No Shortcut to Awakening

Ross Bolleter guides us through the Cycle of Merit, the ancient Chan master Dongshan’s map showing us the way to enlightenment and back to where we are.

By Ross Bolleter Roshi

Nakazora #1083 All photographs © Masao Yamamoto


Sage rulers have always modeled themselves on Emperor Yao.
Treating others with propriety, you bend your dragon waist.
At times, passing through the thick of the bustling market, you find it civilized throughout and the august dynasty celebrated.

This is the first step on our journey. Everything lies in front of us. We hear about the Way and recognize that it is for us. Then, perhaps even years later, we embark and begin to find our home there. As we orient ourselves, we begin to see our life through the eyes of the teachings and to identify with them. We sense a mystery that resists explanation, and we turn toward it. Like the discovery of the tracks of the ox in the second of the ten pictures from the Ox-Herding Cycle, we haven’t yet entered the gate, but we’ve discerned the path. As we cultivate inquiry and learn to meditate, we begin to travel it in reverence and awe.

The etymological meaning of the English word orientation is “turning eastward,” implying turning toward the rising sun—an auspicious image that evokes the dawn mood of setting out. When we make a commitment to travel the Way, circumstances most often gather to support us. It is a time of intimations and significant meetings. Sometimes it is hard to tell them apart.

I remember when I flew from Perth to Sydney for my first sesshin. I met Robert Aitken in one of the personal interviews he so generously gave to new students before sesshin. We sat on the balcony of the zendo and looked out over the treetops. Neither of us spoke, and I sensed that he was shy.

After a long time, and still looking straight ahead, he cleared his throat, then said, “When Kumarajiva translated the sutras into Chinese, he found that there wasn’t a word for the Sanskrit shunyata (emptiness), so he used ku, the Chinese character for sky.”

Aitken’s words linked my naive and azure intuitions with the Zen tradition. He then suggested that I work on the koan Mu, and he told me the story of Zhaozhou’s dog. That very moment a dog burst onto the veranda and scampered joyously around us, barking excitedly. We both burst out laughing. I felt that I was meeting my life, although I didn’t have the words for it.

Sage rulers have always modeled themselves on Emperor Yao.
Treating others with propriety, you bend your dragon waist.

The legendary Emperor Yao (2357–2257 BCE) was the original emperor of China’s first dynasty, the Xia. This emperor is remembered for having redirected the flow of the Yellow River, thereby preventing floods that threatened his subjects who lived along its banks. This redirection of the Yellow River is what Dongshan is referring to when he writes that “you bend your dragon waist.” It’s said that Yao’s light encompassed the extremities of the empire and extended from heaven to earth—an image that hints at his awakened nature. Rather than killing off opposition, Yao seems to have been able to bear complaints and to incorporate objections into his rule. Being modest, he preferred to parley rather than to overpower. Yao can therefore also be understood as an exemplary figure who represents the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha.

“Treating others with propriety” suggests maintaining proper form and being consistent and just in our dealings. In short, it suggests behaving with integrity. “Bending the dragon waist” can also be understood as courtesy, grace under pressure, even forgiveness and mercy. On one hand we hold the line and cleave to principle; on the other we give others a better-than-even break.

The qualities that we associate with propriety and “bending the dragon waist” may appear to be opposed. However, they accord readily in the conduct of a true person of the Way. “Bending your dragon waist” means that you are available to talk to a friend who rings late at night to discuss what’s troubling him, and “treating others with propriety” means not ringing others late at night to discuss your problems. Instead we hunker down, meditate, and examine our own hearts. For me, this comes down to friendship in another’s trouble; courage in one’s own.

At times, passing through the thick of the bustling market,
you find it civilized throughout and the august dynasty celebrated.

I like it that Dongshan begins our journey in the marketplace: the place to where we return at the end of our journey, according to the OxHerding Cycle. To say that we find the marketplace “civilized throughout” is to express the sense that it is our own true nature in its unfolding. The brightly colored, noisy stalls steal our sense of separation. We are allured and joyous, and we can’t fathom why. Simply walking down the street feels large and alive. A sudden wind lifts the shining leaves and we are gusted away. We discover the ancient teachings, and they shake up the kaleidoscope of our presuppositions. It’s like being in love: we see our beloved everywhere—in changing light, in a mountain, in a flight of birds, and in our own smile. We see things through his or her eyes too: “That’s how my beloved would see it.” We know this unerringly, and like Shakespeare’s Juliet, we wish but for the thing we have. When we get to know the stories and sayings of the old teachers in this spirit, their words open a path for us. The story of how widow Fazhen came to awakening back in twelfth-century China is exemplary in this regard:

Chan Master Dahui Zonggao sent a monk to call on the widow Fazhen’s son. The monk stayed for a time and talked to the son about Chan.

Although the teachings were not intended for her, Fazhen was fascinated by what she heard, and she took the opportunity to ask the visitor about Dahui’s methods. He told her his teacher required that students investigate the koan of Zaozhou’s Mu with every atom of their being, and that he didn’t allow them to comment on it or think about it.

Fazhen was inspired by the adept’s words. She did the housework during the day and sat with Mu at night.

One day her mind became clear and she could respond unhesitatingly to the monk’s questions. He approved her realization, and Fazhen gave him a letter to take back to Dahui in which she wrote some verses. The final verse read:

All day long reading the words of the sutras,
It’s like meeting an old acquaintance.
Don’t say doubts arise again and again—
Each time it is brought up, each time it’s new.

When Dahui received the widow’s verses, he was delighted that she had accorded with his own words, “When you’ve seen into your deepest nature, reading the old stories is like going outside and running into an old friend.” Or like coming home and finding an old friend waiting.

This is the freshness of the dharma. Each encounter is the first. Even doubts about our grasp of it are part of its richness. The old stories illuminate us, and we shyly illuminate them. We find glimmering intimations of this everywhere. The widow’s story shows us how, even with meager opportunities, we can awaken.

We are always orienting. We seem, at any stage of the Way, to lose contact and then regain it. The process is a bit like air traffic control bringing a plane in to land. Now we are on beam, now off, but always correcting. Whether we are a beginner or an old-timer, each stage of the way, including Orientation, is expressive of our inherent buddhanature.



For whom have you washed off your splendid makeup?
The cuckoo’s call urges you to return. The hundred flowers have fallen,
yet the call is unending, moving deeper and still deeper
into jumbled peaks.

At the stage of Service, we deepen our commitment to the Way and make the sacrifices necessary to place it at the center of our lives. Here “service” and “commitment” mean not only ethical considerations but also service and commitment to essential nature. When we open our eyes in the morning and roll out of bed, feeling the cold floor with our toes, that’s service to the essential. In this regard, even our dreams serve, though they resist being pressed into service.

The Chinese term that we translate here as “service” is feng, which also carries the meanings of “holding something devoutly” or “being obedient to a teaching.” In addition to these, feng can also mean “to honor,” “to pay homage to,” “to esteem,” and “to offer.” All of these senses of feng are variously at play at the stage of Service.

I asked an old friend of mine who doesn’t practice Zen formally, “What should I do when I feel depressed?”
“Do something for someone else,” was his reply.

In Latin, attendare, from which the English word “attention” is derived, means “to lean toward” or “to serve.” We serve others when we open an attentive silence in which they can express their joy and suffering. In order to accomplish this, we need to let go of rehearsing our eager story as they tell theirs. Whatever else enlightened activity is, it surely includes this. One of the finest acknowledgments one human can give another is to say of that person, “He was there for me” or “She was there for me.” Idealistic and self-congratulatory notions of service disappear in such moments—we simply help the child with her homework or push the neighbor’s car when its battery is dead. Enlightenment is as enlightenment does.

For whom have you washed off your splendid makeup?

The reference to removing makeup conjures the image of a woman, well versed in the ways of the world, who decides to wash off her makeup and commit to the one she loves. This is Dongshan’s image for renouncing worldliness to commit to the Buddha Way. Most of us are not in a position to renounce our worldliness, so to bring the verse into closer accord with contemporary lay experience, I will reframe Dongshan’s question as Robert Aitken does: “For whom do you bathe and make yourself presentable?”

This is a koan of daily custom. In it, the “for whom”—or more aptly, the “who”—disappears into the fact of our showering, drying our hair, and dabbing on deodorant. There is nothing ulterior here, nothing hidden. Our being born is like this. Our dying too.

The cuckoo’s call urges you to return.

“To return” is the integrity of practice, and we do this undeterred by any awakening experience we may have had. In this spirit, Yamada Koun, after his great awakening, practiced every day for the rest of his life with what some might regard as a beginner’s koan: “Who is hearing that sound?”

The wind on our faces—our ever-faithful breath—calls to us, as us. As we move into accord with this, our half-lives become a life. With repeated returning, over time, the genuine person emerges. We emerge in our true color.

The hundred flowers have fallen, yet the call is unending,
moving deeper and still deeper into jumbled peaks

Even though our delusions fall away, still the call continues to draw us into greater depth. Our heart yearns for its release, and that too is the call. The heart’s yearning is its release. With the confidence that comes from our surrender to the softest of invitations—a long-ringing bell, a flickering star—we embark on a journey into the jumbled peaks of our suffering and of the suffering world.As we learn to open and allow more of the world in, we hear the sorrow that lies beneath the anger in the voice that criticizes us. We feel our own shame, nearly to the point of incapacitation, in that moment. We begin to open to truths embedded in our interactions with others, and we slowly come to see our own part in the conflict.

We serve by giving our awareness to each painful situation. We allow whatever is there to be there. Every subtle movement of feeling is just what it is. This is the voice that calls us home. This is home. No one asks us to do this work, and for the most part we didn’t come to the Way for it. But we do it nonetheless, cultivating a path of opening to, and seeing into, our karmic inheritance as we struggle to come to terms with what is most obdurate in us.

When we take this on, we undertake to practice with devotion to the end of our lives. This means accepting disappointment without giving up, and enduring in the face of discouragement. All of this requires courage, understood here as the quality that carries us beyond petty resistance and self-pity. Having made the commitment, it’s good to keep going. There’s still so much (who knows how much?) to be discovered. It’s as though we’ve found our way into a dark cave. We grope our way forward. We glimpse a stalactite and see what looks like water glimmering in the dark. Is it a lake? How far back does it go?

By undertaking service to the essential, we learn to distinguish stream from lake, stalactite from stalagmite, and we begin to emerge from the shadows. Even with our ordinary activity— bathing, cleaning our teeth, squinting in the steamy mirror to comb our hair—we make the subterranean caverns eloquent, no less than the night of turning stars.

We practice commitment to the Way by helping and attending to others, and by doing the hard yards of coming to really know ourselves. Implicit in the conduct aspect of service is a commitment to practice as a means to awaken to our true nature. Fortuitously—for awakening has its own time and season—it is to the season of awakening that Dongshan next turns.


A withered tree blossoms in timeless spring.
You ride a jade elephant backward, chasing the unicorn.
Now, as you dwell hidden high among the thousand distant peaks—
a white moon, a cool breeze, an auspicious day.

At Merit, awakening appears as an outcome or reward for our cleaving to the Way and serving it wholeheartedly. Elsewhere, Dongshan conveys this reward as ease after effort: laying down the hoe or resting among the white clouds. However, in the much looser weave of reality at large, we awaken as awakening determines and in our own unique ways. The path is crooked, and we walk it at night under our own stars.

Dongshan’s verse expresses awakening, which is as fresh as this moment, yet ancient and elemental. This experience is an important step on the path to maturity, and with it comes a measure of freedom from constricting attitudes and stories. In time, we develop a sense that the lights are dimming on our self-preoccupation, and the teeming world feels less like a painted backdrop to our fantasies of power and control.

A withered tree blossoms in timeless spring.

The image of the withered tree is a Chan image for emptiness. It also extends the imagery of falling flowers used in the previous verse for the stage of Service. There, with the dying off of our delusions, we responded to the voice of our essential nature inviting us to realize, and then more deeply. By the stage of Merit, we’ve journeyed so far that there is no turning back, and we’ve lost track of what brought us here in the first place. Perhaps we wanted peerless enlightenment, but that urge has receded, and we find that we are becalmed in a place where we can neither advance nor retreat.

Our enterprise feels pointless, yet we persevere in that stuck place, not knowing what else to do. We experience humiliation and shame at our incapacity to resolve the koan. It is as if we have been given a “sky burial” and are being pecked clean by the vultures of our own doubt and negativity.

We may have experiences of emptiness, but they don’t penetrate deeply and are not enough to release us. If after such experiences our hearts are not at rest, we should honor that, endure our disappointment, and not settle for less. Like this, we undergo a withering away of our hopes and expectations, and we are unknowingly open to the possibility of genuine experience. All the while we continue to build the vessel of the Way with our struggles and efforts to resolve the koan. The following exchange reflects this season of practice and points a way for us:

A monk asked old master Yunmen Wenyan, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?”
Yunmen replied, “Golden Wind is manifesting herself.”

We might rephrase the monk’s question as “Even though I have meditated sincerely for years and seen off my cherished delusions, why can’t I awaken?” “Golden Wind” is the deity of autumn. Here she manifests herself as the monk’s bare state. The reply “Golden Wind is manifest- ing herself” points to the monk’s condition. There is no need for the monk to look elsewhere, for his condition is the Way unfolding at ease.

You ride a jade elephant backward, chasing the unicorn.

The qilin is a mythological being: part dragon, part deer. In medieval China the qilin was identified with the giraffe and the unicorn, and we have chosen to translate qilin as “unicorn.” Legend has it that devas—creatures of the airy realms—rode about on qilins. Dongshan exploits this spectacle to express awakening in all its joy- ous absurdity. This is the Way at play, the time- less dharmakaya playing catch with itself.

Now, as you dwell hidden high among the thousand distant peaks—
a white moon, a cool breeze, an auspicious day.

Hidden among the snowy peaks, the crevasses, and the chasms, you are vast and completely indistinguishable from them. With such an experience, we may feel that we are high and dry beyond worldly troubles. However, we must come to include the suffering of others and our own. This will be an important theme in the following stage of this cycle. For now, there is only the coolness and ease of dawn after an unimaginable struggle in the darkness. Our hearts are easy. Our eyes are sluiced clear. And truly, the years of struggle and frustration are forgotten as though they never were.


Merit in Common

The many beings and buddhas do not intrude on each other.
Mountains are high of themselves; waters are deep of themselves.
What do the myriad differences and distinctions clarify?
Where the partridge calls, the hundred flowers bloom afresh.

We have traveled through the stages of orienting to the Way, of serving it, and of the personal awakening that ensued from those efforts. We might regard the path as ending there in some private ecstasy beyond the jumble and confusion of human suffering. Dongshan, however, urges us on to realize the stage of Merit in Common (enlightenment in common).

We actualize enlightenment in common not by resting in the realm of personal awakening but by practicing with others. Like this, we make what is implicit real, and out of our awakening, others awaken too. As noted above, in some places Dongshan represents the experience of emptiness as laying down the hoe or resting among the clouds. Here, in a world seen fresh from awakening, we take up the hoe—or more likely these days, the iPad and the mobile phone—and work on behalf of others according to their needs.

In his verse for the stage of Merit in Common, Dongshan explores the theme of enlightenment in common—the notion that our own awakening is exactly the awakening of all beings—touching initially on aspects of difference and singularity, before surprising us with a heart-opening image of accord.

The many beings and buddhas do not intrude on each other.
Mountains are high of themselves; waters are deep of themselves.

In terms of the unfolding of the Way, these two lines provide the necessary antidote to “dwelling hidden high among the thousand distant peaks”—which is to say “dwelling in emptiness”—expressed in the preceding stage. Now we turn from emptiness toward that which is unique and singular, and we treat that as all there is. From this perspective, each thing stands alone even as it configures the whole. It’s the nature of mountains to be high; it’s the nature of oceans to be deep. Buddhas are complete, in and of themselves, lacking nothing. Just as each of us—drunk, sober, miserable, enraged, exultant—emerge, moment by moment, from vastness into lone, inimitable life.

In the brilliant and clarifying light of “Mountains are high of themselves; waters are deep of themselves,” even if we fail to live up to others’ and our own expectations or fail to come into our own, we are still irrevocably unique. Dongshan’s point cuts deeper than our shallow attempts to stand out from the crowd—a position aptly encapsulated in the slogan “Let me be different, like everybody else!” In truth, each particular thing unstintingly pours out its song: the cicada sings itself to death as the cicada.

There is a Zen saying “The elbow does not bend outward.” “The elbow” is our humanity expressed as limitation and vulnerability. It is the elbow’s nature not to bend outward; it is our nature to be fragile and fleeting, even as we embody vastness. Yet we don’t dwell on that connection; we don’t seek to dwell in vastness. Instead, we invest that immensity in our connection with the world and in how we treat others.

How do we do this? When a child comes to us, we open to her as a child and deal with her as a child; when a wise person comes, we open to her wisdom and honor the gifts that she brings. We deal appropriately with each particular being by meeting her fully and acknowledging her completely.

The saying “When dew enters the willow it becomes green; when it enters the flower it becomes red” beautifully expresses such true meeting. When we meet each person fully, we lose (and find) ourselves over and over, enlightening others and becoming enlightened ourselves in an unending dance. I assume the guise of a scary monster for the delight of my daughter; I become the parent that urges her to bed; I act as her coconspirator, planning her mother’s birthday. Now she guides me, helping me choose a suit in a labyrinthine menswear shop. Each of our roles flashes from darkness; each is the face of that darkness.

What do the myriad differences and distinctions clarify?
Where the partridge calls, the hundred flowers bloom afresh.

Dongshan’s question here conveys the essential realm and is itself a response to its own query. We shouldn’t be unduly fascinated with this, though. We can easily spin our wheels in the mud, going nowhere fast. Dongshan responds to his question-that-is-itself-an-answer with a profound and mysterious line. His reply invites us to see the bright kingdom of the unique and contingent as mysterious all over again. He urges us to live our realization more fully and to succumb at deeper levels.

This isn’t simply about realizing wholeness or uniqueness––and their inseparability––but stepping beyond all that, to express and embody the Way in our least activity. The willingness to “step beyond” is born of the love and compassion that flow from a lifetime of walking the Way. It is difficult to put this into words, but the following brief exchange captures its spirit:

Tongan Guanzhi came to the teacher Tongan Daopi and said, “The ancients said, ‘I do not love what worldly people love.’ I wonder, what does your Reverence love?”
Tongan Daopi replied, “I have already become like this.”
When Guanzhi heard this he had an awakening.

The student, Guanzhi, was consumed with love for the Way. Such love pulls us into depth, drawing us deeper into our relationship with the Way. Living expressions of this love appear when we struggle with our practice and go to bed feeling discouraged, yet in the morning everything feels fresh and alive. How can that be? We fight with her, but she doesn’t quit on us. Embarking into the Way, we’re like teenage lovers plucking petals from a flower: “She loves me, she loves me not…” As we venture deeper and deeper in, it’s just: “She loves me, she loves me, she loves me…”

So the student asks his teacher, “What does your Reverence love?” He’s asking, “Are you worldly? Are you attached? After such long training and practice, how do you stand in relation to love?” And his teacher comes out with this mysterious response, “I have already become like this.” Become like what? In great teachers there is a center, a core that wells. Their activity comes from nourishing it and being nourished by it. Mystery resonates in their words and actions. They walk the Way; they sleep the Way. A student comes to hear her teacher teach, but more importantly, to see how he or she loves.

Merit upon Merit

If horns sprout on your head, that’s unbearable;
If you rouse your mind to seek Buddha, that’s shameful.
In the vastness of the empty kalpa there is no one who knows—
Why go to the South to interview the fifty-three sages?

To arrive at the stage of Merit upon Merit is to be enlightened beyond enlightenment. There are no medallions struck to indicate such attainment, and hopefully, if we try to apply this personally, it is not us. Whatever Merit upon Merit may be, it includes our delusions about the world and ourselves. Our deepest misunderstanding of the Way—not to mention our faults and our foolishness—are lit by the moon.

Merit upon Merit, or Enlightenment beyond Enlightenment, as I like to call it, entails that the Way becomes a lived matter and is none other than our unique life in its unfolding. Our experience of emptiness is now so embodied in our ordinary activity that it is forgotten. The stages of our journey—Orientation, Service, Merit (personal awakening), Merit in Common (enlightenment in common)—are subsumed within the least of our activities. The world and we ourselves have passed into each other, and we live the realized life in accord with our circumstances. I say “the realized life,” but here “life” is more than enough. In the grown-up world, this can only be taken up fully at the price of including our pain and fear, and that of others.

If horns sprout on your head, that’s unbearable;
If you rouse your mind to seek Buddha, that’s shameful.

In a way, rousing our mind to seek Buddha can be a commendable urge to go deeper, for inevitably we feel that whatever we’ve realized isn’t enough. But continuing to ask, “What is Buddha?” after we’ve realized can also be a way of refusing to cross the bridge to fully enter our lives. If we find ourselves dazzled by the ancient koan, and if its allure makes our life seem shabby in comparison, we need to take care.

Rousing our minds to seek Buddha can also be a way of showing off our striving, to ourselves, at least. It can become an addiction and a pose. It’s disingenuous to say, “I’ve become a beginning student all over again,” when that apparent humility is subtly infected by our knowingness or by the pride we take in our humility.

Again, we might believe that it is wrong to give up our efforts after enlightenment, and consequently rouse our minds to seek Buddha as a way of confirming that each thought is Buddha and that our very questioning is Buddha. But by doing so, we unwittingly reintroduce subject and object all over again.

Now, finally, there is no need to seek Buddha. With no separation between our lives and our practice, we are hopefully at ease. Hopefully too, not even the wisest can detect any residue of realization in our words or actions, nor find the tracks of the ancestors in our footprints.

In the vastness of the empty kalpa there is no one who knows—

The Sanskrit term kalpa means “a world age,” an endlessly long period of time. Imagine a block of stone a cubic mile in volume. Every century a swallow flies over the stone, brushing against it with the tip of its wing. When the block has been worn away by these caresses, not even one kalpa will have elapsed!

So that everything can breathe again, Dongshan consigns the Cycle of Merit to this timeless vastness. “In the vastness of the empty kalpa there is no one who knows.” This line empties out time, knowing, and the stages of the Way. However, this doesn’t mean “abandon all hope.” It’s just that, having walked the darkling path into not-knowing, we are so sunk in emptiness that we are it, and we have forgotten even that.

It is important not to attach to the five stages of the Cycle of Merit as modes of knowledge. This is the main thrust of Dongshan’s final verse. If you attach to the stages as knowledge, you cash out the spirit of the Way.

Having climbed the ladder, we kick it away. We step beyond knowing and notknowing, and even beyond forgetting. Emptiness and all its modes of expression are empty. The final verse encodes its own release, and ours. Even as their beauty and profundity entrance us, we learn the modes and stages, realize them, embody them, and finally forget them. In light of this, if there is no one who knows, why would we go to the South to interview the fifty-three sages?

Why go to the South to interview the fifty-three sages?

Here Dongshan refers to the Avatamsaka Sutra, alluding to the journey of the pilgrim Sudhana, who engaged fifty-three teachers of the Way. After the long pilgrimage from orientation to commitment, from commitment to personal awakening, from personal awakening to enlightenment in common, and from enlightenment in common to supreme awakening, the conclusion of the final stage is very quiet—“Why go to the South to interview the fifty-three sages?”—wordlessly conveying the Way beyond questions and answers.

This teaching is adapted from “Dongshan’s Five Ranks,” published by Wisdom Publications, 2014. Reprinted with permission. 

Ross Bolleter Roshi

Ross Bolleter Roshi

Ross Bolleter Roshi is a teacher in the Diamond sangha tradition and a dharma successor of Robert Aitken and John Tarrant. He is the senior teacher of Zen Group of Western Australia in Perth.