Three Crows

by tendo zenji



Three Crows Dialog on the Paramita of Zeal

Midnight: suddenly forgot moon and finger;
Filing the sky, the solar disk—red!
— Chan Master Jiefeng Yu

The sun sank between the peaks dusk falling like a hood slipped over one’s head. A small, rocky stream flowed down from the north, alongside which there was a trail. It split, one fork running west the other east, a narrow path alongside each.  Where the three roads met there was a shrine to travelers and a small hut for those following the way. In the gloaming the dancing steam, echoed off the valley walls, augmented by the clacking of an occasional crow.  A jingling sound up from the west fork punctuated this soundscape. A moment later it was echoed by a duplicate sound up from the east. For a time there was a jingle from the west, shortly followed by its twin from the west.  When yet another similar jingling began to be heard coming from the north, the pattern was broken.

Around the bend, following the river from the north a conical straw hat bobbed into view, shortly revealing a grey robe on a man carrier a staff with seven rings.  The crows that flew up as he rounded that corner would have seen coming up from the rise to the east a figure that could have been confused for his brother. The hill descends a little sharper to the west, which perhaps accounts for the delay, but shortly thereafter a third monk hove into view again hat first.  The three met at the travelers’ shrine.  They bowed to each other. They bowed to the Bodhisattva of Travelers. They made their way into the small hut, and the soundscape of the valley returned to the chatty creek and the twilight birds.

Inside there was a single room the only feature was a central brazier above which hung a battered kettle. The three men took off their packs and sat cross-legged each in a corner of the tiny space. After some time one of them got up and built a modest fire.  Taking the kettle that hung over the fire pit he exited the hut and made his way to the river. Shortly he reentered the hut and hung the kettle over the fire on a blacked iron hook.  He returned to his seat. When the kettle began to sing he again rose and silently made a pot of tea.  While it steeped he retrieved a bowl from his pack and his companions did likewise.  The three of them placed the bowls in front of them and bowed.  Getting back to his feet the monk picked up the kettle and with a bow filled each bowl with tea. He returned to his seat and with a final bow they picked up their bowls and drank.

Another of the monks rose, retrieved a small pot from his pack and poured water from the kettle and hung it from the hook over the fire.  When it had reached a boil he threw in a handful of rice, raised the hook and covered the pot.  He kneeled by the fire frequently stirring the pot, occasionally adding more water from the kettle. After some time he removed it from the flame and let it stand covered.  When the rice had cooled sufficiently he arose and efficiently distributed it amongst the three bowls in front of each of the monks.  He sat, again the three bowed and deliberately ate every grain of rice in their bowl.  Again the first monk rose and prepared tea. He poured a measure into each bowl which, with a bow, they drank.  They set their bowls down together and made a final bow.

A few minutes later the third monk rose, gathered the bowls and made his way outside to the river.  He washed each bowl, drying it on a cloth he had tucked in his sleeve and returned to the hut placing the bowls and cups behind the monk who had used them.  He returned to his seat.   The monks sat in silence. The fire grew low until it was only a red glow outlining three still forms.

After some time one of the monks stirred and reaching into his sleeve pulled out a small book.  He opened it toward the back and with head bowed over the book read.  Raising his head he began to close the book, paused and read again.  With a slight shake of his head he closed the book and returned it to his sleeve. The monk who had previously cleaned the bowls, stirred and spoke.

“You did not seem to have found much solace in your reading, brother Jisha. What was it that so confounded you?”

With a quick glance at the speaker, the monk sighs and says:

Carry out a detailed investigation of dharma principles, taking awakening as your sole standard.” (1)

“Ahh the Whip. Master Guishan’s words are well worth heeding. What brought you to turn to that specific entry and what difficulty did you encounter?”

“At times during zazen when my mind is assailed by divergent thoughts I will turn to a page by chance. Often the words will give me renewed vigor and allow me to return my mind to a single point. What Master Guishan says is all well and good, but how?”

“Just a few entries beyond the one you stumbled upon, is it not written:

“Redouble the whip to practice zeal. Diligently seek without stopping. This is called the faculty of zeal.” (2)

Brother Monks, these are all the words we truly need. Those who have roused the aspiration for awakening, must hold on to that spark that lit the fire within. Our task is merely to rekindle that fire time and time again until we are entirely consumed. When you find yourselves distracted, unable to concentrate, that is when you bear down, doubling your efforts. This is the water that feeds all of your practices. Recall that

“The first three of the six perfections are contained within morality training. Dhyāna is contained within mind training; and prajñā is contained within wisdom training. Only zeal pervades all six perfections.” (3)

The monk bows, pauses a moment, and then asks, “How is it though that we maintain such zeal? I remember well when my head was first shaved you couldn’t keep me off my cushion. I sat and sat, and sometimes my mind would settle; I’d calm down and seem to merge into my surroundings. But then the thoughts creep in, the distractions slipped past my breath and rarely would I lose myself.”

“Dear Brother Jisha it sounds as if you have not heeded Master Puyan Duan’an instructions to the sangha. Let me refresh your memory:

“Do not do “dead” cross-legged sitting where you fail to keep your eye on the cue (4), where you maintain a “solitary stillness.” And do not do cross-legged sitting where you are minding the cue but have no sensation of indecision-and-apprehension (5). If you have torpor and distraction, no need to give a thought to thrusting them away. Quickly lift the cue to full awareness, shake off the defilements of body and mind—and be ferociously tenacious.” (6)

“Brother monk it is not a matter of “merging with our surroundings” or “settling our minds” or forgetting our feelings in silence and illumination! We are involved in the investigation of this great matter.   In order to see into this matter you must relentlessly pursue this investigation. Great Master Daihui makes quite clear how to undertake this great endeavor:

“Just keep on at all times pulling the cue into full awareness. Even when conceptualization arises, it is not necessary to employ the mind to stop it—just keep your eye on the cue. When walking, pull the cue into full awareness; when sitting, pull the cue into full awareness. Continuously keep pulling the cue into full awareness. When the cue no longer has any tastiness for you at all, you’ve hit the good spot. You must never release the cue.” (7)

“This my brothers is the paramita of zeal: never releasing the cue. When stray thoughts arise, it isn’t a matter of squashing them down, it is a matter of returning to the cue. When you are distracted by pain, feelings, sense objects and so on, you return to the cue. As you become more mindful you will notice these wanderings before they have gone too far afield and without mental commentary return to the cue. This requires a deliberate effort for quite some time and this effort both depends upon and cultivates zeal. I am reminded of Master Guzhuo admonishing his sangha:

Great Worthies! Why is it that you don’t produce the great zeal, and deeply generate the solemn vow before the three treasures? If birth-and-death is not clear to you, and you have not yet passed through the barrier checkpoints of the patriarchs, make a vow not to come down from the mountain. Face your seven-foot sitting portion on the long platform, hang up your bowl and bag, and assume a cross-legged sitting posture like a wall thousands of feet high. For the whole of this single birth, practice the Way until you penetrate. If you do your utmost with this mind-set, you’ll never get taken in.” (8)

Silence descended over the room. The fire burned low suffusing the room with a low red glow. The only sounds are the ever-present babbling of the stream beyond the hut, and occasional pop or hiss from the fire. The monks are just shadows in the room, indistinguishable from sacks abandoned in three corners of the room. With a start one of the monks jerks his head and blinks rapidly.

“Brother Tenzo, what is the matter?”

With a hangdog expression the monk replies, “I have become overwhelmed by drowsiness and am unable to maintain focus. I’ve pushed myself for years, never slacking off, but for all my efforts I still succumb.”

For a spell the monk said nothing. He scratched the back of his head. “Hmmm”, he finally said. “Hmmmmmm.” Looking toward the sky, he continues, “Your statement brings to mind the tale of Master Xueyan Qin and his long struggle for awakening. Like you he spent years and years devoted to his practice, engaging in myriad austerities:

“…for two years I hadn’t slept with my body in a horizontal position, and I was suffering from being dazed and fatigued. Thereupon in one fell swoop I gave up all of these painful practices. Two months later my prior state of health was restored due to this giving up—I was in full vigor.”

There is a lesson here that has come down all the way from the World Honored One to the present day. To penetrate this great matter requires dedication, zeal, forbearance and letting go of many things. But we must always stay on the middle path between austerity and excess. Too far in either direction and you will not see into this great matter. Each monk must find the middle path for himself; some will require greater austerity, some less. After recovering his health Master Qin recounts an encounter with Head Monk Xiu:

“Xiu said, “The true practitioner of the Way doesn’t even bother cutting his fingernails. So why would I find time for a useless conversation with you!” At that I raised an issue: “Right now I’m trying to clear up my torpor and distraction, but with no results.” Xiu said, “It’s because you’re still not fierce enough. Make you sitting cushion high, straighten up your backbone, and merge your whole body into oneness with a single cue—what torpor and distraction will there be to make into a problem?” (9)

“Heed well these words Brother Tenzo! You need to be fierce, you need to not be led astray by externalities. Start with ‘Straighten your backbone’—recall Master Guzhuo instructs us thusly: ‘…assume a cross-legged sitting posture like a wall thousands of feet high’. If you feel yourself nodding off sit even straighter! Sit wide eyed if need be and when torpor fades into the background raise your cue. “

“Is there not also a comment in the Whip that a certain monk stabbed his leg with an awl to keep himself awake?”

“Thus so! Some may need to go to such extremes, yet many have not had to resort to such methods. In our investigation into this great matter we must do what is required. Both of you now take heed: Your struggles are not just your own; Followers of the Way in every land throughout every time have faced the same issues, have faced the very same problems and have surmounted them.   The records of the Masters of old have addressed these issues time and again. Consider well their words. Your efforts fortify your zeal and it should always be increasing. This then is how you practice: fully engaged, entirely immersed in your inquiry. This is how you shake off torpor and distraction: rouse all your zeal, put in all of your effort, be fiercely tenacious. Master Puyan Duan’an describes the fruits of such unrelenting, uncompromised practice:

“If you practice in this tenacious manner, suddenly, where before the cue was not raised without your effort, not it is raised of its own accord; where before the indecision-and-apprehension did not arise without your effort, now indecision-and-apprehension arises of its own accord. When walking, you won’t know you are walking; when sitting, you won’t know you are sitting. There will only be the probing of the sensation of indecision-and-apprehension—solitary and distant, clear and bright. This is called “the locus of cutting off the defilements.” It is also called “the locus of the loss of self.” (10)

He clapped his hands once and with that the three of them bowed and resumed sitting with no further interruptions.

The sky was a slate grey, matching the weathered wood of the travelers’ hut. Slowly the grey lightened and edges became more defined. A beam of light from the sun broke between two hills touching color to the scene. Atop the hut three crows roused themselves, spread their wings and flew off, each following a different path into the mountains.


The Chan Whip Anthology: A companion to Zen Practice
Jeffery L. Broughton with Elise Yoko Watanabe
Oxford University Press 2015 New York, NY
ISBN: 0190200723

  1. p. 166, Guishan’s Warning Whip
  2. p. 167, Sequence of the Boundaries of the Dharma [Gates: First Gate]
  3. p. 163, Yogacārabhūmiśāstra

  4. Cue is a translation of huatau, or the critical phrase usually from a gong’an (koan). In Gongfu, or Zen Practice, the dominant form became cue practice. The core of the practice is to relentlessly focus solely on the cue. Daihui first explicated this practice, see note 7 for further explanation.
  5. Indecision-and-Apprehension is the translators rendering of the third of Gaofeng’s Three Essentials of Chan: the “faculty of great confidence,” the “determination of great fury,” and the “sensation of great indecision-and-apprehension” (p. 7). This is often rendered as “Great Doubt” The word in Chinese is yiwhich can be translated as doubt, puzzlement, perplexity, uncertainty and so on.  This word would have these meanings in an overlapping sense.  Gaofeng’s describes it thus: “it is as if you have in secret committed an atrocious act, and it is the very moment when you are about to be exposed but you are not yet exposed.”  That sort of state is far beyond doubt, though doubt would certainly be part of what you are feeling.  One writer on Dahui’s use of yi said that if you consider doubt in the Christian tradition where it lies in opposition of faith, specifically in times of deep existential crisis and anxiety (think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane), would convey a similar meaning.
  6. p. 118, Preceptor Puyan Duan’an of Mt. Dasheng Instructs the Sangha
  7. p. 78 Chan Master Dahui Gao of Jingshan Answers Questions
  8. p. 120, Chan Master Guzhuo Instructs the Sangha
  9. p. 89, General sermon of Chan Master Xueyan Qin of Yuanzhou
  10. p. 118, Preceptor Puyan Duan’an of Mt. Dasheng Instructs the Sangha