Blow Out the Candle

Tokusan was studying Zen under Ryutan. One night he came to Ryutan and asked many questions. The teacher said: `The night is getting old. Why don't you retire?'

So Tokusan bowed and opened the screen to go out, observing: `It is very dark outside.'

Ryutan offered Tokusan a lighted candle to find his way. Just as Tokusan received it, Ryutan blew it out. At that moment the mind of Tokusan was opened.

`What have you attained?' asked Ryutan.

`From now on,' said Tokusan, `I will not doubt the teacher's words.'

The next day Ryutan told the monks at his lecture: `I see one monk among you. His teeth are like the sword tree, his mouth is like the blood bowl. If you hit him hard with a big stick, he will not even so much as look back at you. Someday he will mount the highest peak and carry my teaching there.'

On that day, in front of the lecture hall, Tokusan burned to ashes his commentaries on the sutras. He said: `However abstruse the teachings are, in comparison with this enlightenment they are like a single hair to the great sky. However profound the complicated knowledge of the world, compared to this enlightenment it is like one drop of water to the great ocean.' Then he left the monastry.

Mumon's Comment: When Tokusan was in his own country he was not satisfied with Zen although he had heard about it. He thought: `Those Southern monks say they can teach Dharma outside of the sutras. They are all wrong. I must teach them.' So he travelled south. He happened to stop near Ryutan's monastery for refreshments. An old woman who was there asked him: `What are you carrying so heavily?'

Tokusan replied: `This is a commentary I have made on the Diamond Sutra after many years of work.'

The old woman said: `I read that sutra which says: "The past mind cannot be held, the present mind cannot be held." You wish some tea and refreshments. Which mind do you propose to use for them?'

Tokusan was as though dumb. Finally he asked the woman: `Do you know of any good teacher around here?'

The old woman referred him to Ryutan, not more than five miles away. So he went to Ryutan in all humility, quite different from when he had started his journey. Ryutan in turn was so kind he forgot his own dignity. It was like pouring muddy water over a drunken man to sober him. After all, it was an unnecessary comedy.

A hundred hearings cannot surpass one seeing,
But after you see the teacher, that once glance cannot surpass a hundred hearings.
His nose was very high
But he was blind after all.

A Zen koan from the classic collection The Gateless Gate. Original transcription by Ben Walter and Adam Fuller of iBiblio.
One of the principles of Zen is that language is counter-productive. By using words to describe things, we automatically categorize them and draw lines in our perception of the world. This is the opposite of opening your mind to the true nature of the world. This is my apology for reducing Zen to a matter of lingual discussion.

I was reading through the Gateless Gate, and I came across this koan. For weeks I thought about it, and any interpretation escaped me. One evening though, something clicked, and an idea came to me. If you are interested in one man's ideas on Zen Buddhism, below are my thoughts on "Blow Out The Candle"

When Tokusan remarks that it is very dark outside, he is observing the state of the world. He asks for a teacher for a candle to light the way. This can be seen as being symbolic of his seeking wisdom from the teacher, to light his passage through the world. However, one purpose of Zen and Enlightenment is to obtain a better understanding of the world, of comprehending existence and the true state of things. In asking for light, by demanding wisdom in the form of words, Tokusan is continuing down his blind path. Ryutan tries to show Tokusan that he must become like the world, to see as it really is: dark. Therefore, he blows out the candle as he hands it to Tokusan.

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