So Tokusan bowed and opened the screen to go out. But it was pitch black outside. So Ryutan offered Tokusan a lighted candle to find his way. Just as Tokusan received the candle, Ryutan blew it out. At that moment the mind of Tokusan was opened. "What have you attained?" asked Ryutan. "From now on," said Tokusan, "I will not doubt the teacher's words." And the next day he burned his notes and commentaries.

This koan compares intellectual academic knowledge with internal enlightened wisdom. Knowledge is external, public, acquired. It is about something. Wisdom is personal, unique, creative; no one can give it, and no one can take it away. Tokusan was a gerat scholar of the Diamond Sutra (a Buddhist text). He depended heavily on it. When he received the lighted candle from Ryutan, he expected to depend on it to light his way. But after Ryutan blew it out, he had nothing to depend on. One must have an internal light that can never be blown out.


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