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Sung-yuan's Person of Great Strength

The Gateless Barrier Case 20

The Case

  • The priest Sung-yuan asked, " Why can't the person of great strength lift up a leg?" Again he said.`"It is not with the tongue that you speak."

Wu-men's Comment

Sung-yuan certainly emptied his stomach and turned out his guts. However, there is no one who can acknowledge him. Yet even if someone could immediately acknowledge him, I would give him a painful blow with my stick if he came to me. Why? Look! If you want to know true gold, you must perceive it in the midst of fire.

Wu-men's Verse

  • Lifting my leg, I kick the Scented Ocean upside down; inclining my head, I look down on the four Dhyana Heavens; there is no place to put my complete body - please add the final line here.

We ordinarily take for granted the ability to move our bodies, though in the midst of sesshin, when our knees and ankles may be quite painful, some of you may think that lifting up a leg is not such a trivial matter. But this koan is not concerned with that sort of difficulty; rather it asks us to look at the ways we can think or feel ourselves separate from our bodies. The person of great strength - that is, of great spiritual strength - is someone for whom their is no such separation. He is not separate from his leg, his leg is not an "object" to him, and so there is no "he" lifting "it." Wittgenstein would later apply a very similar argument to pain: we cannot properly say that we "know" that we're in pain because knowing involves a separation into a knower and an object of knowledge, which if it can be known, can also be doubted. But we cannot doubt whether or not we are in pain, and so we cannot know it either. We express pain from being in pain, from being pain. Wu-men makes the point by saying that he would give a painful blow of his stick to anyone who steps forward claiming to "know" the answer to Sung-yuan's question. But the psychological reality is that most of us experience some degree of alienation from our bodies. We are in the grip of ideas about how they should look and how they should function. We treat our bodies as objects and possesions, being proud or ashamed of their condition or status. All these preconceptions objectify our body and so we end up being the ones who are able to lift our strong or weak or muscular or flabby or tan or pale legs. Sung-yuan also says, "It's not with the tongue that you speak." Zen is usually portrayed as a practice that goes beyond words, but here the Master reminds us that speech is for humans as natural as song is for birds, and we must not alienate ourselves from any of our natural capacities. Words and ideas have their natural use and function, but again, we can all too easily self-consciously become bogged down in image and expectation, and so create an artificial gap between our selves and how we express ourselves. Though not included in the main case, Sung-yuan is said to have tested his students with a third question, "Why has the man of great satori not cut the red thread?" The red thread is the thread of passion, of emotion. Do you expect enlightment to cut off all passions? Once again, the reminder is that we must be intimate with our emotional life and not use practice to pursue some fantasy of "stone Buddha" detachment. Taken together, Sung-yuan's three challenges illuminate the great gap we ordinarily experience between our so-called self and our bodies, words and emotions. Dogen called the moment when that gap disappears "body and mind dropping off." Who are you when your body and mind has dropped off? Wu-men's verse tells us that our body is not bounded by our skin, but is one with the great body of the universe. We must function freely as part of this great body as well, unimpeded in any direction. If we treat this koan as nothing more than a riddle, one we imagine we can easily solve by "just lifting" a leg, we will glibly bypass the real work we all need to do to truly unify our life in action, speech and feeling. Sung-yuan never found a student who could answer his three questions to his satisfaction, and at his death put his robe away without naming a Dharma successor. We should remember his high standards when we think we've "understood" his koan.