Deshan visited Longtan and questioned him sincerely far into the night. It grew late and Longtan said, “Why don’t you retire?” Deshan made his bows and lifted the blinds to withdraw, but was met by darkness.
Turning back he said, “It is dark outside.” Longtan lit a paper candle and handed it to Deshan. Deshan was about to take it when Longtan blew it out. At this, Deshan had sudden realization and made bows. Longtan said, “What truth did you discern?” Deshan said, “From now on I will not doubt the words of an old priest who is renowned everywhere under the sun.
” —- Gateless Gateway, #28

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

–Wendell Berry

The Rest of the Story: Traveling by Day

Deshan lived his life by the light of day: he knew what he knew, and trusted it to carry him through life. He felt his knowing was adequate to his life. He cultivated the scholar’s life spending long hours with the Diamond Sutra. Deshan was famous throughout the north of China, traveling from monastery to monastery speaking to large crowds, the monks of the monastery and townspeople who would come in the pursuit of wisdom. They wanted to know, to have things explained to them. “The Diamond Sutra King” they called him.

Deshan lived in the bright light of his knowledge.

Talk had spread throughout the north of heretical masters down south who were speaking of a transmission of wisdom, “mind to mind, outside of scripture.” For Deshan this was an assault upon the truth revealed in the sutras. He took it personally. He would travel to the belly of this beast and vanquish the foe. He packed up his notes and commentaries on the sutra and headed south.

Arriving in the region of one of the southern devils, Longtan, Deshan felt hungry and stopped at a teahouse at the foot of the mountain. A old woman came to serve him. He was intrigued by the way she looked at him, her eyes, her confidence as she came to the table. He asked her for tenjin or tea cakes. As he ordered he remembered again the double meaning of tenjin, as is appropriate here, ‘tea cakes,’ but also, ironic to his journey, “mind kindle.” As he ordered up his cakes, the woman noticed the cart loaded heavy with Deshan’s Diamond Sutra text, commentaries and notes.“Whatcha’ got there?” she asked. “That is my life’s work on that cart,” he replied, “my commentaries and notes on the Diamond Sutra, the sum of my vast knowledge. I am the King of the Diamond Sutra.” “Is that so?” she said, “then I have a question for you. If you answer it, I’ll give you tenjin. If you can’t answer, you get nothing!” “How hard can this be?” thought Deshan. “Sure,” he replied.

“Like it says in your Sutra,” the old shop-woman said: “Past Mind cannot be realized. Present mind cannot be realized. Future mind cannot be realized. Which mind is it you want kindled and set ablaze?”

Deshan couldn’t answer. He could barely speak. Nothing he knew, or had read, or heard could help him with this question. He was completely in the dark now. No way to navigate this territory. Soon, he would learn what the woman was offering him, but now, he was only confused, upset and desperate. “Is there a Zen Master around here?” he asked the old woman. “Yep, just a few miles up the road, that’s Longtan’s place.” Head full, belly empty, Deshan went to meet Longtan.

Far Into the Night

Longtan was happy to greet Deshan. As they met Deshan tried his best at a Zen greeting. Knowing that Longtan’s name meant “Dragon – Lake,” he said, “I have known of you for a long time, Longtan, but having arrived here I find neither a dragon nor a lake.” “Now you have Longtan right here,” came the reply. (Pretty good exchange, if you ask me. It seems Longtan has the upper hand.)

As evening approaches Deshan asks Master Longtan to teach him. They speak long into the night, darkness surrounding the small hut. Finally, Longtan, says, “It’s late. Why don’t you retire.” Getting up, Deshan lifts the blinds, the darkness thick. “It is dark outside,” he says. Longtan reaches for a lantern on a nearby table, lights it and hands it to Deshan. Just as the younger man reaches for the lantern, Longtan blows it out.

Ah! Deshan gets it, his heart opens wide, the burden of the day leaves him. He’s in the dark. The maps he carried to find his way have been taken away. He negotiates the territory now one step at a time, each moment to itself, the ground rising to meet him.

…to know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings. 

Deshan gives a long bow.
“You just saw into things. Tell me, what is it?” Longtan asks.
“That from this day forward, here amid all beneath heaven, I’ll never doubt the tongue of an old master.”

Go Dark

I am going to end the story there. It goes on with Longtan praising Deshan to the assembly of monks the next day. And finally, Deshan gathers all his texts, commentaries and notes and burns them saying,

Even if you understand all the intricacies of dark-enigma itself, it’s barely a hair’s-breadth adrift in the vast emptiness of this Cosmos. And even if you comprehend through and through that loom of origins at the heart of things, it’s barely a drop tossed into endless seas.”(David Hinton, No Gate Gateway)

In the Dark, Not Knowing

We know what we know — I learn and study, set up house. I know who I am related to. I know the names of my children, I know how to change the spark plugs on my car. There are whole fields of endeavor. I am familiar with some, not so familiar with others. To know is to be in the light of day, to have an somewhat accurate map of the territory, to count on the fact that if I raise the heat on a pot of water at sea level to two hundred and twelve degrees, it will boil. But even with all I know, life is mysterious.

You see like most of us I was raised in the light of day: I want to know, I think I know, if I don’t know, I think that someone knows and is keeping it from me, all that, but finally at the end of the day, we really don’t know.

Where do my thoughts come from? How is it that they seem to appear without consulting me? How is it that an emotion might rise in me with no apparent reason? Or the next moment — given all that I do know, how is it that I can’t know what will happen next? Where do dreams come from, and where do they go when I can’t remember them. Finally, I look at all I know about life and begin to experience all that I do not and I find that there is far more of the latter — life is unknown and uncertain.

And I am glad for it – not knowing, being in the dark, opens life. Not knowing means that my mind is open and I am curious about what comes next. Not knowing feels the vibrancy of life, is responsive to the energy of what is here.The tea lady asks Deshan, “which mind past, present or future, will you set ablaze? and as he searches for mind, he is thrown into not having an answer (having no mind?), something that will satisfy him, as all his knowledge has satisfied him before. Now desperate, Deshan is thrown into life itself. Riding the currents of life energy, he begins to feel his way along in the dark. He ends up at Longtan’s place. Here, looking for a Dragon and a Lake, he finds none. Instead, Longtan says, “I am right here, the real Longtan,” inviting him to the intimacy of encounter.

It is not knowing that has brought Deshan this far.

Longtan and Deshan talk into the night. Longtan suggests bed. Deshan notices it is dark outside. Longtan hands him a candle and as soon as he grabs it, Longtan blows it out. It is dark inside too, spacious, vast. There is nothing in the way. For Deshan – the first day.

What you know, you know. It sort of ends there. Far more trustworthy is not knowing — not knowing the possibilities open beyond anything you can think or imagine. Life, not forced into a mold of knowing, is open, flexible and free, responsive to what is here.

…to know the dark, go dark,
and find, too, the dark blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings. 

Feeling my Way

Two years ago I was talking with my father who was wondering what he would do upon the death of his second wife. He was 90, living in the country and alone. I could feel the urgency in his question, the mounting desperation and before I knew what I was saying, I said, “I can move here.” That was the first I was informed. I have since retired, moved from California, and my father died 5 months after my arrival in Kentucky. Now I live alone on Panola Ridge outside of Richmond, Kentucky. I take care of cows, horses and chickens, and I teach Zen. There are other koans about the dark, here’s one:

Don’t light a lamp—there’s no oil in the house.
It’s a shame to want a light.
I have a way to bless poverty:
Just feel your way along the wall.

We think we know, we want to know, but we do not. There is a blessing in this as we feel our way along. Life meets us, and we are in the right place.

Some Questions:

  1. Tell me about the tea lady: what was this tenjin, this mind kindle, she was serving up?
  2. Have you ever felt desperate for understanding? What is that like?
  3. Longtan says to Deshan, “Now you have Longtan right here.” What is Longtan up to? What is on offer? Where is this offer in your life?
  4. Deshan and Longtan exhaust tthe day, the darkness descends upon them. They move from sight, knowing, into the dark, not-knowing (in his verse on the koan, Wu-men says of Deshan, “Alas, he has lost his eyes.”) Is there a time in your life when it seemed that not knowing opened things up for you?
  5. Who is the “old master” that Deshan refers to?