Posted inDogen, Henry's Messages

Jōshū’s Oak Tree

January 4, 2015

A monk asked Jōshū in all earnestness, “What is the meaning of the patriarch’s coming from the West?” Jōshū said, “The oak tree in the garden.”


There are several things Jōshū could mean when he responds to the monk’s question—“Why did Bodhidharma come from India?”—by saying, “The oak tree there in the garden.” What we think he means will depend on what we have “seen” for ourselves of the Buddha-dharma.

First, we might think he means: look no further than things as they are. There’s nothing to find, young monk, nothing special to realize, Bodhidharma indeed had a message for us, and it’s that all is just as it is—accept it, don’t seek anything more at all. That’s the way to contentment.

On the other hand, it may be that because of some glimpses we’ve had of another order of reality somehow more absolute than the everyday, we might entertain other possibilities. He could mean: there is nothing but this oak tree. Do you see that, monk? Understand that this oak tree is the entire universe, and you understand my meaning. The oak tree fills up all time and space. Do you see that?

This is indeed an aspect of Buddha Nature. But there are others. For example, that this oak tree is not just this oak tree, but is all things. It’s not so much that there’s nothing but this tree filling the entire universe, as that this tree is one with all things. Experience this tree fully, and you will find it is the single entire Dharma-body, the Dharmakaya, and that all things are one and the same body. Find this tree and you find all things. In other words, you find yourself. All things are one singularity, one body. In other words, this tree extends endlessly into and through all phenomena that are, that ever were, and ever will be. Right now, this tree includes all time and space.

This is another aspect of the Buddha dharma. But there’s more again. There’s the foundation, the reason we might say, that the tree can be and must be all things and at the same time the only thing. This is the fundamental fact, the true subject of awakening: there is nothing at all. Fundamental emptiness is not another “quality” to things. It’s no thing. Not a thing. Nothing at all. A yawning gulf, vast and void, as Bodhidharma himself said. Space and time eaten up, swallowed by the black hole of shunyata. There is no oak tree at all. See this, and the whole wonderful charade of this apparent world is also seen. No tree, no ground, no sky, no mountain. And no person. No you, monk. All swallowed up and eaten alive and gone. “Total gone-ness,” as Yamada Ryoun Roshi likes to say.

This is the vital underpinning of all “oneness.” Both kinds of oneness are possible only because of gone-ness. Similarly, all phenomena, all appearances, all things seen, heard, felt, thought, are possible only because they are empty, they are gone. They arise from, they are made of, emptiness. They are emptiness in action. Yakusan said: “Here I am flowers growing on a bare rock; here a withered tree is giving a dragon’s roar.” Emptiness functions as the vast magnificent field of the 10,000 things. The Dharmakaya, the one body—one because all individual things share in the one single emptiness.

But what is this body? Whose body is it? Dogen said: At first we live with consciousness but without illumination. After “turning,” we live with illumination but without consciousness. Why without consciousness? Because the lamp of self-consciousness has been switched off. The bulb has been removed and shattered. What am I, when I am not there?

Again, Dogen provides an answer: “When the self carries itself forward and affirms the 10,000 things, that’s delusion; when the myriad things come forward and affirm the self, that’s realization.” What is the oak tree, then? What does the monk’s question really mean? What did Bodhidharma bring from the West? He is asking: what does Zen have to teach me? Well, if it is a universal solution, then Zen must have something to teach us about who we really are. So the monk is asking: who am I? And Jōshū calmly, quietly, immediately gives his perfect answer: The oak tree—that’s who you are. Find yourself. At least once.

See it. Jōshū is said to have seen it a dozen times. But once is enough. Die. Be reborn as the oak tree. Find out what this strange “meaning” Bodhidharma brought and still brings really is. Then everything can settle down where it belongs: then, indeed, look no further than the oak tree, than the itch on your arm, the garden that needs watering, the child who has to be driven to school. Then, for sure, just do what needs to be done.

By Henry Shukman, from our newsletter archives.

Image: Tree-Oak, By k_r_craft, CC0 Public Domain, from

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