Blue Cliff Record 22, Book of Serenity 24

Blue Cliff Record (Hekiganroku, Biyan Lu) #22
Book of Serenity (Shoyoroku, Congrong Lu) #24
Xuefeng's Poisonous Snake

  • XUEFENG Yicun (Seppo Gison, 822-908, 12th gen)
  • CHANGQING Huileng (Chokei Eryo, 854-932, 13th gen), disciple of Xuefeng
  • XUANSHA Shibei (Gensha Shibi, 835-908, 13th gen), disciple of Xuefeng
  • An unnamed monk
  • YUNMEN Wenyan (Ummon Bunen, 864-949, 13th gen), disciple of Xuefeng
Yuanwu's Preface (Sekida)
The great universe is boundless.
As for how small it is, it is like an atom.
Grasping and releasing, developing and declining, are not in others' hands; they are all in your own.
If you want to get rid of encumbrances and cut through entanglements, you must transcend form and sound and remove all trace of the activity of mind; then you will be in an impregnable position and absolutely independent, like a thousand-fathom cliff.
Tell me, who was ever like this? See the following.
Wansong's Preface (Cleary)
The whale of the Eastern Sea, the turtle-nosed snake of South Mountain, Puhua's donkey brays, Zihu's dog howls --
they don't fall into ordinary ways, and don't travel among different kinds.
Tell me, whose way of practice is this?
Case (Sato)
Xuefeng, instructing the assembly, said, “There's a turtle-nosed snake on the South Mountain.[1]
All of you should look at it carefully!”[2]
Changqing said, “Today in the Zen hall there are many people who have lost their body and life.”[3]
A monk told this to Xuansha,[4]
who said, “Only my Elder Brother Changqing could say something like that.[5]
However, I wouldn't talk like that.”[6]
The monk asked, “What then would you say, Master”?[7]
Xuansha replied, “Why does it have to be 'the South Mountain'?”[8]
Yunmen threw his staff in front of Xuefeng and acted frightened.[9]
[1] "Turtle-nosed": i.e., poisonous. The “South Mountain” [Nanzan] was the place where Xuefeng resided.
[2] Or: "You should have a good look at it" (Sekida); "you people must watch out for it" (Cleary); "All of you had better look out!" (Wick)
[3] Or: “Today in the Zen hall there is a great person who has lost his body and life” (Sato note); "Today, in this temple, there is obviously one man who has lost his life" (Sekida).
[6] Or: "even though he's right, I do not concur" (Cleary); "as for me, I am different" (Sekida).
[9] Or: "made a gesture of fright" (Cleary); "gave the appearance of being afraid" (Wick).

[1] If you see something strange as not strange, it's strangeness disappears by itself. What a strange thing! Unavoidably it causes people to doubt.
[2] Aha! A case of over-indulgence.
[3] Changqing escorts the thief. He judges others on the basis of himself.
[4] There's no different dirt from the same hole. When the manservant sees the maidservant he takes care. Those with the same disease sympathize with each other.
[6] He doesn't avoid forming a wild fox spirit view. What news is this? His poison breath afflicts others.
[7] He too presses the old fellow well.
[8] On a boat fishing, Xuansha. Only this wild fox spirit has attained a little. He's lost his body and his life and doesn't even realize it.
[9] Why be afraid of it? One son has intimately attained. All of them are giving play to their spirits. All of you try to discern this.

[2] Holding up a sitting mat, I say, "This isn't borrowed."
[3] Hearing the wind, he raises his voice.
[4] Staked up no more than three.
[5] Foxes associate with foxes, dogs with dogs.
[6] If there's a longer snake than this, bring it out.
[7] A poison insect on the head makes an itch.
[8] Just this turtle-nose is still beyond the pale.
[9] How can you injure your own life?
Xuedou's Verse (Sekida; italics Cleary)
Mount Xuefeng was too steep to climb;
   Elephant Bone Cliff is so high no one reaches it;
Only the skilled could try it.
   Those who arrive must be expert snake handlers.
Changqing and Xuansha made nothing of it;
   Changqing and Xuansha cannot do anything --
How many truly lost their lives?
   How many lose their lives?

Yunmen know how to beat the bushes;
   Yunmen knows -- he parts the weeds again;
The snake -- its nature so -- was nowhere to be found.
   South, north, east, west, there's no place to search.
The staff, suddenly flung down,
   Suddenly he thrusts out his cane;
Opened its mouth right before Xuefeng.
   Thrown in front of Xuefeng, it opens wide its mouth.

It strikes like lightning,
   The gaping mouth is like a flash of lightning;
If you try to look for it, you fail;
   By the time you raise your eyebrows you don't see.
Now it is hidden on this peak of Mt. Xuedou:
   Now it's hidden here on this mountain;
If you want to see it, look at it directly.
   Let those who come each observe expedient means.
I shout, "Look out beneath your feet!"
   Look right at your feet!
Hongzhi's Verse (Wick; italics Cleary)
Xuansha's great vigor; Changqing's small bravery.
   Xuansha's great strength
   Changqing's little courage
South Mountain's poison snake died uselessly;
   The turtle-nose on South Mountain, dead, has no use
where wind and clouds gather the head sprouts horns.
   Wind and clouds meet, horns on the head are born
As expected, we see Yunmen take a hand and fiddle around.
   After all we see Yunmen pitching in to play:
   Pitching in to play --
Among brilliant lightning flashes see the change!
   In a flash of lightning, see the change and movement.
When it's mine I can let go or call back.
   With me, it's possible to send away and to summon;
When it's with him he grabs and releases.
   With him, there's capture, there's release.
What's that! Right now can you give it to someone?
   The underlying matter -- to whom is it imparted now?
Its chill mouth rends them, but men don't feel the pain.
   The cold mouth wounds people, yet they don't feel the pain.
Xuefeng Background (Yuanwu)
Xuefeng travelled with Yantou and Qinshan. In all, he went to Mt. Touzi three times, and climbed Mt. Dong nine times. Later he called on Deshan, and only then did he smash the lacquer bucket.

One day he went along with Yantou to visit Qinshan. They got as far as an inn on Tortoise Mountain (in Hunan) when they were snowed in. Day after day Yantou just slept, while Xuefeng constantly sat in meditation.
Yantou yelled at him and said, "Get some sleep! Everyday you're on the meditation seat, exactly like a clay image. Another time, another day, you'll fool the sons and daughters of other people's families."
Xuefeng pointed to his breast and said, "I am not yet at peace here; I don't dare deceive myself."
Yantou said, "I had thought that later on you would go to the summit of a solitary peak, build a hut of straw, and propagate the great teaching: but you're still making such a statement as this."
Xuefeng said, "I am really not yet at peace."
Yantou said, "If you're really like this, bring forth your views one by one; where they're correct I'll approve them for you, and where they're wrong I'll prune them away for you."
Then Xuefeng related, "When I saw Yanguan up in the hall bringing up the meaning of form and void, I gained an entry."
Yantou said, "Henceforth for thirty years avoid mentioning this."
Again Xuefeng said, "When I saw Dongshan's very on crossing the river, I had an insight."
Yantou said, "This way, you won't be able to save yourself."
Xuefeng went on, "Later when I got to Deshan I asked, 'Do I have a part in the affair of the vehicle of the most ancient sect or not?' Deshan struck me a blow of his staff and said, 'What are you saying?' At that time it was like the bottom of the bucket dropping out for me."
Thereupon Yantou shouted and said, "Haven't you heard it said that what comes in through the gate is not the family jewels?"
Xuefeng said, "Then what should I do?"
Yantou said, "In the future, if you want to propagate the great teaching, let each point flow out from your own breast, to come out and cover heaven and earth for me."
At these words Xuefeng was greatly enlightened. Then he bowed, crying out again and again, "Today on Tortoise Mountain I've finally achieved the Way! Today on Tortoise Mountain I've finally achieved the Way!"
Xuefeng's Verse about Himself (Yuanwu)
Human life so hectic and hurried is but a brief instant;
How can you dwell for long in the fleeting world?
As I reached thirty-two I emerged from the mountains;
Already over forty, I return to Min.
No use bringing up the faults of others again and again;
One's own mistakes must be cleared away continually.
I humbly report to the purple-clad nobles who fill the court:
The King of Death has no awe of the golden emblems of rank you wear.
Related Case (Yuanwu)
Baizhang asked Huangbo, "Where are you coming from?"
Huangbo said, "I've been at the foot of Mt Daxiong picking mushrooms."
Baizhang said, "See any tigers?"
Huangbo then made a tiger's roar.
Then Baizhang picked up an axe and made a chopping motion; Huangbo then slapped him.
Baizhang chuckled and went back and and ascended his seat and told the assembly, "There's a tiger on Mt. Daxiong; all of you should watch out for him. Today I myself was bitten by him."
Zhenjing's Verse (Yuanwu)
Beating the drum, strumming the lute,
Two men of understanding meet.
Yunmen is able to harmonize --
Chanqing knows how to follow his vagaries;
The ancient song has no rhyme.
South Mountain's turtle-nosed snake;
Who knows this meaning?
Truly it's Xuansha.
Yuanwu's Comment
When Xuefeng speaks this way, "On South Mountain there's a turtle-nosed snake" tell me, where is it? To get here you must be a transcendent person; only then will you be able to understand such talk. Yunmen has the ability to handle snakes, and doesn't run afoul of the sharp point. His throwing down his staff and making a gesture of fright -- isn't this giving play to his spirit?
Doesn't he lose his body and life too?
Sekida's Comment
Turtle-nosed snake is an age-old, bent-headed, venomous serpent. All the Buddhas, patriarchs, and Zen masters were once swallowed by this snake. They came out enlightened and themselves became venomous serpents. The allegory of the snake may seem strange at first, but it is common in Zen literature. It means that you must once undergo the Great Death. "Obviously one man who has lost his life." Changqing is saying, "It must be particularly mentioned that there is a man here who has experienced the Great Death." Changqing is speaking of himself. He wants to respond to his teacher's instruction. "What use is there in making use of the South Mountain?" Zen is everywhere. It is pointless to try to localize it. (It was Xuansha who said "Bodhidharma did not come from the West, the Second Patriarch did not go to India.") Xuansha meant, "If I were Changqing, I would have said, 'What use is there in making use of the South Mountain?'" The South Mountain was a hill located to the south of Xuefeng's temple. Yunmen threw himself into the staff and, becoming the serpent, sprang into Xuefeng's presence. His gesture as if he were afraid is another matter. When you are the serpent itself, you are the serpent itself; when observing the serpent, you are observing the serpent.
Tenkei's Comment
Turtle-nosed snake -- This is borrowing a name to enable people to discuss this matter. Baizhang called it a tiger; Zhaozhou called it going to drink tea; Linji called it the true human with no status; Mazu called it Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha; Dongshan called it a three-foot head with a two-inch neck; Yunmen called it a dry piece of crap; Dongshan called it three pounds of flax. It is called orth at will, sometimes as a staff or a cane, sometimes as a bamboo stick. Xuefeng's idea is to look and see what it is. All the people on earth, having been bitten by Xuefeng, are unable to life their heads; all of them have died on account of the snake. What's the use of South Mountain? -- Not only is the snake not needed, even South Mountain has no use. Yunmen makes a gesture of fright: this is his method of handling the snake.
Wick's Comment
The poison snake of South Mountain is the Original Self, the True Dharma. If you don't know what it is, you had better look out. Changqing expresses that absolute sameness, absolute equality, the intrinsic state of oneness. You have to realize it, and through that realization you will see and appreciate that world of absolute equality. This is what it means to lose your life in Zen. Xuansha points to the world of absolute difference. Everybdy and everything is equal in the True Dharma, yet there is South Mountain and North Mountain, old women and young men, good and evil. Xuansha's absolute difference is not ordinary difference; it covers everything and swallows heaven and earth -- and swallows itself too! Yunmen shows being beyond words and thoughts. Is he expressing equality or difference, emptiness or form? Sometimes you see the difference, sometimes the sameness. If it changes as fast as a lightning flash, as it says in the verse, what is it? Same or different? Putting aside same and different: There's a poison snake on South Mountain All of you had better look out!
Yamada's Comment
Changqing is saying, "Today there's a great person in the Zen hall. He was bitten by this poisonous snake and died." Changqing is speaking of himself, and the
"poisonous snake" means, of course, our essential nature. "Being bitten by the snake" means coming to kensho, with the mind and body fallen off.
Xuansha's answer was, "What's the use of bringing in South Mountain? That wouldn't be necessary. Isn't the poisonous snake everywhere?" That's
right. Everyone of us is a poisonous snake. In fact, all human beings are poisonous snakes! And these poisonous snakes are wonderful snakes! That's why Xuansha says that the poisonous snakes aren't limited to South Mountain. They are everywhere. If you think Yunmen made a snake out of the staff, you are wrong. That would be mere play. You must understand that he presented the poisonous snake itself. In fact, Yunmen liked to make use of his staff. Blue Cliff Record #60 says, "Yunmen showed his staff to the assembly and said, 'This staff has changed into a dragon and has swallowed up heaven and earth.'" He means to say, "This staff has become a dragon and gulped down the entire universe." So the same staff is at one time a dragon, another time a snake. How true! A single staff exhausts the entire universe. Yunmen's presentation is outstanding. In short, the "poisonous snake," the cobra, has come out as the essential nature here. It is nothing but our essential nature that is the topic of this koan. Our "essential nature" and the "essential world" are one and the same. That is what this koan is dealing with.
Rothenberg's Verse
Turtle-Nosed Snake

Every one of us is a crossroads of danger.
There's nothing beyond the great beyond,
it's as fine as atomic dust.

Watch closely the turtle-nosed snake --
this is a spirit who sees a spirit, a thief who knows a thief.
Why gather then in a herd?
You must run with the pack to be one of them.

Fallen in the weeds! Where is the snake? I strike!
Raise your eyebrows to look and you won't see.
It's already gone by. Today I too have been bitten;
A tiger, a serpent, an arrow?
Don't look under his feet, but under your own.

Repeated words are not worth enduring.
Susan Clements' Verse
Xuefeng's "Look Out for the Snake"

on South Mountain turtle-nosed snakes eat
and shit buddhas and ancestors
today – in the world –
many people are losing their bodies and their lives
why look somewhere else
Emily Dickinson's Verse
A narrow Fellow in the Grass

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.
Sturmer's Blue Cliff Verse
Xuefeng's Turtle-Nosed Snake

While seated in zazen
small wings grow
from the tips of your elbows
lifting you high into the air,
setting you down on South Mountain
before the serpent.

A string of saliva
hangs from its jaws.
You wrap it around your finger
as if it were candy floss.
Sturmer's Book of Equanimity Verse
Poison gets rid of poison.
If you ask me how I'm going
I'll tell you:
"Just slithering along."
Down the mountain path
the autumn leaves
display their scales
of orange and scarlet and bronze.
Hotetsu's Verse
I jumped before I knew
Why, or what.
Neurons out of mind
Sent the slender wriggle
Straight to motor,
Leaving the cerebrum
To mosey to a conclusion
Half a second later: "snake."
Recollection would have it that
I jumped first, and then saw it.

The reptilian god shoots fear right past
the cognizer's models, precious and hapless,
and scrambles time.
Nothing so presents it straight
Like curves.

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