Wumenguan/Mumonkan • Koan 4

Old House, Tung Ping Chau

• Bodhidharma Had No Whiskers / 《胡子無鬚》

I have no idea about the deeper meaning of this fourth koan, but I am struck by the word-play that seems to dominate it.

The noun 胡子 could mean “the barbarian”, since one of the basic meanings of 胡 hu2 = “3. (in ancient China) a general name of the northern tribes” (114), that also appears in compounds such as hu2 er2 = northern barbarians in ancient China (FE: 1115). According to Soothill, 胡子 = “Hun, or Turk, a term applied to the people west and north of China; a nickname for Bodhidharma” (312). (He also notes that the word 老胡 or “Old Hun” was used as a nickname for Buddha [DCBT: 312].)

Bodhidharma’s dates are 470-543. In Ernest Wood’s words, “An Indian Buddhist who went to China and there formally established the Buddha-Mind School, called also Ch’an and later, in Japan, Zen” (ZD: 18). Most images of Bodhidharma seem to show him with a full beard. Put all this together and it suggests that the obvious meaning of the title of this koan is “Bodhidharma Had No Beard”.

In modern Chinese, 胡子 also means “beard, moustache or whiskers” (HYCD: 284). Perhaps this meaning originates from the fact that male barbarians often had full beards, thus linking bearded-ness to foreign-ness. It may have also carried this meaning in Wumen’s day. Possibly then, the title could also mean “Beard without Whiskers”.

The character 鬚 xu1 has an interesting history. I am guessing here, but on the basis of other precedents, that this character was originally written 須 xu1, which is a pictograph made up of 彡 shan1, an element (known as a “radical”) used to show that the basic meaning of a character has something to do with “feathers, long hair, ornament” (ACC: 140) and 頁 ye4 = “head; page; man” (ACC: 41). Obviously “long hair on the head” could refer to facial hair of some kind.

Later, this same character was borrowed to write other words which were pronounced with the same sound. 須 xu1 has eight different meanings in FE, including “1. to have to; must; to need”,”2. necessary; proper” and “4. a beard” (1507). In the Wumenguan, 須 is used 15 times.

Wumen comments: [if you] search for truth by means of Zen meditation, you must pass through the barrier of the founder of the sect[, Bodhidharma] [祖師].

更須赤脚上刀山 (國師三喚)
?Then even more so [更] [you] must walk barefoot up a mountain of knives [刀山].

It’s just like bumping into your own father at the crossing of two streets. There’s even less need to ask anybody else [who it is].

From a cursory review of these examples, it would appear that the character is almost always used with the meaning of “must” or “need to”.

To reduce the confusion, at some point, a new character was invented for the “beard” meaning of 須 xu1. This character is written with 髟 biao1 denoting “hair; shaggy hair or locks” (ACC: 215) on top; the old 須 character is added underneath to form 鬚.

The final potential pun is that the combination of two characters, 無須 wu2 xu1 can mean “unnecessary; not necessary; no need to” in some situations. FE lists one example, 無須解釋 = It’s unnecessary to explain it (832). Spoken aloud, this theoretically would have sounded the same as 無鬚 = not having a beard; without whiskers”. However, there is no use 無須of in the Wumenguan, so I remain doubtful about this.

It would appear, at this superficial level, that this text has something to say about the slipperiness of language.

Continue reading “Wumenguan/Mumonkan • Koan 4”

Wumenguan/Mumonkan • Koan 3

Old House, Tung Ping Chau

• Ju-zhi Lifts a Finger / 《俱胝竪指》

The third koan in the Wumenguan is generally known as “Gutei’s Finger”, following the Japanese pronunciation. In Chinese, it becomes the rather formidable Ju-zhi. According to the Ci Yuan dictionary, 俱胝 is also sometimes used to write 俱致, a special Sanskrit term koṭi used in a number of Buddhist scriptures. According to a Tang-dynasty commentator, the word either means “ten million” or “a hundred million”. As we shall see, Wumen makes an oblique reference to this meaning of Ju-zhi’s name in the final line of his poem on the koan.

The key verb in the koan is 斷 duan4. Although I am no expert in the etymology of Chinese characters, and am aware that many Chinese characters often existed in a number of different forms before the language came to be standardized, it would seem that 斷 is made up of four elements showing eight silkworm cocoons from which silk is being made [幺yao1 / 糸mi4], and  a cutting implement represented by 斤 jin1, which can (or used to) mean “axe”. The essential thing is that the verb implies a complete cutting through, either of thread from a cocoon or a finger. By the by, William Soothill lists two compounds containing 斷 duan4 which may have some bearing on the case, 斷德 duan4 de2 = “the power or virtue of bringing to an end all passion and illusion—one of the three powers of a Buddha”; and 斷惑 duan4 huo4 = “to bring delusion to an end” (DCBT: 465).

Continue reading “Wumenguan/Mumonkan • Koan 3”