This is a post that has bloomed from our Vine Intensive on The Essential Teaching of Zen Master Hakuin. Hakuin Zenji uses the koan of the Seven Wise Sisters to make an important point about dharma expression. Likewise, someone heard Katagiri Roshi mumble offhandedly, "You have to say something," and it's a phrase that's become associated with him.
Hakuin emphasizes the importance of dharma expression to benefit living beings, especially by offering poison words that disrupt delusions and allow the pure wind of wild awakening to blow forth.
Dogen Zenji also offered the koan of the Seven Wise Sisters in his Eihei koroku. I offer my new translation of that dharma hall discourse and Dogen's koan presentation (aka, poisonous leavings) below.
There are various versions of this story. After the youngest sister says, “Here is the corpse. Where did the person go?” Another sister said, “How’s that? What?” However, in Dogen's version of the story, he drops the "How's that? What?" and goes right to all seven sisters having satori.
Wansong notes in his comments on this koan that “How’s that? What?” is the single pivot for experiencing awakening. Wansong continues, "There is simply no other way to attain this understanding." That is, the nondiscursive intent of buddhas, ancestors, and the Seven Wise Sisters:
“How’s that? What?”
After their awakening, described below, the sisters asked Indra, the creator god of the Indian cosmology, for three things: a tree without roots; land where there is neither light nor shade; and a mountain valley where a shout does not echo. Indra is baffled.
Another detail in Hakuin's telling that isn't included in Dogen's is one of the wise sisters saying to Indra and he flubs, “If you don’t have [the three gifts to give], how can you possibly expect to help others liberate themselves?”
Do you see what that wise young woman said? “If you don’t have them, how do you expect to save others?” Compare that with the students and teachers today who shrink back cringing, quaking with fear, when someone confronts them with a dash or two of poison. How infinitely superior she is—the difference between a crown and an old shoe is not nearly so great. You practitioners set out on your religious quest with fire in your blood. You go through great difficulties, suffer untold hardships, as you bore into the secret depths of Zen. [Why do you do it?] Isn’t it all because you intend at some later date to do great work by bringing the benefits of liberation to your fellow beings? What about you? Don’t you think you’d be lacking if you couldn’t come up with these three things?”
So when Indra can't give the sisters the gifts they ask for, they all went off to see the Buddha. The Buddha, speaking without a curtain, teaches that a tree without roots, etc., can only be known by great bodhisattvas with compassion beyond measure.
We didn't let Vine students off the hook, of course, but had them give the gifts in the place of Indra. After some intense work, we shared Dogen's responses, not that they're necessarily correct or should be imitated, but they give the gift of a hint at what's being asked for.
I believe those of you with a koan eye will see from Dogen's responses that he was deeply familiar with the koan way, as if he had access to and experience with a similar in-the-room transmission that those of us in koan work enjoy today. This is in stark contrast to what "some people" (those Post Meiji Soto Orthodoxy true believers) say about Dogen and his just-siting proclivities (in their dreary, deadend fantasies).
Some of Dogen's poisonous presentation below is in koan code, but clear to anyone initiated in the koan way. That is, Dogen answers a koan by referring to a koan - not something that we'd accept in the room - but something that indicates that Dogen knew how to nondualize this situation and the koan he refers to.
I'm sorry if that seems cryptic, but I really don't want to give anything away that might impede your own deep process and intimate discoveries on the mystic path.
Comments and questions welcome (open for paid members).
For more on the Seven Wise Sisters, see "Seven Wise Women in the Charnel Ground," by Bonnie Myotai Treace in The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-five Centuries of Awakened Women. For another translation of Dogen's dharma hall discourse, see Eihei koroku I-IV, translated by Thomas Cleary. Shortened versions of the Seven Wise Sisters koan appears in Entangling Vines: A Classic Collection of Zen Koans, trans. Thomas Yuho Kirchner, Case 38; the verse commentary for The Book of Serenity, trans. Thomas Cleary, Case 14; and the commentary on the main case in The Blue Cliff Record, trans. Thomas Cleary, Case 55. Kirchner notes that there is a Sutra of the Seven Women, in the Taisho Canon, but that has yet to be translated into English as far as I know.
64 Going up to the dharma hall, [Dogen] raised this:
The Seven Wise Sisters were daughters of a great king. They happened upon the Festival of Admiring Flowers. A crowd of hundreds of thousands all hurried to converge on this place of leisure, thinking that in that place they would attain happiness.
Among the Seven Wise Sisters the youngest sister said, “We should wait and not wander with the crowd to praise the objective realms and to gain worldly pleasure. Instead, all of us should wander to the charnel ground.”
An older sister said, “That place is filled with filthy corpses. How would going there bring happiness?”
The youngest sister said, “Older sisters, just come! There is extreme happiness there.”
When they arrived at the charnel ground, the youngest sister pointed to a corpse and asked the older sisters, “Here is the corpse. Where did the person go?”
All the sisters clearly saw the truth and awakened to the Way. Looking up at the sky, they saw flowers raining down, praising the sisters, “Excellent, excellent!”
One of the sisters said, “Who is making the sky rain flowers in praise? Who?”
From the sky, Indra said, “It is me who released the flowers, because I saw the holy sisters awaken to the Way. My retinue and I came and rained flowers of praise. If there is anything you need, allow me to furnish it for you for as long as you may live.”
One of the sisters said, “In our home we have the four necessities and the seven treasures and are completely and excessively provided for.”
Another sister said, “We only want three things. First, a tree with no roots. Second, a piece of land with no light or shade. Third, a valley where you can shout and there is no echo.”
Indra said, “I have everything but these three things. Let’s go together to Buddha.”
Then they went together to see Buddha and asked about this matter. Buddha said, “All of my great arhat disciples do not know the meaning of this. Only great bodhisattvas know this matter.”
The teacher [Dogen] then said,
The meaning of the Tathagata’s supreme awakening is not known by any of the great sravakas. It is only known by all the bodhisattvas who go beyond measurement.
Although it is like this, I, Kosho [aka, Dogen], in place of Indra, would say, a tree with no roots? [Zhaozhou's] cypress tree in the front garden is exactly it. If this cannot be put to use, grasp a staff and say, this is exactly it.”
Land with no north or south? It is the charnel ground exactly. If this cannot be put to use, the ten direction world is exactly it.
A valley with no echo when you shout? Call, “Seven wise sisters!” If the sisters say, “Yes!” at once turn to them and say, “I’ve given you the free expression of a valley of echoes.”
If [when you call,] they don’t say “Yes!” turn to them and say, “Really there is no echo.”