Ryutan Blows Out the Candle

(Note: This is a continuation of the last post, “The Mystic Eye,” and you may need to read that post to make sense of this one.)

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“Ryutan Blows Out the Candle” is a classic Zen story from Tang Dynasty China and also a koan, Case 28 of the Mumonkan. It is sometimes also called “Ryutan Renowned Far and Wide,” or variations of that title. The full story has several components, but I’m going to simplify it a bit. I’m also going to use the more familiar Japanese forms of the names of the main characters.

Tokusan (Te-shan Hsüan-chien, 782-865) was a famous scholar, praised especially for his commentaries on the Diamond Sutra. He was invited to lecture far and wide, and as he traveled he carried the scrolls containing his notes and commentaries with him. One day he heard about some teachings of the Zen school on the Diamond Sutra that clearly were wrong, he thought, so he traveled to the monastery of Zen Master Ryutan (Lung-t’an Ch’ung-hsin or Longtan Chongxin) to set the master straight.

The two men met and discussed the Diamond Sutra far into the night. Finally Tokusan prepared to leave, but it was very dark out. Ryutan lit a candle and gave it to Tokusan, but as Tokusan reached for the candle Ryutan blew it out. At that moment, Tokusan experienced deep realization.

The next day, according to the Mumonkan, Tokusan brought his notes on the Diamond Sutra to the front of main assembly hall, pointed to them with a torch, and said,

“Even though you have exhausted the abtruse doctrines, it is like placing a hair in a vast space. Even though you have learned all the secrets of the world, it is like a drop of water dripped on the great ocean.”

And then he burned his scrolls and departed. He eventually became Ryutan’s student and dharma heir.

(Notice: I should put a disclaimer on this post that says “This blogger is not a Zen teacher.” I’m not going to pretend I see everything the koan is presenting. I have a couple of commentaries by Zen teachers at hand, one by the late Robert Aitken and one by my teacher, Susan Postal, and I’m leaning very heavily on what the teachers say. However, whatever I misrepresent is my fault entirely, not the teachers’.)

At the beginning of the story, we have the great scholar Tokusan, who is the Expert. Everyone says so. He says so. And the Diamond Sutra is his baby. For those of you unfamiliar with the sutra, it’s part of the larger Prajnaparamita Sutra, from which also comes the Heart Sutra. The Diamond seems to present one paradox after another, making it especially difficult to “grasp” intellectually, but Tokusan seems to have grasped it that way.

As Aitken wrote,

“If your defenses are impervious, no one can get in–and you can’t get out. There is no fissure through which your vine of life can find its way to the sunshine.”

But on his way to the monastery, Tokusan met a woman in a tea shop who asked him a question about the sutra he couldn’t answer. From the Mumonkan:

When he reached the road to Reishû, he asked an old woman to let him have lunch to “refresh the mind.”

“Your worship, what sort of literature do you carry in your pack?” the old woman asked.

“Commentaries on the Diamond Sutra,” replied Tokusan.

The old woman said, “I hear it is said in that sutra, ‘The past mind cannot be held, the present mind cannot be held, the future mind cannot be held.’ Now, I would like to ask you, what mind are you going to have refreshed?”

Tokusan was dumbfounded by the question. He felt a flicker of doubt. A crack appears! And then he encountered Ryutan, whose insight into the sutra opened the crack further. And after his realization Tokusan burned his scrolls.

Mumon says in his capping verse, “Alas! He lost his eyes!” Aitken says, “He became altogether blind at last!” Here is some classic Zenspeak. In the English language, blindness is often used as a metaphor for ignorance. But it’s not unheard of in Zen Lit to use blindness as a metaphor for wisdom, because one who is blind is not fooled by appearances.

I recently came across a fascinating academic paper on this koan, titled “Approaching the Language of Zen: Clarke, Heidegger, and the Meaning of Articulation in Zen Koans” by Professor Anton Sevilla of the the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. Academic papers on Zen tend to be dreadful, but this one makes some good points I’d like to share. The professor writes,

The light of Ryutan’s candle is likened to words, and in this case, could be likened to the words of the Diamond Sutra and other notes and commentaries. Through this light, Tokusan was able to grasp things, to see them, to navigate about them and so forth. His philosophical purview into the sutras allowed him a mode of articulating reality and grasping it in an intelligible fashion.

However, is this space that is navigable by words and intellect all there is to reality? Candlelight illuminates some things, but leaves other things in the dark.

Here I’m going to go back to the way our brains create reality, discussed in the last post. Very briefly, the way we experience “reality” depends a great deal on the way our brains interpret and organize sensory input. We depend especially on the left temporal lobe, which creates the way we experience time and position, and which also is the part of the brain that generates language, logic, and categories. This includes the categories “me” versus “everything else.”

Our brains evolved in a way to allow us to navigate through space and matter to find food and shelter and each other, and eventually to create civilization, the arts, science, and many wonderful things. For humans, intellect is one of our primary “interfaces” with the world. But it’s also a kind of trap, because we assume there is no other way to know or experience. Yet it’s really more like a candle, illuminating some things but leaving other things dark.

Professor Sevilla speaks of “The tension between the abundance of the coming to light of reality and the finitude of man’s grasp and articulation,” and within that tension is the realm of mystical practice. The mystic seeks to push beyond the boundaries of the left temporal lobe, and to illuminate the places intellect doesn’t reach.

They don’t always succeed, of course, and the word “mysticism” is used to cover everything from Zen practice to fortune telling. But it’s striking to me how the great mystics of the many religions so often seem to agree with each other more than they do with the dogmatists of their own religious traditions.

The story of Tokusan and Ryutan is the story of a man who experienced realization when his intellect dropped away. Intellect isn’t bad, of course. You have to have some cognitive skills to be functional. I sincerely believe more critical thinking would make the world a better place. Yet it can also be a trap, keeping us from seeing the whole thing, so to speak.

Language also is generated by the left temporal lobe, and the languages of humankind are designed to work within the reality created by the left temporal lobe. When you leave that reality, left-temporal-lobe language doesn’t function. Mystics often fall back on poetry, or something like it, to explain what they’ve realized. People tightly locked in linear logical left-temporal-lobe mode usually dismiss such expression outright. Or, they’ll attempt to make sense of it logically, find it riddled with what they think are inconsistencies and paradoxes, and then dismiss it.

And many generations of Zen teachers have told us, don’t get stuck in words. Zen’s definition of itself:

A special transmission outside the scriptures;

No dependence on words and letters;

Direct pointing to the human mind;

Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.

Much of Professor Sevilla’s paper compares Heidegger’s notion of language with the way Zen uses language, and some of you might enjoy reading this. Very briefly, he argues much of Zen language is an “unsaying,” a deconstruction of conventional cognitive frameworks. “In language as ‘unsaying,’ articulations attempt to release human beings from their attachments to particular ways of seeing reality,” he writes.

When the Buddha realized enlightenment, he said,

Oh housebuilder! You have now been caught!

You shall not build a house again.

Deconstruct! Unsay! Blow out the candle! This is not normally how we learn things, but this is what the dharma requires.

Even if you have only a basic knowledge of the Buddha’s story of enlightenment, it ought to be obvious that what he realized was not cognitive knowledge. Yet time and time again, I find very bright, very intellectual people trying to understand Buddhism who can’t “get” that. If you explain to them that an intellectual approach won’t work, they smile indulgently at you, as if you were a small child talking about Santa Clause, and go back to labeling, categorizing, and constructing. It’s quite astonishing.

As Dogen wrote in Genjokoan,

When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you grasp things directly. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illumined the other side is dark.

[This post originally appeared on About.com Buddhism on October 6, 2010]

4 thoughts on “Ryutan Blows Out the Candle

  1. n. yeti

    So nice to see this. One of my favorite accounts in Zen literature is Tokusan’s encounter with the simple roadside food merchant.

    I am also pleased to see the reference to Aitkin’s (though I am no great fan) comment on defenses of thought. Truly when embarking on sutra study or really any kind of path to awakening there can be this subtle fear of right or wrong, where people can get caught up in the system or form of practice rather than its intended purpose. This is something I perceive in my own study, but also among many “masters” who have grown accustomed to certain forms and have thereby become (perhaps without wanting to) highly dogmatic.

    Siddhartha manifested here (according to the mahayana mahaparinirvana sutra) to show us how to renounce. By burning his attainments through the diamond sutra, so to speak, Tokusan also freed himself from them, and I think it might be worth considering renunciation as another name for freedom.

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  4. Brian J Meadows

    I have been working on the Wumnenguan case 28 “Longtan Blows a Candle” in formal zen practice. So my question here is the meaning of “Deshan has a mouth is like a bowl of blood” (We use the Chinese pronunciations in our sangha)
    What is the meaning of mouth like a blood bowl? I have learned over the past 8 years of working on koans, particularly with the Wumenguan, that it is easy to get tripped up on the words. Wumen has a very clever and sneaky way with his words and their meanings. Wumen uses a ton of ‘metaphorical’ language and much of it seems based on certain Asian cultural understandings. The ability to bridge my understanding of Wumen’s words through western parallels perhaps is a bit tenuous. Ultimately, my intellect must drop away. So maybe this is my way letting go of my intellect and grasping a deeper understanding of the koan and of Zen.


    please feel free to comment!

    Brian from Denver, CO


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