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A Zen Fish Story
by Anonymous/Unknown

This is a story about three Chinese Zen masters from the Heian period, T'ang Dynasty, considered the "Golden Age" of Zen. Tao-wu (768?-853), his Dharma brother, Ch'uan-tzu ("Dharma brother" indicates they were both heirs of the same teacher, Yueh-shan Wei-yen) and Chia-shan, the chief monk of an important monastery. This story was retold by Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), the founder of Soto Zen in Japan.

About the year 845, Tao-wu visited the teacher of another monastery. While sitting in the great hall with other monks he observed the chief monk, Chia-shan, engaging in Dharma combat with the other monks. (Dharma combat is a verbal contest by which students try to "trip" each other or their teacher to reveal lapses in understanding of the Dharma. These bouts can be quite lively.) On hearing Chia-shan, Tao-wu burst out laughing. Chia-shan descended from the rostrum and asked Tao-wu why he had laughed. Tao-wu said, "I have a Dharma brother who teaches others in a boat on the Flowers-in -River. You should go see him if you want to realize it." (The "it" Tao-wu refers to is the Great Realization, which of course can't be described. The less said, the better.)

The Dharma brother Tao-wu spoke of was Ch'uan-tzu, who had left all monasteries behind, saying that he was good for nothing. Ch'uan-tzu had become a boatman, teaching in disguise.

At Tao-wu's suggestion, Chia-shan took of his monk's robes and dressed as a layman to meet with Ch'uan-tzu. So when Chia-shan reached Flowers-in-River, he was startled to hear Ch'uan-tzu call to him, "Chief monk of an assembly, at what temple do you stay?"

Chia-shan replied, "I stay at no temple. Can't you see my clothes? If I were a monk, would I look like this?"

Ch'uan-tzu asked, "You say you do not, but then what do you look like?"

"I am beyond sight, hearing, and consciousness," replied Chia-shan.

"Where did you learn that?" asked Ch'uan-tzu.

"Beyond sight and hearing.," replied the monk-in-disguise to the teacher-in-disguise.

"Even one phrase of ultimate reality would lose its freedom forever if we were to attach to it. To drop a thousand-foot fishing line means to seek a fish with golden scales. [The fish with golden scales is a metaphor for Enlightenment.] Why don't you say a word?"

Chia-shan was about to speak when Ch'uan-tzu leapt upon him, wrestled him into the water, and held his head under. Then Ch'uan-tzu lifted the gulping and gasping Chia-shan and demanded, "Say a word! Say a word!" And again, when Chia-shan opened his mouth, Ch'uan-tzu pushed his head under the water.

At about the third dunking, Chia-shan became enlightened.

This time, when he came up, Chia-shan bowed to his teacher in gratitude. Ch'uan-tzu remarked, "You're welcome to the fishing line." (Ch'uan-tzu was telling Chia-shan that he was now qualified to teach.) "If you have realized it, say it quickly, tell me quickly, words are wondrous and unspeakable. You can see such a fish only after you've fished out of the sea wave, only after you've gone beyond discrimination."

But all the while Ch'uan-tzu was speaking, Chia-shan covered his ears and began to walk away. At this, Ch'uan-tzu said, "Quite so. Quite so."

Thus was the Dharma transmitted from Ch'uan-tzu to Chia-shan.

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