Jõshû went to a hermit's cottage and asked, "Is the master in? Is the master in?"
The hermit raised his fist.
Jõshû said, "The water is too shallow to anchor here," and he went away.
Coming to another hermit's cottage, he asked again, "Is the master in? Is the master in?"
This hermit, too, raised his fist.
Jõshû said, "Free to give, free to take, free to kill, free to save," and he made a deep bow.
Both raised their fists; why was the one accepted and the other rejected?
Tell me, what is the difficulty here?
If you can give a turning word to clarify this problem, you will realize that Jõshû's tongue has no bone in it, now helping others up, now knocking them down, with perfect freedom.
However, I must remind you: the two hermits could also see through Jõshû.
If you say there is anything to choose between the two hermits, you have no eye of realization.
If you say there is no choice between the two, you have no eye of realization.
This is an odd koan (Aren't they all odd?). We are just not given enought information about these events to say anything. As students we might immediatly go to the question what is difference between the two hermits? But there is nothing in the koan pointing to any difference between the Hermits except Joshu's response. Maybe that is the wrong question. Maybe we need to be asking our selves what is Jushu doing and how can he do it? What are Joshu's powers as a Zen teacher and what are your powers if you pass this koan?
I read this koan the other day and just let it simmer in my head before I began to write this commentary. I did not know immediatly what the koan is getting at. Then while sitting zazen it struck me it was about clarity and then upon rereading the koan I understood it was also about freedom. Isn't that how it is suppose to work. There is an unusual clarity that happens when one sits lots of Zazen. This clarity comes about because there is less noise obscuring perception. We don't usually realize how much our perception usually is obscured by all our thoughts. One of the first koans a student is given is often a listening koan. "What is the sound of one hand clapping" is a listening koan. I was once given the koan "How do I experience Buddha through sound?" For a while I worked on listening while doing zazen. Eventually I learned to clear my mind doing this practice. I would focus on listening and then all else would disapear and then the sounds around me had a clarity that I never experienced before. This was very useful when I was a High School teacher. When I wanted to hear what those trouble makers in the back of the classroom were saying I would quiet my mind and listen in on their conversation. This type of clarity is an attribute of samadhi. When one is quiet then all the sensations are clarified and not only sounds but our vision will seem clearer and colors will seem brighter. In Zen parlance this is called "eternal Spring" because, doesn't the world just seem a little brighter in the Spring.
Clarity of sensation is only one type of clarity experienced in samadhi. The other type of clarity experienced in samadhi is insight, not just the transcendent insight of enlightenment but the everyday insight of knowing what is happening around you. It is the clarity of insight that tells you how a person is feeling when you meet them or the insight that tells you that something needs to be done right now. It is also the clarity that tells you, if you are a teacher, how your students are doing and how to teach them. And with this clarity comes freedom, the freedom to act spontaniously without inhibition or not to act because the situation calls for restraint. It is a freedom to to be in harmony with the moment or to throw in a little dissonance. Again in Zen parlance the Zen master has the freedom to both give life or to take life.
I have often met stugents of Zen and other forms of Buddhism who think their teacher has some special magic. He seems to be able to read minds. He seems to know just what to say. There is no magic in Zen, just clarity and freedom. Yet this clarity and freedom can seem a bit magical because most of us are so distracted by our thoughts that we rarely fully see what is right in front of us. We will never know why Joshu reacted differently to the two hermits. There is just not enough information. What we do see in this koan is Joshu acting with clarity and freedom. This is the clarity and freedom that comes with the clear mind. So clear your mind, sweep the clouds away, and the answering of this koan will not be difficult.