Hyakurei's Attainment

Hyakurei the monk and Houn the layman were studying under Baso (successor to Nangaku). One day as they met in the monastery corridor, Hyakurei remarked, "Our Grandfather in Zen said, 'If one asserts that it is something, one misses it altogether.' I wonder if he ever showed it to anyone?" Houn answered, "Yes, he did." "To whom?" asked Hyakurei. Houn then pointed to himself and said, "To this fellow." "Your attainment," said Hyakurei, "is so beautiful and profound that even Manjusri, the wise, and Subhuti, the compassionate one, could not adequately praise it." At this Houn said, "Well, I wonder if there is anyone who saw what our Grandfather meant/" The monk did not reply; he merely put on his straw hat and walked away. "Watch your step," the layman called after him. But Hyakurei walked on without turning his head.

Hyakurei and Houn were forever testing one another's understanding of Zen. In this koan they are discussing the Zen idea of Sunyata (Emptiness, or the Void) as expressed by Nangaku, the "Grandfather of Zen," who attained enlightenment when he understood, "If one asserts that it is something, one misses it altogether." That is to say, everything is constantly changing; nothing is permanent. By the time one asserts that something is so, the reality is changed and it is no longer so. Yesterday's truth is not truth today. The truth of a moment ago is not true now. In this exchange Hyakurei asked Houn if anyone had ever experienced what Nangaku talked about. Houn said yes; he himself had experienced it, that is, had become enlightened. Hyakurei then ridiculed Houn by lavishly praising his "attainment." Houn finally asked for Hyakurei's understanding, which the monk expressed by walking away wordlessly. But did either of them really understand Zen?


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