Koan Commentary

Entangling Vines Case 18 Shangu’s Sweet Olive Blossoms 

One day the poet Shangu was visiting Huitang. 
Huitang said, “You know the passage in which Confucius says, ‘My friends, do you think I’m hiding things from you? In fact, I am hiding nothing from you.It’s just the same with the Great Matter of Zen. Do you understand this?” 
“I don’t understand,” Shangu replied 
Later, Huitang and Shangu were walking in the mountains where the air was filled 
with the scent of the sweet-olive blossoms. Huitang asked, “Do you smell the fragrance of the blossoms?” 
Shangu said, “I do.” 
Huitang said, “You see, I’m hiding nothing from you.” 
At that moment Shangu was enlightened. 
[The Sweet-Olive of the koan appears to be Osmanthus fragrans a native of Asia and one of the olive family also commonly known as Tea-Olive, Fragrant-Olive, or Sweet Osmanthus.] 

Commentary by Rachel Mansfield-Howlett Roshi 

Shangu’s enlightenment revealed something that had already been given. 
We often look to a spiritual practice for what it can give us but the old teacher Ikku said: "I’d like to offer something to help you; but in the Zen school we don’t have a single thing!” How wonderful! There’s no help to be given because there is nothing that needs to be imparted to you, you already have it – it’s been yours since the very beginning! It’s always right here. Just like smelling the fragrant blossoms or knowing whether the tea is hot. No one can give that to you. You must smell it or taste it yourself. 
Alternatively, we can get the idea if we try very hard we can attain something beautiful, we could become like the Buddha. But the old teachers say if you want to find the Buddha look at your own face, look at your own feet. If you want to find the Buddha, look into your own eyes. You can find it right where you stand now. It is integrated into every part of being as your intrinsic essential nature.  
This is the thing that always gets people hung up. We think: “if only I could be more peaceful, if I could just be clearer, things would be easier and I’d be closer to awakening.” 
The koan asks, can you open your mouth to it, here, as it is, as you are? Can you take your nourishment as it is offered, in the fragrance of the flower, in the sip of tea? If the world is exactly as it is and if you are exactly as you are and neither has to conform to your ideas about how things ought to be, what’s that like? 
Leonard Cohen says in Back on Boogie Street 
I’m wanted at the traffic-jam. 
They’re saving me a seat. 
I’m what I am, and what I am, 
Is back on boogie street.
That’s really being home in the world – to be able to say I’m wanted at the traffic jam, they’re saving me a seat. Wherever you find yourself, to be able to call that home. As Hakuin Ekaku says in Song of Enlightenment: “coming and going we are never astray.” 
The old teacher Dogen Zenji said it this way: 
“The storehouse of treasures opens of itself, you may take them and use them any way you wish.” 
When you go home this evening, you’ll say goodbye to your sangha mates, walk out to your car and drive home, enter your house and put on your jammies, and climb into bed and go to sleep. This is the storehouse of treasures! You’re free to use it any way you wish – for good or ill, in delusion or freedom. 
So how does one find this storehouse of treasures that does not require prying open? It can be through the deceptively simple act of listening and seeing — as nakedly as possible. This allows the world to open to offer you an invitation. Listening without agenda. Seeing without preference. In other words, when  you’re listening you’re not just waiting to hear confirmation of your own opinion. When you’re seeing, you’re not just looking for the things you consider beautiful. 
Ultimately, meditation practice breaks down the me, you, they and it differentiations so when you hear something, it’s listening to the world listening to itself or seeing the world seeing itself. To see yourself as an integral part of this design is treading the Bodhisattva path. 
No one else will come in and take out the treasures in the storehouse. And even if someone could, we wouldn’t want them to. It would be like taking something from us. There was a teacher who was also the cook of a monastery and was stirring the soup when suddenly Manjushree jumped up and stuck his head out of the pot [Manjusri is the Buddha yet to come]. The cook banged Manjusri over the head with a spoon and said, “Get out of here. We don’t need you.” 
Over and over again we sit still by the roadside like wooden Buddhas trying to learn that we are sitting still. It’s the Buddha who sits here still, completely alive, completely free. 

There’s a fairly small move you can make that makes all the difference and that’s to allow the possibility that this really IS IT. 
This is your moment, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for. You don’t have to change into a different person or wait till your circumstances change to experience this life in the fullest possible way. 
It’s a generous path – it’s a kind path. 
There is yet another story about a cook in a monastery who runs through the meditation hall with a pot of rice in her hands yelling: 
“Little Bodhisattvas, Little Bodhisattvas, Come and get your rice!” 
She is teasing the students who are always waiting for someone else to offer them nourishment, when it is actually here, waiting for you to pick it up all along. 
In Chan, we call it discovering your own Buddha nature, or realizing your original face before your parents were born. It’s a discovery of what has already been given – what we already have. 
There’s an inscription over the entrance of an old monastery that invites the people who are entering to “Look under your feet!” Surprisingly, what we’ve been searching for has been right under our own feet. The old teachers say if you want to find the Buddha look at your own toes, look at your hands. If you want to find the Buddha, look at your own face, look at your shoulders, your hips, your legs. No need to find substitute Buddhas. You can find it right where you stand now. There is no need to go searching around, everything is clear and everything has always been clear, and if you look a little deeper your realize it’s been yours all along. 
When I’m walking in nature I often notice, once again, that everything is already present, it often just requires me avoiding thinking that there’s something missing. If I didn’t struggle and worry and make up stories about what is happening, I am just with the crunch of the dirt under my feet, just this simple thing, and I find the world has laid itself open for me. 
We often do two things with our thoughts that are mistaken: we think that these thoughts are true, and we mistake our thoughts for ourselves. Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to adopt it as true or allow it to define yourself. Mistaking our thoughts for the real thing can also be a very stingy way to operate. The world is vast and wide. Our attempts to constrain it renders our own life small in return. To address these errors doesn’t mean we have to get rid of our thoughts, they often simply fall away of their own weight when we stop holding them up. Like taking off a sweater on a sunny day, we can relinquish the thought more easily when we see it is not essential to our wellbeing. This is a turn towards the generous side of things. 

In the midst of chaos we can find our awakening. In the heart of delusion, we can find stars in the darkest night of the soul. 
When Hakuin said, “This very body is the Buddha,” he didn’t mean after we’ve gained enlightenment or taken vows, he meant right now, in the chaos. 
Do not think the moon appears when the clouds are gone 
All the time it has been there in the sky 
So perfectly clear
Even within the cloud of our delusion and sorrow there’s something underneath that we can be aware of. 

Difficulty is your own Buddha Nature, too. 
Hakuin said that you meet the silver cliffs and the iron mountains in meditation. But those silver cliffs and iron mountains are none other than your own face. The wall that you meet is none other than your own first face. The abyss that you fall into is none other than your own first face. Try to see this. 
In the beginning, it’s often about getting stuck. There can be a leaden forever quality to the process. Whatever we’re in, we’re deeply in. If we’re angry the whole world seems mad and everything is wrong; the drawer sticks and won’t close, we can’t find the keys, never liked that chair, and even the cat looks as if it wished us harm. We can all find those feelings – so, when it’s opaque it’s opaque and we have to not build stories about that too. It’s good to be compassionate about where we’re stuck. 
Gradually it becomes more like “Oh, stuck again, what fortune!” Because we’ve experienced that the opening can come through difficulty we’re less resistant to facing it, less concerned about holding up a pretty picture of ourselves for the world to see. When there are fewer judgments in place we can meet the moment more openhandedly, without agenda for how things are supposed to go. 
So, whatever comes just welcome it and bless it, and be sincere with it. You’ll see that your own heart is the same as the heart of the redwoods. 

You’d don’t even worry about being in accord with what is – that would be an extra thought that isn’t needed. 
Someone asked the teacher Matsu, “How do I accord with the Tao?” 
He said, “I haven't accorded with the Tao since the beginning of my training.” 
Matsu didn’t have a concept of what the Tao ought to be. Right where you are, that’s where the Tao is. Right where your heart is, that’s where it flows from. Right here, this life is infinitely precious, and the whole point is to awaken to this beauty and virtue so that we can taste it for ourselves. Even if the wisest person we know taught us it weren’t so, we would just laugh because we know it for ourselves, we know what it tastes like. 
When our hearts are opened and our eyes are opened, then naturally we carry others along with us. Compassion appears and we realize we are all held in the same embrace. The same light blesses each of us.