The Dream Within a Dream (within a dream): Yang-shan's Sermon from the Third Seat Yang-shan


By Rafe Martin©

The Wu-men Kuan or Mumonkan, Gateless Barrier or Gateless Gate, a central koan collection put together by Zen Master Wu-men (Mumon) has, as its 25th case, “Yang-shan’s Sermon From the Third Seat.” Dogen seems to have made a commentary on it, (he never explicitly names it as such) as the thirty-ninth chapter of his great Shobogenzo, Eye of the Treasury of the True Dharma. The Wu-men Kuan was first published in 1228, when Dogen was 28 and already in China. So he may have seen a text or heard, word of mouth, some of Wu-men’s important work.

First, what is a koan? It’s a brief story usually focusing on the verbal and gestural interchanges of monks, masters, or realized teachers that can help us open to an experience of the vast and empty ground of Mind. The stories can be puzzling. Daido Roshi of Mt. Tremper Zen Monastery used to say that koans, while dark to the intellect, are radiant to the heart. To realize a koan you must experience the koan. More. You must become it. In the dokusan room one explores the koan as a way of waking up to our actual relationship with the many things and beings of the world: stars, cats, dogs, trees, trash, bugs, rivers, mountains, clouds and people. Ourselves. Everything. It is not simply the story of something that happened long ago in another culture, not something to be puzzled out, like we might have done in college unpacking the layers of a poem. Though it is not totally distant from that either, the process remains intuitive and not bound by the actual words alone. The point, in short, is enlightenment, or intimacy. By working on a koan, absorbing ourselves in it deeply, even at times, tenaciously, we peel away the layers of habitual thought we live trapped within. Hakuin insists that this dedicated inner work is the key to actualizing our Great Vows for All, the four Bodhisattva vows we as Zen students recite at the close of all formal periods of zazen. But he also insists that these very four great vows are themselves the engine that moves our practice forward and makes actual realization of the Way possible. But for this to happen, we must do the work. We don’t float downstream to realization. We start our engines and then keep going uphill.

In our lineage, stemming from Kapleau Roshi’s vigorous investigation and Aitken Roshi’s profoundly subtle approach, we examine about 600 koans. As various koans can have several parts we may actually deal with two or three times that number. First Gate koans, ones that open us to an initial realization of the unborn undying Way are typically, Mu or the Sound of a Single Hand. To awaken to their import requires commitment. It can take anywhere from two to twenty years to BE that initial koan, able to unselfconsciously respond to a set of traditional checking questions about it. Fast is not necessarily better, slow not necessarily worse. Slow or fast it will take perseverance and courage for in the process of opening into Mu we’ll face habitual fears and limitations. But if we want to see beyond these habits of mind, Blake’s “mind-forged manacles,” and gain greater freedom, that’s the path we choose. A teacher’s job is to help a student stay on track despite disappointments, fears, distractions, and misunderstandings as well as self-deprecation or self-aggrandizement. All of which we are likely to encounter – as would anyone on the classic hero or heroine’s quest.

Such a commitment of time and energy may seem strange to us when we can get a college degree in four years and graduate degrees in another one or two. Aitken Roshi writes in his book on the Gateless Barrier, that he practiced intermittently for twelve years then earnestly for close to another twelve, before he was acknowledged on Mu and begin work on the so-called subsequent or introductory koans. When it comes to hares and tortoises, there’s nothing wrong with being a tortoise. Though it can be difficult for the tortoise when others are leaping and bounding along like hares, in the end the tortoise does fine. Just look at Aitken Roshi’s example if you doubt it! Still, the secret of each tortoise’s success is persistence. The tortoise keeps at it. Through thick and thin. Hakuin adds we shouldn’t be concerned at all with how long it might take. We should simply continue, our only concern being that we practice purely and come to find, that is, awaken to our own real ground of genuine intimacy.

After the initial koan, other koans follow. But it is not drudgery. Which is not to say that you might not go through a lot working on a koan. But you also come to see that desperation, disappointment, anxieties, even despair and dark nights of the soul are temporary and that they, too, are, or can be, It. Or, not It. Not the point at all. You learn to pay attention to whatever’s happening and gain skill in handling what comes. It can be as adventurous as mountain climbing or motorcycling. It takes attention, dedication, and practice. This practice of staying steady in the midst of everything, liberates us over time from the cramped and habitual self-centeredness we know too well, the delusion of being as Kapleau Roshi used to put it, “alone and afraid in a world I never made.” Which is not the Truth, though it is the truth of our unpracticed experience. Why do images of the Buddha smile? What has the Buddha seen that puts our difficulties in perspective? What might it be? There’s our hook.

Zen practice, which begins with that hook, some initial faith in the Buddha’s Enlightenment, can liberate us from our own faulty, limited, dualistic sense of ourselves. To see truly, IS Prajna Paramita. Perfect Wisdom. Non-duality IS wisdom. And it is here, already the True Nature of our Mind. There’s no need to push the self away or deny it, no need to annihilate or punish the self. Zen is NOT asceticism. Rather, it is a direct gate of liberation from what causes our sorrow and the world’s.

This koan is somewhat unusual, being one of the few in which myth and dream are not simply mentioned but explored. In practice this would mean working on the koan with a teacher. Why? Without such intimate checking there is no guarantee that the koan has not just been understood intellectually. That kind of thing is indeed going on these days – koan discussions replacing the earnest, individual, lonely, demanding work of dropping habitual self-involvement and being the koan completely. A student’s responsibility is to go beyond all his or her “stuff”, see through all his or her own mental dramas and panoramas, and come to the vastly grounded, vastly empty place from where he or she can personally demonstrate the koan. In that way a teacher, checking against their own understanding and notes garnered from working with their own teacher or teachers in a lineage or tradition, can know whether the student has touched base with the actual point. Or not. Of course, once you’ve opened the core of an initial koan, the others are not so daunting. Or time consuming. Our eye opens bit by bit as we go on, and our confidence grows. Our job is keep working, sitting after sitting, koan after koan, breath after breath, one small step, one small story after another opening for ourselves the Buddha Way through what Zen Master Dogen called an endless path of “sustained exertion.”

Case number twenty-five in the Wu-Men Kuan, Gateless Barrier, “Yang-shan’s Sermon from the Third Seat” goes like this:

Yang-shan dreamed he went to Maitreya’s realm and was led to the third seat. A senior monk struck the stand with a gavel and announced, “Today the monk in the third seat will preach.”

Yang-shan rose, struck the stand with the gavel, and said, “The Dharma of the Mahayana is beyond the Four Propositions and transcends the Hundred Negations. Listen, listen.”

That’s it. Wu-men (Mumon) says that an old teacher three or four hundred years before himself, back in the glorious T’ang era, had a dream that he was up in Maitreya’s realm. In that dream he gave a Dharma talk.

Maitreya, the future Buddha, is said to be in the Tushita Heavens right now, working on skillful means to help deluded beings – i.e., us – experience our nature and be free of suffering. He’s up there, working hard at perfecting upaya paramita, the skillful functioning that will help us and all others, awake from our self-created suffering. Upaya is one of the classic ten paramitas or “perfections.” Without skillfulness our wisdom is inert, unable to function. So, such skillfulness is not an add-on but necessary to fulfillment of our bodhisattva vows. We never realize the Way for ourselves alone. Compassion and wisdom necessarily mean doing the work of finding ways to help, ways that actually do help and not just muddy the waters.

Maitreya is expected to be back down here on Earth to teach soon – within the next billion years or so. (Heavenly time is different than earthly. A few years there could be millions here.) Meanwhile, given his great loving kindness, he can’t wait so long to be of help. So it’s said he may already be wandering the dusty highways and markets of our world in disguise, having taken the form on an old, pot-bellied, shaven-headed, big-eared monk, giving candy to children to keep them from crying, trying to keep things from going totally awry with a smile, a gift, a word, a laugh, a cup of wine, some toasted buns or chewy rice cakes. He’s called Hotei in that form, and you can see him in the final, tenth Ox-Herding picture as our own realized nature, dust covered, grinning broadly, standing in the busy marketplace of life. The Ox-herding pictures are a 12th century Zen visual teaching device that lays out the entire Path of practice and realization. There’s a good version of them in Roshi Kapleau’s, The Three Pillars of Zen. Or you can see him next time you go to a Chinese restaurant. He’s that chubby round bellied, so-called “Buddha” – a little, populist image of something quite mysterious, profound, and grand.

So Yang-shan, a teacher long ago, dreams that he’s already up there with Maitreya in that heavenly place. It’s a propitious dream, resonant with power. Maybe he woke and murmured, “Wow! Where did that come from? I feel so honored and refreshed. It must mean something good.” Not only that, he dreamt he’s in the third seat – the seat of honor. First is Shakyamuni Buddha’s seat, the Buddha of our world cycle, the only one in our time (perhaps since our universe’s Big Bang!) to have fully realized the complete potential of Mind in this particular cycle of the expansion and contraction of the worlds of space and time. After him in the 2nd seat comes Maitreya, The Peaceful One or Loving-Kindness One, doing everything he now can to prepare himself to teach on this difficult planet Earth, where conditions are demanding and rough.

Buddhist tradition says that there are countless worlds. Some are glorious and elegant. On those worlds Buddhas do not need strong words to guide students. Incense, perfume, food, or music can bring beings to complete and perfect enlightenment, anutarra samyak sambodhi. Lest you think, “Why didn’t I get born there?” the catch is that on this earth with all its problems, tradition also says that those who want to realize their nature and benefit beings can evolve much more rapidly than on those more peaceful worlds. We can never drift far from practice here. Impermanence bites us in the butt with sharp teeth and the need to know why? why? why? is never far away. We can be grateful.

Maitreya is working so hard because of this. He’s even hoping to do what Shakyamuni couldn’t – liberate all of us still stuck in our habitual sorrows and the cramped, inadequate vision that leads to wars, climate change, melting ice-caps, poverty, class warfare, disappearing species, etc., etc. Shakyamuni has come and gone and while he realized full and perfect enlightenment with and for all beings, the miserable old beat we know too well goes on. But Maitreya – maybe he’ll be able to put an end to it. He or she hopes so. And so do we.

And there’s Yang-shan up among that lofty company, seated in the primo 3rd seat, where he’s given the teacher’s gavel and told, “In front of this great assembly, before the Buddha and Buddha-to-Be, the best of the best, show your stuff! Speak words of truth that will release us and all beings from bondage!”

Picture something like that in your life. In front of you, row upon row, sit the most high-ranking audience you can imagine, the best of the best in your field, with countless millions more eagerly watching on TV. Suddenly the gavel is put in your hands and you’re asked to stand up, open your mouth, and do your stuff! Gulp! In an instant, heaven becomes sweaty-palm nervous-land. But Yang-shan simply rises, strikes the gavel, Whack! And without hesitation presents his view: “The Dharma of the Mahayana is beyond the Four Propositions and transcends the Hundred Negations. Listen, listen.” That’s it. End of teisho.

Not only is he in a dream but he is teaching dream words in a dream. It’s a dream within a dream within a dream. And what do his words mean? What is it to be “beyond” all phrases, all words, and to “transcend” all philosophical positions? Is he saying that while words and letters can point to truth, they can’t reach it, can’t bring us to it? That we must let go of them, transcend and go beyond them to know truth for It’s beyond all that?

Zen Master Dogen might disagree. Words are truth themselves in his view as much as stars and spoons, cats and crows, trees and tires. And what about values? Where are they when you’re beyond everything? Or is that even what he means? What does Yang-shan mean when he says that we have to get beyond all philosophical positions, all words and phrases in order to realize Dharma truth? Does he mean we should get rid of everything and jump into a kind of boundless, unstructured mayonnaise? What, in short, does this “beyond” mean?

And why did Wu-men think any of this would be significant? It’s a story of someone dreaming he said something in a dream! We don’t want dreams anymore, do we? We want truth! Isn’t that why we sit, why we practice? To wake up! We’ve had enough of dreams and now we want to be awake! “Enough with old stories! We’re here for truth – not to mention psychological well-being and cool, zen-like moments of being ‘in the zone.’”

So what’s old Wu-men or Mumon as he’s known in Japanese, up to? Then again, what could be more fully beyond all logic, reason, concepts, or positions than a dream in a dream? The old Celtic storytellers used a device known as “interlacement.” They’d start a story then have someone within that story tell a story, and then let there be another story told within that story, and on and on, story within story within story, like Russian nesting dolls, or like the movie <Matrix movies until our ability to follow what’s dream and what’s real is gone. And then all we know, all we can know is what IS in that very moment. That alone is real. We are deep in a dream – maybe deeper than ever – and at the same time, more awake perhaps, than ever before, everything else, all our ordinary concepts of reality having fallen away.

Typically, in Zen, dream-like events are termed makyo, which means a mysterious, uncanny, strange, or delusive mind-state. Ultimately anything not enlightenment is makyo, a dream. From that perspective, even our waking life is a makyo of sorts. And in it, in this life, there are also various low-level makyo that can occur as the mind quiets in zazen, in which either new or long buried – from who knows how far back – images, ideas, and sensations bubble up. After a few days of extended sitting in sesshin, complex and detailed movies can appear on the wall before us, or in the grain of the wood on the floor. Or the walls or floor might seem to ripple in waves. These are part of the sensorium of deepening practice. We are encouraged by Zen teachers to let them come and go like images in a dream, not fixate on them, or get overly involved, and just continue with our practice. For they are not the point. Instead, we should pay attention to counting each breath clearly and fully, experiencing breath, sitting fully focused, thinking “not-thinking,” or absorbing our attention on a precise koan point.

But this dream of Yang shan’s is different. It is mysterious, permeated with ancientness, timelessness, mystery, and a kind of deep meaning. When we awake from such a dream there might be a tang of incense on the air. Was it real? Was it a dream? Chuang tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher/sage, once had a dream that he was a butterfly. When he awoke he wondered whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who was dreaming even then that he was a man. Which was real? How could he know?

Some makyo can have deep significance and presage a deeper level of practice. A dream voice might give us an insight. A scientist might dream the solution to a vexing problem like Crick finding the spiraling shape of DNA in a dream. A writer might find the solution to his novel-in-process, a musician hear the closing strains of the symphony she is yet to write. A Zen student might rise through a dream into wakefulness, all doubts fallen away. Artists, scientists, and religious practioners through the ages have known this. Creativity may depend upon it. We may call it vision or imagination, or instinct, or intuition, but there are clearly subtle realms like gifts, like grace. Maybe animals know it, too. What after all is instinct?

It’s said that when Yang-shan awoke from this dream and related it to his teacher, Isan, Isan said, “You have attained the rank of sage.” But that’s not the point. Wu-men’s commentary: “Tell me, did Yang-shan preach or not? If you open your mouth you are lost. If you shut your mouth you will also miss ‘it.’ If you neither open your mouth nor keep it closed, you are one hundred and eight thousand miles off.”

One hundred and eight thousand is a classical Buddhist reference. It refers to the 108 defilements that with enlightenment become 108 perfections or virtues. Nothing need be added or taken away. Things are already as they are, defilements and perfections, samsara and nirvana. Still, if you open your mouth and say, “Yes, he did preach,” you’re lost. I mean, come on! It was just a dream! He didn’t really say a thing. None of it happened! So how could he have preached? He dreamed it! If you dream you wrote a novel did you write it? Well, maybe you did – in another world. Who knows?

Then again if you don’t answer Wu-men’s query and stay silent, you’ve missed it, too. For something did happen. If not there would be no story. That’s the truth. He preached profound words in a splendid dream. That’s a fact. How can you not respond? Are you going to ignore facts – the things that happen – in order to have some vague sort of unbothered quiet and peace? If you do that how real could your so-called peace be? What kind of life would that be? Yang-shan really did have a dream in which he spoke in Maitreya’s palace. But where can our freedom lie if saying “yes” is wrong, and if silence, too, is wrong? In what way are we free and how can we actualize that freedom, if neither a positive or negative stance will do? What does it mean that the truth of the Mahayana is beyond every concept, every philosophical position? What is it to be awake? What is it to be asleep? What is a dream and what is real? Here’s our life in a nutshell. Are we real? Are we dreaming? Is it the one or the other? How shall we respond? How do we respond?

There are small dreams, self-centered dreams that can plague us. “I want this so bad, I’ll do anything to get it,” might be that sort. Fierce ambitions find their pile of fuel here. Less drastic versions abound, and can form the texture of our ordinary, dualistic, daily reality. “I’m in here, she’s out there. That’s a tree. That’s a raindrop. That’s a cow.” Ordinary reality is a kind of commonly agreed-upon dream. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” says Shakespeare through Prospero, the magician and stage manager of The Tempest. True enough. Then there are odd, mixed-up rootless dreams, dreams of the night that are the result, as old Scrooge tells us in A Christmas Carol, of the undigested pudding we ate too late at night before going to bed.

And there are large, vast, noble dreams, like the dream of Buddhist practice, and our wanting, indeed, vowing to save all suffering beings even while we remain lost in dreams ourselves. That’s a big dream, a wild, crazy, magnificent dream. This is the dream that Zen would have us dream. Not just becoming calm. Not just gaining a small bit of peace of mind. Not just being “in the zone.” Zen asks us to achieve the realization of an impossible dream, one without any stopping place that aims for us to drop self-centeredness from our minds, and actually liberate ourselves, and all beings. A big dream, indeed!

Roshi Kapleau used to say that enlightenment itself is a dream. It’s our own Mind we’re talking about. It’s already ours from the start. What are we going to get with enlightenment that we don’t already have? The problem is that we just don’t know it. So it’s an important dream, this dream of enlightenment, a dream on which a great deal of good might depend. Without it and the efforts we make towards its realization we live half-lives. We get up in the morning but, wandering in our heads hardly notice the daily miracle of the rising sun, or the light on the leaves at mid-day, or the moon and stars at night. We live in our thoughts about things, not things themselves. I cannot even tell you how good this cup of tea tastes, how refreshing it is. Ordinary mysteries abound. Yet, while lost in the dream we live, we should not discount the dream’s value. Like Yang-shan’s dream talk itself, there is truth in actions and words in a dream. “Life is but a dream,” the old song says. A Bushman saying in Laurens Van der Post’s wonderful book on the Bushmen of the Kalahari – The Heart of the Hunter, goes further and says, “There is a dream dreaming us.” Aitken Roshi says, “Let Mu breathe Mu.”

For a dozen years I was invited to tell stories in Zuni Pueblo, one of the most traditional Native communities of North America. One day as Rose and I were driving out of Zuni, we saw a terrible figure striding down the highway that runs through the pueblo. It was Atoshle, one of the fierce, punisher kachinas or sacred beings, a kind of wrathful form of compassion such as you might find in Tibetan Buddhism. He wore a big, sacred wooden mask with big sharp teeth and bulging eyes and long black, bloody hair – bloody because one hand held a bloody knife (made of painted wood, actually) and with that hand Atoshle brushes back his bangs, leaving them blood-stained. He would soon pass Da Yalanne Elementary School – the school that looks out on Da Yalanne – Sacred Corn Mountain. The teachers would run out to gather the children before he got there. If they didn’t, and those kids saw Atoshle, the punisher of wrongdoing, they would faint, dropping down onto the asphalt of the schoolyard.

Myth isn’t just something in a book by Joseph Campbell. Myth is real. Atoshle is real. Roshi Kapleau who had a somewhat Rinzai-like personality, forceful and direct, took quite a Soto-like stance, intuitive and sensitive when it came to myth. He never spoke of “Buddha figures” or “Buddha statues.” He always said, “the Buddha on the altar.” Why? The Buddha is real. Maitreya is real. Yang-shan is real. So, you and I are real, too. Dogen wrote in “Gabyo,” “Painting of a Rice Cake, in Shobogenzo, “If you say a painting is not real, then the myriad things are not real.”

Then again, how real is so-called “Reality”? Isn’t it in good part what we imagine it to be, or what we are conditioned to believe it to be? Aren’t we ourselves in large part what we are conditioned to believe ourselves to be? So is Reality really “real,” or is it, too, a kind of dream? “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Bob Dylan adds, in “Talking World War III Blues,” “I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.” Dreams within dreams. Within a dream.

Shibayama Roshi in his commentary on this koan in Zen Comments on the Mumonkan (Japanese for Wu-men kuan) mentions that when the Japanese teacher, Takuan, was dying and was pressed by his disciples for a last verse, he picked up his brush and wrote a single word – Dream. Roshi Kapleau used to relate how not long after he arrived at Hosshinji Monastery in Japan, a monk asked him, “Kapleau-san. Do you believe in dreams?” He told us that it took him many years of dedicated Zen practice before he grasped what that monk was actually getting at.

Do you believe in dreams? Who is it that believes in dreams? There is a dream dreaming dreams. There is a dream person teaching in a dream, to dream beings in the koan, and right now, as well, here in this room. Is that wrong? Is it wrong that our life is a dream? Does that belittle or demean a thing? It’s not that it’s “just a dream.” Rather it’s a DREAM! Do we need to change that? Do we need to make it realer? What would that look like? How different would it be? Think again of what Yang-shan said from his dream within a dream: “The Dharma of the Mahayana is beyond the Four Propositions, and transcends the Hundred Negations. Listen, listen.” Right now, not just one day in the future when we “get it.” Right now Reality is beyond yes, no, up, down, dream, true, real, good, bad, wise, foolish. What is it then? Did Yang-shan express it fully? How will we? For we must. Everyday we are in the third seat. Everyday someone, some situation, some event puts a gavel in our hands and says, “Speak words of truth!” But “Speak! Speak!” might be the same as “Live! Live!” Or “Show! Show!”

Maybe Wu-men knew what he was doing in taking an old dream talk and pasting it on our foreheads like a miner’s lamp. If we turn it on, the koan can illuminate our Way. It’s not just a story in a Buddhist book, anymore than Atoshle is just a figure in a book on myth or native ethnography. Dream is life. Here’s Wu-men’s Verse:

In broad daylight under the blue sky,
He preached a dream in a dream.
Absurd! Absurd!
He deceived the entire assembly.

In broad daylight, under the vast blue sky where nothing can be hidden, no dream survive, he preached a dream in a dream. Wu-men says – “You’ve got to be kidding! He deceived them all!! That was his big talk at this big moment in the assembly of past and future Buddhas!?”

Look again. What “them?” US! He tricked US! And Wu-men’s still tricking us with this case and with his whole Gateless Barrier. Yang-shan may have played a trick, but so did Wu-men. They’re both deceiving us even now, tricking us out of our small cramped dreams, out of our dreary, little, suffering-causing, alternatively self-doubting/self-asserting nightmares, and putting us out in the bright sunlight where, for a moment, we can blink our eyes and laugh and laugh. With this dream scenario, Yang-shan and Wu-men have found a way to pull the wool not over, but off our eyes. And that’s a pretty good trick, wouldn’t you say?

So, too, with the jatakas themselves. The whole progression of the Bodhisattva along his endless Path of practice leading to the full realization of Buddhahood under the Bo Tree, is itself a dream. When through our practice we, too, join in and enter that great dream, it brings us alive even as we breathe life into the Buddha and his Path. The dream within a dream is our life, our road, and our and the Buddha’s daily ordinary practice.

Vastly empty, the dream of jatakas, beings, enlightenment, gaining, losing, struggling, fulfilling, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, karma, lifetimes, zazen, zendos is all a dream. But unlike our dreams of slumber, this dream is an alarm clock, ringing at our bedside, helping us to awake and face the bright daylight of Right Now.