Case 17 Chû the National Teacher Gives Three Calls
The National Teacher called his attendant three times, and three times the attendant responded.
The National Teacher said, "I long feared that I was betraying you, but really it was you who were betraying me."
The National Teacher called three times, and his tongue fell to the ground.
The attendant responded three times, and he gave his answer with brilliance.
The National Teacher was old and lonely; he held the cow's head and forced it to eat grass.
The attendant would have none of it;
delicious food has little attraction for a man who is satiated. Tell me, at what point was the betrayal?
When the country is flourishing, talent is prized. When the home is wealthy, the children are proud.
He carried and iron yoke with no hole
And left a curse to trouble his descendants.
If you want to hold up the gate and the doors,
You must climb a mountain of swords with bare feet.
Traditionally when working on koans in Japan with a teacher the student is expected to give a capping phrase in addition to one's own answer. The answer the student gives may be in words but it might also be in the form of actions or simply sitting in samadhi as the teacher tests the student's state of mind. Capping phrases are always in words coming from Zen literature or even Chinese or Japanese poetry.
Sitting in the Moonwater Dojo
Grasping flowers in the air.
Is the poetic couplet that inspired me to name this web site and the space I have set up for practice the Moonwater Dojo. I don't know where in Zen literature it comes from but today it can be found in books of capping phrases. Yes there are books of capping phrases. I am not sure where this practice of capping phrases comes from but I think the answer might be that this was a way of giving future Zen teachers some knowledge of the classic literature as well as a way to talk about Zen.
When I read this koan the first thing I think is one of the simpler capping phrases, "A hammer without a handle." Of course a hammer without a handle is something we cannot grasp but somehow it still functions as a hammer. This koan is a hammer without a handle. There is really nothing to grasp. There is not enough information in the koan to really tell us much. What has the Master calling three times and the Attendant answering three times tell us? Not much. But still the Master recognized something about the Attendant.
As the National Teacher the Master must of had lots of ceremonial responsibilities as well as having to give lots of talks all of which was pablum for the masses, nourishing and wholesome but still baby food. As a priest who runs a temple which serves the large community a Zen Masters must also have lots of similar responsibilities. I sometimes think of my teacher Harada Roshi as taking on the role of a "great man". He leads a large international religious organization and he must see to the emotional and religious needs of a great many people at the same time trying to lead these people, his students, to that most elusive of experiences, Enlightenment. Not an easy job and at times and I am sure even he has doubts that he is doing the best possible job for all his students. There is also the story of Ananda the Buddha's attendant. Ananda had this great memory so he went to all the Buddha's talks so that when the Buddha died Ananda was able to recite all the talks which allowed them to be preserved in the Suttas. But still with his great memory and being with the Buddha much of the time Ananda was not enlightened. The Buddha must have been disappointed, not with Ananda but with himself. Maybe he felt like he betrayed Ananda. for somehow not doing a better job teaching Ananda.
Then the Master calls for the Attendant three times and after the attendant responds the Master tells the Attendant that he has betrayed the the Master. How was the Master betrayed? If we read Mumon's commentary we realize that the Attendant's responses were something special. If this story is to have any meaning in the Zen context then the Attendant's response must have showed that the Attendant was in fact Enlightened and just had not previously let his master know this. Now the Master felt betrayed. It doesn't matter how the teacher knew that his attendant was enlightened. One enlightened individual can recognize another enlightened individual, Maybe not instantly but certainly in response to certain questions or over time watching behavior. The experience changes a person. It changes how a person thinks and consequently how a person behaves. The experience might be a bit different for each person but it must also be the same in certain ways or it is not enlightenment.
The heart of this koan is in the question Mumon asks in the commentary. "Tell me, at what point was the betrayal?" In other words show me that experience that makes a person enlightened. Don't give me a piece of old stale toast that you cooked yesterday or last year. Give me a fresh piece that you are cooking right NOW.
Return to the fire
Smelt the gold
Drain the impurities
One more time