Dharma sermon on the closing of the winter retreat
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A man once asked Chan Master Fengxue Yanzhao, “If you speak, you become ‘function’, if you don’t speak, you become ‘essence’. What must I do in order to be freed from both essence and function?” The Chan Master replied, “I always think of the March scenery of Jiangnan, steeped in the fragrance of multi-colored flowers and the sounds of singing birds.”
The completion of the winter retreat, bringing us to the point where spring is now right in front of us, is itself an exchange of Seon dialogue. Retreats are wordless, retreat dismissals use words. Silent wordlessness is ‘essence’, words that transmit dharma are ‘function’. But how can we get beyond this boundary of discrimination between essence and function? What I’m asking you to do is to free yourselves of the distinction between ‘wordless’ and ‘having words,’ and instead to express the essence of the Buddha dharma.
Right here in this place, where we go through the formalities of both sides, in the performance of the retreat and its completion, we must set in order our spiritual cultivation through once again addressing the gong-an,“what is the true performance of a retreat and what is its true completion?”
With silence, the only thing made manifest is the world of equality; with the expression of language, it is only the world of discrimination that is displayed. If you speak, you are trapped and if you don’t speak, you are also trapped. If you know only silence, there will not be even the tiniest space in the outside world for you to depend on, and if speech is all you know, there is nothing within that your mind can accomplish.
When your mind within doesn’t do anything, you can’t break down any boundaries, and if you have absolutely no place on the outside on which to depend, you’ll never understand the myriad phenomena of the world.
This is what was being spoken of when the Sixth Patriarch, Chan Master Huineng, said “Don’t think in strict terms of good and bad,” and when the great layman Vimalakirti spoke of the “silence beyond silence.”
Had you understood this reasoning, you’d easily be able to understand when it’s said that “though Buddha Sakyamuni taught the dharma for 49 years, he never said one word,” or that “though Master Bodhidharma sat in the Shaolin cave for nine years, his voice thundered throughout the universe.”
Imbued only with this understanding, where can the discrimination exist between Jiangnan or Jiangbei (“north of the river”), the oriole and the skylark, or the flowers of the plum and peach? Your mind free from attachments, you’ll do nothing more than set out upon the spring road you’ve found, here amongst the myriad activities of the world.
Though the beauty of Jiangnan is genuine,In the spectacle of one thousand years, it’s but a hasty supplement.Were that not the case, even if new branches were to sprout next year,Your dizziness in the spring breeze would never cease.
 Chan, Seon (pronounced “sun”), and Zen are the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese pronunciations for the same school of Buddhism.
 Jiangnan refers literally to the area in China “south of the river,” meaning the rich lands of the Yangtze delta region.
 Gongan literally means a “public case,” it is best known in the West by its Japanese term kōan. This term refers to a particular question or conundrum that serves as focus point instigating one’s awakening through continued meditative absorption.