Planting fields, eating rice

A famous koan of The Book of Serenity titled “Dizang Planting the Fields” is prefaced by this setting: the 9th century Chan master Guichen, called “Dizang” because he resided at the Dizang temple once for a little while, is visited by Xiushan, Fayan, and others, who are traveling from the south but whose journey is interrupted by rain, snow, and overflowing streams. They stop at Dizang’s temple. They sit about the brazier, ignoring master Dizang.

Dizang draws closer and says quietly: “May I ask something?” Xiushan looks up and says yes. Dizang asks, “Are the mountains, rivers, and earth identical or separate from your elders?”

Xiushan replies to Dizang, with a tentative voice or perhaps a self-assured one: “Separate.” Dizang holds up two fingers. “Identical! Identical!” Xiushan blurts out. Dizang holds up two fingers again. Then he gets up and leaves.

Once out of earshot, Fayan asks Xiushan what is the meaning of the two fingers. Xiushan replies cooly that Dizang did it artibrarily. It has no meaning. “Don’t insult him,” says Fayan. “Bah,” says Xiushan, “are there elephant’s tusks in a rat’s mouth?”

The next day, the visitors leave, but Fayan tells Xiushan that he is going to stay, that he will catch up with the others if he decides otherwise. But Fayan stays a long time.

This is only the preface to the story, but the personalities are already clearly delineated for what follows. Fayan studied with Dizang a long time. It happened that Xiushan and the others came to Dizang’s temple again. We can imagine the same setting, sitting around the brazier. Dizang speaks first, again.

“You are from the South?” “Yes.” “How is Buddhism in the South these days?” Xiushan replies “There’s a lot of discussion going on.” Dizang asks, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and eating rice?”

What Dizang intends by the question about Buddhism in the south is to confirm that Xiushan now understood what he did not before, that now he could speak for himself. But instead Xiushan boasted of the busy debate and scholarship going on there, presumably including himself as part of it.

Next Dizang wanted to reveal the nature of all this vain discussion in the south, to at least hear a defense of it, and so refers to his own meagre efforts, his diurnal planting of the fields, which is both figurative and literal. It is to him the essence of practice, in contrast to discussion.

But Xiushan does not accept what Dizang does, and replies, “How about the world?” In other words, Xiushan dismisses Dizang’s activity as the heart of Buddhism and practice. He scorns it as something primitive in contrast to the discussion going on in the south, and by extension in the civilized world. Is this what you are doing while the world does important things? Xiushan suggests.

Dizang responds, “What do you call the world?” How does Xiushan define the “world”? Is it larger, better, deeper, than simply planting the fields and eating its yield? Dizang might have given up on Xiushan’s badgering train of talk and simply said something to the effect that, well, that’s what I do here; it doesn’t matter. Xiushan would not catch on either way.

Most commentary on this story concentrates on the distinction between discussion (communion of speech) and practice (communion with the source). From there the various stages of enlightenment in the Chan/Zen tradition may be discussed, or the use of scriptures and sutras versus meditation. But all this, too, would consist of discussion. The very institution of temples and monasteries, as in the West, eventually led to the creation of a class of meditators and a class of workers, with the latter indoors and performing minimal labor, a severe dichotomy.

But the story of Dizang points directly to the essence of practice as found in the hermits of antiquity. The Commentary in The Book of Serenity:

Even though planting the fields and making rice is ordinary, unless you investigate to the full you don’t know their import. The ancients would reap and boil chestnuts and rice at the edge of a hoe, in a broken-legged pot, deep in the mountains — their fortune was no more than contentment; all their lives they never sought from anyone. Their nobility was no more than purity and serenity — what need for bushels of emblems? … It’s not necessary to open a hall and expound the teachings as in the South. Leave the clamor …