Burning Books

The road was hot. The air was dry. Each footstep raised a cloud of dust that hung in the air and stayed there.  

A monk named De Shan, a scholar, was a master of the Diamond Cutter Sutra. He had been walking for days with a box on his back filled with his collection of sutras and commentaries, the library he dipped into every evening, to keep his command of his material, as he traveled the road to the capital. 

His mouth was dry. His back was aching. He was on his way to participate in the great annual debate. The emperor would attend. Outstanding sutra masters would contend in his presence. De Shan decided to challenge them. His time had come.

He knew very well that they would bring all their power against him, a nobody from the provinces, testing his depth, his range, his certainty, his clarity of understanding, drawing from oceans of knowledge, with agile, well-trained minds.  If he could prevail, he would be elevated into the ranks of the greatest scholars of the age.

He had prepared his entire life for this. But now, here on the road, his face was hot, his mouth was dry, and his back was terribly sore.  To his relief, up ahead he could see a tea shop, tucked into a bend in the road.

He entered a shady courtyard and set his books down next to a small, square table. A delicate elderly woman walked lightly out of the shop. She greeted him with a smile and cool drink.  

Although he was covered in dust, the woman saw that he wore the clothes of a scholar. De Shan took the cup of water with two hands, drank it all, and thanked her for her kindness.

Breathing deeply, his exhaustion lifting, he asked her for a cup of tea.  “I need to refresh my mind,” he told her. 

She smiled and nodded and began to get the tea. Then she stopped abruptly and turned toward him. 

Sir, I see you are a scholar?

Yes, I am, he said.

What do you study?

The Diamond Sutra–the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, he said.

Ah, I see, said the old woman… Before I get your tea, may I ask you a question?

Of course, grandmother.

The Diamond Sutra says that the mind of the past is gone and ungraspable.

Yes, that’s right, said the scholar.

And the Diamond Sutra says that the mind of the future does not yet exist, so it is also ungraspable.

Yes, that’s right, he said.

And the sutra says that the present mind also cannot be grasped. Is that right?

Yes, you really know the sutra well, he said, and smiled indulgently, toward the simple, pious old woman. 

She was motionless.

She held him with her gaze as she asked: Then sir, which mind is it that you would like to refresh? 

With this he was completely stunned. A chill came over him. He was speechless. He could not answer her. In his shock the world stood still and opened wide as he searched the universe for an answer.  

Then a dawn broke over him. The whole world became quite clear. A freedom that resembled nothing he had experienced before opened his heart and opened the prison of his mind, as the world became brilliant, pervaded completely with nothing but clear light. 

The plain, serene face of the tea lady vanished into the shadows, as she went in to get his tea. 

He drank his tea. 

They say that next he burned his books, gave up his life of scholarship, and turned to the path of Zen. 

I find this story deeply moving. The form of the story – liberative insight after years of preparation, coming via a perfectly targeted, unexpected shock, provided by a wise and skillful teacher – is the model for Zen enlightenment. 

Agree with that premise or not, this story and its message are at odds with its current interpretations and the practice of many contemporary exponents of Zen. 

This story does not reject the utility of knowledge and study. It views them as a formative stage, a preparation, a stage to master and leave behind.

That is consistent with the Buddha’s teaching that practice and study are to be used as a vehicle, a raft to use to cross the river of craving and ignorance, to be left behind upon reaching the other shore.  

In this story the De Shan passes the phase transformation boundary to the path of seeing, to kensho. As the story hints, this is the beginning of his advanced training. Not the end. 

It is a reiteration of the multistage path from novice to practitioner, to mastery to liberation. That is consistent with what later was presented as the Shu Ha Ri form.

This episode is from the 9th century T’ang Dynasty, from Sichuan, China. The path of the Zen master in east Asian lore, as expressed in this story, maps to the path of the master of Japanese Zen-budo.

In modern Zen this path of transformation has been misunderstood, with harmful results.

A martial arts parallel is found in the study of kata. If we treat the kata as fetishes, as objects possessing magic powers, as if they could confer mastery on their own, just by knowing them, then they fail in their purpose.  

If we treat them as instrumental, live them out, investigate them, know them thoroughly, then when they have done their job, when we have used them to transform our own body and mind, we can be done with them. But we cannot do without them.  

In modern Zen, people misunderstood the insight moment in this story. They thought De Shan realized that study was useless. This is not supported.

He suddenly saw, directly, what his scholarly study to was pointing to all along. He realized that by attending rigidly to the words, to the description of reality, he missed the experience of that reality to which those words pointed.  

His mind was well-prepared. His teacher, the tea lady, skillfully catalyzed his insight and transformation. This is how our training works as well.   


This post is adapted from True Karate Dō, the influential new book by Jeffrey Brooks.

Post copyright © 2023 Jeffrey Brooks

Photo by CiteXt Wing via Unsplash  

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