One morning, Hongren and Mazu the nine-fingered disciple sat side by side at the banks of a lotus pond in silent meditation. Slowly, Hongren began to hum. The humming grew in volume, until Hongren’s entire throat began to vibrate in sympathetic resonance. Gradually, the sound of the humming subsided, until they were once again sitting in perfect silence at the banks of the lotus pond.
Finally, Hongren spoke.
“When you feel the need to defecate, do you defecate?”
“Yes, master,” replied Mazu.
“Then the Buddha is a misshapen turnip!”
At this point, Hongren took a sip of tea.
In the autumn of the year of the Dragon, heavy torrential rains swept the land. The fields were flooded, and farmers were left destitute. Soon the flood waters had even reached the gates of the monastery.
Hongren was seated stoically in the courtyard as Mazu approached him.
“Master!” exclaimed Mazu, “The flood waters have reached the gates of the monastery. We must evacuate!”
“Begone, idiot!” exclaimed Hongren. “Would you attach a rabbit to a plow, or use a fish to guard your henhouse? No! Well in that case, why should I evacuate?”
Mazu had no answer, and left to continue evacuating the monastery.
After a time, Mazu again returned to Hongren.
“Master! exclaimed Mazu, “The flood waters continue to rise. The courtyard of the monastery is already flooded.”
“Begone, idiot!” exclaimed Hongren. “If a thousand monks meditated for a thousand years on the essence of being and non-being, the result would not fill a single teacup. If a million of the most devoted disciples spent a million lifetimes contemplating the impermanence of all things, it would not produce enough ox manure to fertilize a single grain of rice. Why, then, should I evacuate?”
Mazu had no answer.
At this point, an ox gave birth to a calf in a field nearby.
One day, Hongren and his nine-fingered discipled Mazu were cleaning the courtyard together. Suddenly, Hongren put his hand firmly on Mazu’s shoulder.
“Wait,” said Hongren, as Mazu paused his sweeping. “Show me what true freedom is.”
Mazu stood for a time in thoughtful silence. Finally, he rushed to the kitchen, returned with a sharp knife, and furiously sawed off a finger. He offered it to Hongren.
“No,” said Hongren, “You are close, but that is not true freedom. Can you show me absolute freedom?”
Mazu the eight-fingered disciple again stood for a time in thoughtful silence. Finally, he began to saw furiously away upon yet another finger.
“No, stop,” said Hongren. Mazu put down the knife and gazed upon Hongren quizzically.
“My mistake,” said Hongren, “Yes, the last finger was true freedom.”
On Emptiness, The Second Part
One morning, as a flock of cranes passed overhead, Hongren was seated with his disciples on the edge of the lotus pond.
“Can anyone tell me what true emptiness is?”
Mazu the eight-fingered disciple spoke first. “Emptiness is like a bowl without contents, and without a bowl.”
“Idiot!” bellowed Hongren, as he pushed Mazu headfirst into the lotus pond.
As Mazu struggled to pull himself out of the water, one of Hongren’s most diligent disciples, Heze, cautiously spoke up.
“The world of phenomena is like the lotuses floating on the surface of the pond. These transient sensations obscure the underlying emptiness of the water underneath.”
“Very good,” said Hongren, nodding sagely as he smiled with satisfaction. “However, Mazu’s answer was better.”
Early one morning, as a fog rolled across the mountains surrounding the monastery, Hongren was seated next to the lotus pond with one of his most diligent disciples, Heze.
“Master,” asked Heze, “What is the surest path to enlightenment?”
“To achieve enlightenment, you must do the following: Early each morning, at the very start of your day, draw a bucket of water from the well. Then toss out the contents of the bucket, scattering them across the ground, while shouting ‘Ho!’ Do this for a thousand days, and then for a thousand more, and then for a thousand more again. At the end of the final day, you shall achieve enlightenment.”
Heze took the instructions to heart. Each morning, he roused himself from bed, and drew a bucket of water from the well. He tossed out the contents of the bucket, scattering them across the ground, while shouting “Ho!” He did this over many lunar cycles, over many seasons, and over many years.
Finally, after the thousandth day following the thousandth day following the thousandth day, he came to seek an audience with Hongren. Hongren was sweeping the courtyard of his monastery when Heze approached.
“Master,” said Heze, “For years now, I have taken your instructions for heart. Each morning, I roused myself from bed. Each morning, I drew a bucket of water from the well. Each morning, I tossed out the contents of the bucket, scattering them across the ground. And each morning, I shouted ‘Ho!’ I did this for a thousand days, and then another thousand, and then another thousand. What did I achieve by doing this? What was the purpose of your instructions? Have I achieved enlightenment?”
Hongren looked annoyed as he continued his sweeping. “Did I tell you to do that? To be honest, I dont even remember why.”
Heze stood in place, looking bewildered, as Hongren moved away with his broom, continuing to sweep the full length and breadth of the courtyard.
At this point, Heze achieved enlightenment.