Monday, September 26, 2011

Xuedou: Two Too Many

Xuedou: Two Too Many
by Scott Bradley

Xuedou told this story which I paraphrase:
A bunch of Zen masters came together to strengthen their individual understanding. Among them was one who was thought to be more advanced than the rest, and when he said nothing, another complained saying, "It would be enough to hear the two words 'Absolute Truth'."

The silent master heard of this and said, "There's not even a single word to say about 'Absolute Truth'." Then, regretting having said even this, he said, "It was pointless to say that."

Yet another master overheard this and said, "A fine pot of soup, befouled by two rat droppings."

Xuedou concludes: "Whose pot hasn't one or two droppings in it?" (Zen Essence; Cleary)
I find this story inventive, amusing and insightful. There are several 'two's' in it: There are two masters, two words, and the two statements of the silent master. Which are the rat droppings?

The primary reference, I think, is to the two statements. It may very well have been best if the previously silent master had remained so, but his first statement became a dropping only after the second; he second guessed himself. He 'wobbled'. Not only is Zen intended to express itself in spontaneous utterances ("samadhi-power"), but those utterances are meant to stand on their own, without apology. A hem and a haw make two rat droppings.

What is the cause of this 'wobbling'? For me, it is the internalization and rule of right and wrong, motivated by the desire to externally 'please' others and internally 'please' myself. Why do I want to 'say the right thing'? To be seen as good and wise that I might think myself as such. There is also the perpetual deliberation and discrimination within which reveals a divided self. Zen would have us brush both the angel and the devil off our shoulders and into the dustbin. Stand united. Be yourself. Forget opinion.

As for the "two words", Fenyang said, "When you have realized understanding, even one word is too much." "Absolute Truth" is not a concept which I appreciate in any case, but if we think of it as "realized understanding", that is, as experience, it is more palatable. Yet, no objectification of this experience in word is possible, so these two words are also rat turds — even for those that believe they have experienced it.

Personally, I cannot see how any experience, however profound, could be called either 'Absolute' or "Truth'. Get real. Perhaps you tire of me quoting Zhuangzi's 'formula', but here it cuts like a knife: "The Radiance of Drift and Doubt is the sage's only map." I would very much like to experience what seems to be 'Absolute Truth', but I would hope I knew better than to call it such.

Then there are the two masters. Are they also rat droppings? They would be, if their respective ripostes were intended as a means toward self-aggrandizement, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt — we seem to need to believe in saints, in any case.

And yet, "Whose pot doesn't have one or two droppings in it?" You mean the enlightened ones are not perfect?! So much for Absolute anything. How liberating.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.


  1. TTC Chapter 42! And Chapter 1. Ha! Two chapters..

  2. I have noticed similarities with right wing Christians and Taoist of escaping "rational conversations" through spirituality. A Christian might with pious arrogance double talk their way out of what is a discerning worthwhile thought that cuts through the bull, while a Taoist just says "words are inadequate and do not matter" their way out of the conversation. In other words, you cannot have a rational conversation with a person that has a convenient exit out of that conversation in the name of spirituality. Similar shit happens while talking to someone that is into non-duality and that there is no self. If you mention to them that what they are doing is screwed up they just conveniently say there is no-self so why talk about what doesn't exist? By chance has religion and philosophy become a means to hide behind what might be true? Food for thought.

  3. @Anonymous: There is lots of Taoist commentary on the canon, and great preoccupation with translation and interpretation, and which gives rise to some variant modes of thought and practice. For example, "Tao is nameless and without form, ...We really do not know what name to give it being so grand; we are forced to call it Tao."

    But you do observe that even those who speak of no-self, and words being inadequate, still do yammer a lot.


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