Some Comments on Hongzhi’s “The Acupuncture Needle of Zazen”

Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group

London, Ontario, Canada


Hongzhi Zhengjue lived between 1091 and 1157. He is the Chan (i.e. Chinese Zen) master who advocated for the style of sitting meditation called “Silent Illumination”. Starting in 1129 and staying there for the rest of his life Hongzhi taught at Mount Tiantong. This was the same monastery where Dogen ended up studying at during his journey to China about a century later. He wrote a poem called “The Acupuncture Needle of Zazen”. The title in Chinese could also be translated “Admonitions for Zazen” or “The Point of Zazen”. Dogen made a commentary on this poem in his fascicle, Zazenshin Shobogenzo. I will refer a little to Dogen’s commentary, but I will mostly be offering a few simple comments of my own regarding this poem.


The poem starts with these lines:


The essential function of all buddhas,

the functional essence of all ancestors,

is to know without touching things

and illuminate without encountering objects.


In Dogen’s commentary on this poem, be identifies the “essential function of all buddhas” as sitting zazen and the “functional essence of all ancestors” is the transmission of the Dharma and transmission of the robe, which I’ll just call “transmitting practice”. Making these substitutions into the verse, we can say, Sitting zazen and transmitting practice is to know without touching things and illuminate without encountering objects. I would also suggest that “sitting zazen” and “transmitting practice” are the same. So, when sitting zazen, we are transmitting practice and by transmitting practice we are doing so through sitting zazen. In any case, the knowing without touching things and illuminating without encountering objects speaks to non-duality in Zen practice. This is the big picture of Zen practice according to Hongzhi.


What makes a Buddha a Buddha is the ability to “know without touching things” and to “illuminate without encountering objects”. Elsewhere in Dogen’s writing, he makes the equivalence between Buddhas, our Zen ancestors, and ourselves. So, Buddhas, our Zen ancestors, and ourselves have this ability. This is supposed to be encouraging to us – to know that if practitioners in the past could attain buddhahood, we can too. We can see this in any number of places in Dogen’s writing and the writings of other Soto Zen teachers. To give you an example, Dogen in Keisei Sanshoku Shobogenzo, quotes a verse from Zen master Roya, which in part reads:


Before the ancient Buddhas were enlightened,

they were the same as people now;

Once enlightened, people now

are identical to the ancients.


Let’s talk a bit more about these phrases, “to know without touching things” and to “illuminate without encountering objects”. This interplay between “knowing” and “illumination” runs throughout this poem. I’ll offer my tentative interpretation of what these phrases mean. The phrase “to know without touching things” is pointing at non-grasping. Normally, when we receive some sort of sensory input including “objects of mind”, we get to “know” them by grasping them. When we grasp things, we bring them into a conceptualized realm of experience. This process of grasping happens so quickly we may not notice it, and because we don’t notice it, we confuse the raw sensory data with our conceptualization of it. When we do this, we necessarily create the an unreal distinction between subject (i.e. us, the perceiver) and the object of our perception. So, what do buddhas and ancestors do according to this verse? They know without falling into the subject-object duality.


“Illumination” can be interpreted a number of different ways. From the poem, we know that Buddhas and Ancestors “illuminate without encountering objects”. Obviously, the term “objects” means objects of mind, or dharmas. “illuminate” literally means to shine light on. When something is illuminated we see what it is clearly. In my opinion, this seems very close to Vasubandhu’s definition of wisdom which is “to discern dharmas”. The paradoxical aspect of the poem is that we are shining the light of awareness without creating objects. For me, this implies non-dualism. If there is no object, there is no subject. So, this illumination is not generated by the subject to illuminate an object. The poem seems to point toward shining the light of awareness and seeing truly without generating a subject-object duality.


The next four lines read:

Knowing without touching things,

this knowledge is innately subtle.

Illuminating without encountering objects,

this illumination is innately miraculous.


If the first four lines describe the essential function of Buddhas and Ancestors, then these next four lines begin to try to describe these essential functions functions of “knowing” and “illumination”. These four lines continue the interplay between “knowledge” and “illumination”. So, when we are able to know without grasping, we find that this knowledge is innately subtle. I take “subtle” to mean difficult to describe what one knows. It can also mean what one experiences is noticed by a subtle or fine awareness. For example, in zazen you may have some sort of experience. It might be a subtle sense of “arising”, but you don’t know whether the experience was rooted in a bodily sensation or was it a purely mental state. When you try to describe it, the words never capture what you’ve experienced.


Building on the previous four lines, we now are told that “illuminating without encountering objects, this illumination is innately miraculous”. For me, the key word is “miraculous”. It is a miracle that we humans are able to be self-aware. This self-awareness is the key to our liberation. Seeing into the emptiness of self and phenomena is basically an act of self-awareness.


The next four lines read:

The knowledge innately subtle

has never engaged in discriminative thinking.

The illumination innately miraculous

has never displayed the slightest identification.


Again, the “knowledge” and “illumination” run parallel. Both are talked about in terms of a negation. This “subtle knowledge” is not the result of engaging in the discriminative thinking. Of course, discriminative thinking necessitates discrimination between the object, that is, the thought or mental state and the subject, that is, “the thinker”. So, when discriminative thinking is negated, we become available to experience the subtle knowledge.


The negation mentioned in connection to this miraculous illumination is the negation of any and all “identification”. For me, “identification” means generating notions of I, me, and mine. Whenever there is the I, me, and mine, there is a gap. Dualism of subject and object is created. When the I, me, and mine are negated, we become available to experience this “innately miraculous illumination”. This is basically talking about no-self, about awareness without a self as a reference point.


The next four lines read:

Never engaging in discriminative thinking,

this knowledge is rare without match.

Never displaying the most minute identification,

this illumination is complete without grasping.


These four lines build on what was said before regarding the negations in the previous four lines. What we learn here is that the knowledge which is not the product of discriminative thinking, is “rare without match”. Rare means uncommon and can also mean valuable. In this poem, I think both meanings are there. Most of the time, when sitting zazen, nothing much happens. We follow our bodily sensations of breathing for awhile, then our attentions gets caught by something else and it wanders off, then we become aware, bring our attention back to the bodily sensations of breathing. We cycle through this many times in a 30 or 40 minute period of zazen. We don’t seem to get beyond a discriminating narrative of self and other. Every once in awhile, something special happens. The dreary and burdensome discursive mind drops off, and clarity is instantly there.


This leads to the second meaning of rare – it is valuable. When something like this happens, we might have a direct experience of impermanence, of no-self. The Dharma is verified through our experience. A little of this Dharma medicine goes a long ways. Many stories of Zen Ancestors are like this. The story talks about the awakening experience. What these stories often don’t say is that this person practised hard for 30 years before that experience and then they spent 30 more years integrating their realization into their life. So, one drop of awakening can cure the disease of clinging to the concepts of self and other. The important point here is that while these experiences are rare we don’t need a lot of them to turn ourselves around.


In the second couplet of this verse, I take the word “complete” to mean “lacking nothing”. When we don't identify (that is, appropriate or apprehend a dharma in terms of the “I”, “me”, and “mine”) this illumination lacks nothing and is free of grasping. This is something we can experience in our zazen practice. It's not magical it is simply what happens when identifying and grasping don't happen. We can also use the converse – when we feel we don't have clarity and illumination in our zazen, we can choose turn our light inwardly and see where grasping is occurring.


The last four lines read:

The water is clear right down to the bottom,

fish lazily swim on.

The sky is vast without end,

birds fly far into the distance.


In the closing of the poem there is no more about knowledge and illumination. Rather, the dyad shifts to water and sky. To me, the first line describes zazen when there is no discrimination or discursive thought. The mind and is clear and we can see deeply into its depth. There is no obscuration of murkiness. The fish, I guess, symbolize objects of mind. They are not caught with hooks or nets, they just swim on, undisturbed in the clarity of a non-identifying mind.


The second sentence of the couplet reads, “The sky is vast without end, birds fly far into the distance.” Is “sky” in this couplet analogous to “water” in the first couplet? I can’t say for sure. The Chinese word for “sky” contains the character used to denote “emptiness”. There is at least one contemporary Buddhist author who uses this meaning. If we go with that, then “The sky is vast without end” means that the dependently arising universe of our experience is without end. Because self and other are without inherent existence, the possibilities are vast, and without end.


We could assume there is a parallel between “fish” and “birds” and both symbolize objects of mind. A different interpretation comes to mind: in the second couplet, birds could mean “particularity” which stands in (apparent) contrast to the universality of the “sky”. In Chan Buddhism, Zen teachers often compared and contrasted the particular and the universal. For example, the Zen teaching poem, “The Merging of Difference and Unity” is about particularity and universality. If this interpretation is viable then the poem seems to be saying that the particularity of our individuals lives are encompassed in this vast dependently arising universe of experience, and when viewed from this perspective, the birds of our particular existence are just small specks compared to the entire sky.


Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2017