Zen Monastery

A beautiful Zen monastery in South China

Zen writings are typically simple and direct. When a Zen master says a flower, he means a flower; he does not mean something else. But this does not mean that symbolism is completely absent in Zen writings. Symbols are sometimes used, but their occurrences are infrequent and atypical.

An example of symbolism in Zen can be found in a gong-an (a public record of an enlightenment or awakening) of the great 8th century Zen master, Ma Zu. (It can also be found on page 128 of “The Complete Book of Zen.”) Ma Zu, tested his disciple, Bai Zhang, and helped him to attain an awakening:

“Bai Zhang went to consult Ma Zu on his Zen development. In the interview, Ma Zu said nothing but stared at a feather duster hanging at a corner of his bed. Bai Zhang then commented, “If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place.” The master restored, “If we take your skin from its place, what would become of you?” Apparently ignoring the master's retort, Bai Zhang went to the corner and held up the feather duster.

Ma Zu then said, repeating Bai Zhang's words, “If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place.” Notwithstanding this, Bai Zhang returned the feather duster to its original place. At this instant, Ma Zu gave a shout so loud that Bai Zhang was deaf for three days.”

Of course, the uninitiated will not understand the meaning of this gong-an with or without the symbolism. The explanation is quite lengthy, but suffice it to say that the feather duster symbolizes cosmic reality. (For a detailed explanation of this symbolism, see “The Complete Book of Zen,” page 129-130.)

But the use of symbolism here is characteristically different from that found in Taoist writings. Here, symbolism is used as a testing and teaching tool to help disciples attain an awakening, whereas in Taoist writings (like in the example of Taoist writing of the Kun fish becoming a Peng bird) it is used as a literary tool to explain Taoist philosophy. In the Zen case, symbolism was used for a practical purpose and pertained to the transcendental, whereas in the Taoist case, it was used for a theoretical purpose and pertained to the phenomenal.


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