Swampland Flowers [Excerpts]
February 14, 2006

The writings of the twelfth-century Chinese Zen master Dahui Zonggao (Ta Hui) are as immediately accessible as those of any contemporary teacher, and this book, which introduced them to the English-speaking world in the 1970s, has become a modern classic—a regular feature of recommended reading lists for Zen centers across America. Contributed by u/YouAreTimeless.


There is Nothing to Attain

Gentlemen of affairs often take the mind (which assumes) there is something to attain to seek the Dharma (wherein) there is nothing to attain. What do I mean by “the mind (which assumes) there is something to attain”? It’s the intellectually clever one, the one that ponders and judges. What do I mean by “the Dharma (wherein) there is nothing to attain”? It’s the imponderable, the incalculable, where there’s no way to apply intelligence or cleverness.

Haven’t you read of old Shakyamuni at the Assembly of the Lotus of the True Dharma? Three times Shariputra earnestly entreated him to preach, but there was simply no way for him to begin. Afterwards, using all his power, he managed to say that this Dharma is not something that can be understood by thought or discrimination. This was old Shakyamuni taking this matter of its ultimate conclusion, opening the gateway of expedient means5 as a starting point for the teaching of the true nature of reality.

In the old days Hsueh Feng, the “Truly Awakened Ch’an Master,” was so earnest about this matter that he went to Mt. T’ou Tzu three times and climbed Mt. Tung Shan nine times. Circumstances were not met for him (in those places, however) so later when he heard of the teaching of Chou, master of the Adamantine Wisdom Scripture, on Te Shan, he went to his abode. One day he asked Te Shan, “In the custom of the school that has come down from high antiquity, what doctrine is used to instruct people?” Te Shan said, “Our school has no verbal expression, nor does it have any doctrine to teach people.” Later Hsueh Feng also asked, “Do I have any share in the business of the vehicle of this ancient school?” Te Shan picked up his staff and immediately hit him saying, “What are you saying?” Under this blow Hsueh Feng finally smashed the lacquer bucket (of his ignorance). From this we observe that in this sect intelligence and cleverness, thought and judgment, are of no use at all.

An ancient worthy had a saying: “Transcendent wisdom is like a great mass of fire. Approach it and it burns off your face.” If you hesitate in thought and speculation, you immediately fall into conceptual discrimination. Yung Chia said, “Loss of the wealth of the Dharma and destruction of virtue all stems from the mind’s conceptual discrimination.” Hence we know that mind’s conceptual discrimination not only obstructs the Path, but also can make people mistaken and confused, so they do all kinds of things that are no good.

Once you have the intent to investigate this Path to the end, you must settle your resolve and vow to the end of your days not to retreat or fall back so long as you have not yet reached the Great Rest, the Great Surcease, the Great Liberation. There’s not much to the Buddha Dharma, but it’s always been hard to find (capable) people. The concerns of worldly passions are like the links of a chain, joining together without a break. Those whose resolve is weak and inferior time and time again willingly become involved with them: unknowing and unawares they are dragged along by them. Only if the person truly possesses the faculty of wisdom and willpower will he consent to step back and reflect. Yung Chia also said, “The real nature of ignorance is identical to the nature of enlightenment; the empty body of illusory transformations is identical to the Body of Reality. Once you’ve awakened, there’s not a single thing in the Body of Reality. Original inherent nature is the naturally real enlightened one.” If you think like this, suddenly, in the place where thought cannot reach, you will see the Body of Reality in which there is not a single thing—this is the place for you to get out of birth and death. What I said before, that one cannot seek the Dharma which has nothing to attain with the attitude that there is something to attain, is just this principle.

Gentlemen of affairs make their living within the confines of thought and judgment their whole lives: as soon as they hear a man of knowledge speak of the Dharma in which there is nothing to attain, in their hearts there is doubt and confusion, and they fear falling into emptiness. Whenever I see someone talking like this, I immediately ask him, is this one who fears falling into emptiness himself empty or not? Ten out of ten cannot explain. Since you have always taken thought and judgment as your nesting place, as soon as you hear it said that you shouldn’t think, immediately you are at a loss and can’t find your grip. You’re far from realizing that this very lack of anywhere to get a grip is the time for you to let go of your body and your life.

Tun-li, my friend in the Path, when we met in Pien in 1126 you were of mature age and already knew of the existence of the Great Matter. But with your vast erudition you have entered too deeply into the Nine (Confucian) Classics and the Seventeen Histories; you are too brilliant and your lines of reasoning are too many, whereas your powers of stable concentration are too few. You are being dragged along by your daily activities as you respond to circumstances: thus you are unable to make a clean break right where you stand.

If correct mindfulness is present at all times, and the attitude of fear for birth and death doesn’t waver, then, over long days and months, what was unfamiliar will naturally become familiar, and what was stale will naturally become fresh. But what is the stale? It’s the brilliance and cleverness, that which thinks and judges. What is the unfamiliar? It’s enlightenment, nirvana, true thusness, the buddha-nature—where there’s no thought or discrimination, where figuring and calculating cannot reach, where there’s no way for you to use your mental arrangements.

Suddenly the time arrives: you may be on a story of an ancient’s entry into the Path, or it may be as you are reading the scriptures, or perhaps during your daily activities as you respond to circumstances; whether (your condition) is good or not good, or your body and mind are scattered and confused, whether favorable or adverse conditions are present, or whether you have temporarily quieted the mind’s conceptual discrimination—when you suddenly topple the key link, there’ll be no mistake about it.

To Li Hsien-ch’en


See the Moon, Forget the Pointing Finger

A gentleman reads widely in many books basically in order to augment his innate knowledge. Instead, you have taken to memorizing the words of the ancients, accumulating them in your breast, making this your task, depending on them for something to take hold of in conversation. You are far from knowing the intent of the sages in expounding the teachings. This is what is called counting the treasure of others all day long without having half a cent of your own. Likewise in reading the Buddhist Scriptures: you must see the moon and forget the fingers.6 Don’t develop an understanding based on the words. An ancient worthy said, “The buddhas expounded all teachings to save all minds; I have no mind at all, so what’s the use of all the teachings?” If they can be like this when reading the scriptures, only then will people with resolve have some comprehension of the intent of the sages.

To Teng Tzu-li



Speaking of “empty illusion,” it is illusion when created and illusion when experienced too; it’s illusion when you’re knowing and aware, and illusion when you’re lost in delusion too. Past, present, and future are all illusions. Today, if we realize our wrong, we take an illusory medicine to cure an equally illusory disease. When the disease is cured, the medicine is removed, and we are the same person as before. If (you think that) there is someone else or some special doctrine, then this is the view of a misguided outsider.

In the instant of Maitreya’s finger-snap, Sudhana was even able to forget the meditative states fostered in him by all his teachers: how much more so the beginningless habit energy of empty falsehood and evil deeds! If you consider the mistakes which you committed in the past as real, then the world right in front of you now is all real, and even official position, wealth and status, gratitude and love, are all real.

To Secretary Lou


Contemplating “No”

You inform me that as you respond to circumstances in your daily involvement with differentiated objects, you’re never not in the Buddha Dharma. You also say that amidst your daily activities and conduct you use the saying “A dog has no Buddha-nature” to clear away emotional defilements. If you make efforts like this, I’m afraid you’ll never attain enlightened entry. Please examine what’s under your feet: where do differentiated objects arise from? How can you smash emotional defilements in the midst of your activities with the saying “A dog has no Buddha-nature?” Who is it who can know he’s clearing away emotional defilements?

Didn’t Buddha say: “Sentient beings are inverted: they lose themselves and pursue things.” Basically things have no inherent nature: those who lose themselves pursue them on their own. Originally objects are undifferentiated: those who lose themselves do their own differentiating. (You say) you have daily contact with differentiated objects, and you’re also within the Buddha Dharma. If you’re in the Buddha Dharma, it’s not an object of differentiation; if you’re among differentiated objects, then it’s not the Buddha Dharma. Pick one up, let one go—what end will there be?

At the Nirvana Assembly,26 the broad-browed butcher put down his slaughtering knife and immediately attained buddhahood where he stood. How could you have so much sadness and sorrow? In your daily activities as you respond to circumstances, as soon as you become aware of being involved with differentiated objects, just go to the differentiating to raise the saying “A dog has no Buddha-nature.” Don’t think of it as clearing away, and don’t think of it as emotional defilement; don’t think of it as differentiation, and don’t think of it as the Buddha Dharma—simply contemplate the saying “A dog has no Buddha-nature.” Just bring up the word “No.” And don’t set your mind on it and await enlightenment. If you do, objects and the Buddha Dharma are differentiated, emotional defilements and the saying “A dog has no Buddha-nature” are differentiated, interrupted and uninterrupted are differentiated, and encountering the confusion of emotional defilements so body and mind are unsettled and being able to know so many differentiations are also differentiated.

If you want to remove this disease, just contemplate the word “No.” Just look at the broad-browed butcher putting down his knife and saying, “I am one of the thousand Buddhas.” True or false? If you assess it as false or true, again you plunge into objects of differentiation. It’s not as good as cutting it in two with a single stroke. Don’t think of before and after: if you think of before and after, this is more differentiating.

Hsuan Sha said this matter “Cannot be limited—the road of thought is cut off. It does not depend on an array of adornments—from the beginning it’s been real and pure. Moving, acting, talking, laughing, clearly understanding wherever you are, there’s nothing more lacking. People these days do not understand the truth in this, and vainly involve themselves with sensory phenomena, getting defiled all over and tied down everywhere. Even if they understand, sense objects are present in complex confusion, names and forms are not genuine, so they try to freeze their minds and gather in their attention, taking things and returning them to emptiness, shutting their eyes, hiding their eyes; if a thought starts up, they immediately demolish it; as soon as the slightest conception arises, they immediately press it down. Those with a view like this are outsiders who have fallen into empty annihilation, dead men whose spirits have not yet departed, dark and silent, without awareness or knowledge. They’re ‘covering their ears to steal the bell,’ vainly deluding themselves.”

All you said in your letter was the disease Hsuan Sha condemned—the perverted Ch’an of quiescent illumination, a pit to bury people in. You must realize this. When you bring up a saying, don’t use so many maneuvers at all—just don’t let there be any interruption whether you’re walking, standing, sitting, or lying down. Don’t discriminate joy and anger, sorrow and bliss. Just keep on bringing up the saying, raising it and raising it, looking and looking. When you feel there’s no road for reason and no flavor, and in your mind you’re oppressed and troubled, this is the place for each person to abandon his body and his life. Remember, don’t shrink back in your mind when you see a realm like this—such a realm is precisely the scene for becoming a buddha and being an ancestral teacher.

And yet the false teachers of silent illumination just consider wordlessness as the ultimate principle, calling it the matter of “the Other Side of the Primordial Buddha,” or of “before the Empty Eon.” They don’t believe there is a gate of enlightenment, and consider enlightenment as a lie, as something secondary, as an expedient word, as an expression to draw people in. This crowd deceive others and deceive themselves, lead others into error and go wrong themselves. You should also realize this.

In the conduct of your daily activities, as you’re involved with differentiated objects, when you become aware of saving power, this is where you gain power. Gaining power is the ultimate in saving power. If you use the slightest power to uphold it, this is definitely a false method—it’s not Buddhism. Just take the mind, so long-lasting, and bring it together with the saying “A dog has no Buddha-nature.” Keep them together till the mind has no place to go—suddenly, it’s like awakening from a dream, like a lotus flower opening, like parting the clouds and seeing the moon. When you reach such a moment, naturally you attain unity. Through the upsets and errors of your daily activities, just contemplate the word “No.” Don’t be concerned with awakening or not awakening, getting through or not getting through. All the Buddhas of the three worlds were just unconcerned people, people for whom there is nothing; all the generations of ancestral teachers too were just people without concerns. An ancient worthy said, “Just comprehend nothingness in the midst of things, unconcern amidst concerns: when seeing forms and hearing sounds, don’t act blind and deaf.” Another ancient worthy said, “Fools remove objects but don’t obliterate mind; the wise wipe out mind without removing objects.” Since in all places there’s no mind, all kinds of objects of differentiation are nonexistent of themselves.

Gentlemen of affairs these days, though, are quick to want to understand Ch’an. They think a lot about the scriptural teachings and the sayings of the ancestral teachers, wanting to be able to explain clearly. They are far from knowing that this clarity is nonetheless an unclear matter. If you can penetrate the word “No,” you won’t have to ask anyone else about clear and unclear. I teach gentlemen of affairs to let go and make themselves dull—this is this same principle. And it’s not bad to get first prize in looking dull, either—I’m just afraid you’ll hand in an empty paper. What a laugh!

To Huang Po-ch’eng


One Path Pure and Even

You, Miao Tao, “Great Master of the Light of Concentration,” asked me “Please point out the concise essentials of this mind and this inherent nature, of delusion and enlightenment, of turning towards and turning away.” I was silent and didn’t answer. When you asked again, I laughed and said, “As for the concise essentials, they cannot be pointed out to people. If it could be pointed out, it wouldn’t be the essentials.” You said, “How can you have no expedient means to enable me to go towards (the Path)?” I said, “As for expedients, well then: with mind, there’s no delusion or enlightenment; with inherent nature, there’s no turning towards or turning away.”

But people set up views of delusion and enlightenment and hold to interpretations of turning towards and turning away, wanting to understand this mind and see this inherent nature; thus this mind and this nature immediately flow into wrong paths, following the person’s inversions, errors, and confusion. Hence enlightenment is not distinguished from delusion, nor the wrong separated from the correct. Because they do not fully understand the dreamlike illusion of “this mind” and “this nature,” they falsely establish pairs of terms: they consider turning towards and turning away, delusion and enlightenment, as real, and accept this mind and this nature as true. They are far from realizing that whether true or not true, false or not false, worldly or world-transcending, these are merely provisional statements.

Thus Vimalakirti said, “The Dharma cannot be seen, heard, perceived, or known. If you employ seeing, hearing, perceiving, and knowing, then this is seeing, hearing, perceiving, and knowing—it’s not seeking the Dharma.”

Another ancient worthy said, “If you grasp your own self and your own mind as the ultimate, there must be other things and other people to be the opposite.”

Again, Buddha told “The Kindly One” (foremost among his chief disciples in expounding the Dharma): “You use the characteristics of form and void to overturn and eliminate each other in the Repository of Thusness, which accordingly becomes form or void and extends through the cosmos. I use subtle illumination undestroyed and unborn, to merge with the Repository of Thusness, so the Repository of Thusness is nothing but the light of subtle awakening shining throughout the cosmos.” So Buddha was provisionally indicating that using form and void to overturn and eliminate each other is wrong, and considering subtle illumination undestroyed and unborn as right. These are medicinal words, to cure the two diseases, delusion and enlightenment, not a set definition by the Buddha: words to smash the clinging to delusion and enlightenment, mind and nature, turning towards and turning away, as real things. Haven’t you read, the Bodhisattva of the Diamond Treasury said, “All the three worlds are only verbal statements. All the various phenomena have no basis in verbal statements, and all verbal statements have no basis within all the various phenomena.”

If views of delusion and enlightenment perish and interpretations of turning towards and turning away are cut off, then this mind is lucid and clear as the bright sun and this nature is vast and open as empty space; right where the person stands, he emits light and moves the earth, shining through the ten directions. Those who see this light all realize acceptance of things as unborn. When you arrive at such a time, naturally you are in tacit accord with this mind and this nature. Only then do you know that in the past there was basically no delusion and now there is basically no enlightenment, that enlightenment is delusion and delusion is enlightenment, that turning towards and turning away are identical, that inherent nature is identical to mind and mind is identical to inherent nature, that buddhas are delusive demons and delusive demons are buddhas, that the One Path is pure and even, that there is no equal or not equal—all this will be the constant lot of one’s own mind, not dependent on the skills of another.

Even so, it’s from lack of any other choice again that I say this: don’t immediately consider this as really true. If you consider it really true, then you’re ignorant of expedient means, accepting dead words as fixed, multiplying empty falsehoods, producing even more confusion—there will be no end to it.

When you get here, where there’s no way to use your mind, it’s not as good as knowing of such things, but putting them to one side, and turning to the Great Master Ma’s “Mind itself is Buddha,” and “Not mind, not Buddha,” and “It’s not mind, it’s not Buddha, it’s not things”; or Chao Chou’s (answer to “What is the meaning of the coming from the west?”) “The cypress tree in the garden”; or Yun Men’s (answer to “When not giving rise to a single thought, is there fault or not?”) “Mt. Sumeru”; or Ta Yu’s “Sawing apart the scale beam”; or Yun Yang’s (answer to “What is Buddha?”) “A lump of earth”; or Wu Ye of Fen Yang’s (frequent reply to questioners) “Don’t think falsely”; or Chu T’i’s (lifelong teaching by simply) raising a finger—ultimately, what principle is it? This, then, is my expedient means. Think it over, Miao Tao.

To Fan Mao-shih

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