"Yaoshan Shoots the Great Deer," Blue Cliff Record, #81
Yaoshan Weiyan (Yakusan Igen, 751-834, 9th generation) was a disciple of Shitou Xiqian (700-790). Yaoshan appears in BCR #42, #81, and BOS #7. One day, when he was still studying with Shitou, Yaoshan was sitting in meditation. Shitou asked him, "What are you doing there?" Yaoshan answered, "I am doing nothing at all." "The you are sitting idle." "If sitting is idle, then I am idly sitting." "You say you are doing nothing. What is it you are not doing?" Yaoshan answered, "Even thousands of old Buddhas do not know." Shitou composed a verse to express his approval:
Living long together, and not knowing his name;
Naturally you have worked along with him.
But even the ancient Buddhas did not know;
How can an ordinary soul know him?
A monk asked Yaoshan, "On the grassy plain there gather great and small deer. How can one shoot the greatest deer of them all?"
Yaoshan said, "Look! The arrow!"
The monk threw himself on the floor.
Yaoshan said, "Attendants! Carry this dead fellow out of here."
Thereupon, the monk ran away.
Yaoshan said, "This fellow will keep playing with mud balls for ever and ever!" [or: "There is no end to these people who play with mud pies." -Sekida]
For three steps he might be alive, but he would not survive five.
When he seizes the opponent's banners and captures the enemy's drums, even the thousand holy ones cannot hold him. When he cuts through the complications, even a battle-hardened veteran cannot touch him. This is not due to his using occult powers, nor to his returning to the absolute itself. Tell me, how can he attain such wonderful ability?
Xuedou's Verse (Sekida trans)
The king of the king deer: watch him!
One arrow, and he ran three steps;
Five steps, and he might drive a tiger.
The hunter had a true eye, you know.
Now Xuedou cries, "Watch the arrow!"
Xuedou's Verse (Cleary trans)
The elk of elks -- you take a look.
An arrow shot, and he runs three steps;
If he had survived five steps,
He'd have formed a herd and chased the tiger.
Accurate sight has always been given to hunters.
Xuedou raised his voice and said, "Watch the arrow!"
Ordinarily deer and elk are easy to shoot. Only the elk of elks (the "greatest deer of them all"), that is, the king among deer, is very difficult to shoot. This (king) elk always sharpens his horns on the rocks of the cliffs (where it lives,) so that they become sharp as sword blades. He defends the herd of deer with his own body so that even tigers cannot come near.
"Look -- an arrow!" -- An expert Teaching Master, Yaoshan is undeniably marvelous, like sparks struck from stone, like a flash of lightning.
Once, when Shih Kung saw San Ping coming, Kung immediately whent through the motion of bending a bow and said, "Look -- an arrow!" San Ping opened his breast to the "arrow" and said, "This is the arrow that kills the man -- what is the arrow that brings the man to life?" Kung plucked the bowstring three times, whereupon San Ping bowed. Kung said, "After thirty years with a single bow and two arrows, today I've finally managed to shoot half a sage."
"Attendant, drag this dead fellow out." -- Yaoshan extends his battle lines forward. The monk then ran out: he may have been right, but nonetheless he wasn't free and clean, his hands and feet were stuck.
"This fellow playing with a mud ball -- what end will there be to it?" -- If Yaoshan hadn't had the final word at this time, he would have been criticized by others down through the ages.
"Watch the arrow!" -- You have to look quickly to see where the arrow lands.
The monk let himself collapse. -- He lay down in a flash. That's OK, all right, but still there is this gap.
"Attendant, drag this dead guy out!" -- The account has been settled; no one but Yaoshan could have uttered these words. "Gotcha," so to speak.
"What end will there be to folks fooling with mud balls?" -- This is the coup de grace. There's more to this than meets the eye! This saying is cold; few can appreciate it.
Drawing immediately, Yaoshan said, "Watch the arrow!" This is an extraordinary act of an adept Zen teacher. Letting himself collapse, the monk becomes the master, acting out the hitting of the target; he seems adept at first but after all has been counterfeiting. Seeing this, Yaoshan called his attendant to drag the monk out, acting according to the imperative as a means of not letting go. When the monk then immediately ran off, which he did to gain life in the midst of death this, too, was counterfeit.
The monk is using the image of a herd of deer on a grassy plain to represent the monks of the monastery. The "greatest deer of them all" represents a great enlightened one, and the monk fancies himself to be such a person. He is saying, "I am the great deer. How will you deal with me?" Yaoshan took the pose of drawing a bow and said, "Watch the arrow."
"There is no end to these people who play with mud pies." -- Yaoshan's final words are highly effective. Without them the present case would have come to a lame conclusion.
For three steps he might be alive, but he would not survive five. -- People start Zen practice with great determination and an earnest desire to master it. Their determination may be maintained for some time, and they may reap certain rewards. Unfortunately, however, many of them drop away, by and by.
The monk jumps up and runs away as if to say 'I don't need anyone to help me!' This is also not bad but it loses any power by getting caught up in things.
"How can one shoot the greatest deer of them all?" -- How is it was possible to shoot down "the master of the universe," your true self, the most essential one?
Yaoshan said, "Look out for the arrow!" -- He probably didn't just say it. He no doubt made a gesture of drawing his bow and aiming an arrow at the monk. Seeing this, the monk fell over in a show of dying. This might seem like play-acting but actually the monk's response is not bad. Yaoshan orders his attendants to drag the "dead fellow" away. The monk jumps up and runs away as if to say that he is not up to this. The monk certainly wasn't in top form here! What would be a better response? What would you do instead of running away at that point? These are questions to be examined in the dokusan room. When the monk runs away, Yaoshan refers to him as "a fellow playing in the mud." In other words, the monk is still playing with concepts. As long as we are still playing around with concepts in our head we will never realize, no matter how much time goes by.
For three steps he might be alive, but he would not survive five. -- There is the legend about the famous swordsman who cut through his opponent with such speed and agility that the opponent actually didn't realize it until he took a few steps, bumped into a rock and fell into two pieces! This is somewhat similar to the monk in the koan who does not even realize that he is dead. He may be able to take three or four steps, but by the fifth step he is already down.
Shoot the Elk of Elks
How to decide which elk to kill?
Look -- an arrow! He let himself fall.
Though he lived for three steps, after five he must die.
One hand lifts the spirit, the other presses the body down.
If he ran a hundred miles his life still would be over.
The leader of the pack will be the last to go.
He guards his herd without losing poise.
And where's the arrow that gives life?
You aim for the ground instead of the beast.
The elk of elks raises his horns.
One arrow fells the hunter, who cannot run.
His own herd would be invincible.
But he needs only three steps to survive.
Fix your gaze high:
There might be a winged tiger, a panther with horns,
or an impervious moose who will keep out of range.
The hunter and the hunted both know how to look.
Their gaze shifts:
Over there, the twang of a bow!
The herd of deer is the 108 delusive passions. The great deer is the ego-self marshaling all these delusions for its own defense. How do you shoot the ego-self?
Die when it is time to die.
Come alive when it is time to come alive.
Coming alive and not running away,
The great deer is of no concern.