The 41st Case

THE 41st CASE:

Zhaozhou asked Touzi, “How does a man who’s died the Great Death return to life?”

Touzi said, “He must not travel at night.1 He arrives by walking in daylight.”2


There is no end to learning. Zhaozhou (778-897) arrived at the temple of Nanquan (748-835) when he was a teenager. He remained there until he was about 60, leaving only after his master had died and he had observed the traditional three year period of mourning. He then set out on a grand tour across China to interview all the eminent Zen Masters of his day, saying, “Even if it is a boy of seven years, if he is better than me, I will ask for his teaching.” His slow pilgrimage took two decades. 

When Zhaozhou meets Touzi Datong (819-914), they are standing in Touzi’s dim and low-ceilinged hermitage. Zhaozhou has just trudged up Touzi mountain in Eastern China to meet the young recluse who has already established his lifelong reputation for plainspoken wisdom. (It is said that when Touzi was asked “What is Buddha?”, he replied, “Buddha.” When asked “What is the Way?”, he replied, “The Way.”) Touzi studied with the wise Cuiwei (who appears in the 20th Case) and was renowned for his practice of breath meditation.

Zhaozhou is in his seventies and Touzi his thirties. Despite the huge difference in age, Zhaozhou seems earnest in asking for the young man’s advice. He asks, “How does a man who’s died the Great Death return to life?” This is not an opening gambit in a bout of dharma combat. It is a question about a controversy that bedeviled monks throughout the Tang and Song dynasties. If you are an advanced meditator like Zhaozhou, there is nothing more urgent than settling this question.

The Great Death was a common term in Zen circles for a dramatic moment of awakening. Teachers in some lineages taught that a seeker attains the Way by cutting off all attachments and meditating “like cold ashes or a dead stump.” Only in complete stillness is Buddha nature revealed. For example, during Zhaozhou’s own lifetime, a Zen scholar described the enlightenment as a kind of annihilation: “It is like the moment of death, before any decomposition of the whole body. At that time the mouth cannot speak, the eyes cannot see, the ears cannot hear, the feet cannot walk, and the hands cannot perform.” The idea that death is a catalyst for true awakening can be traced back to Shakyamuni himself. During his life, Shakyamuni experienced nirvāṇa or “the quenching.”But only when he died did he reach parinirvāṇa or “final quenching.”

Other Zen teachers regarded the Great Death, at best, as a waystation on the path to insight. At worst, it was a swindle. They acknowledged that, with rigorous effort, it is possible to train the mind to dwell in quietude where “there is no more than a single thought in ten thousand years.” However they questioned the utility of so much tranquility. What is the sense in deadening the mind when what we really seek is to awaken it? Surely such a breakthrough is a second birth, not an extinction. This critique pops up throughout Zen history, but is best exemplified by Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163). He sarcastically called thoughtless meditation “a deep pit of liberation” and described its practitioners as wasting their time:

So they discard everything, and, having gobbled up their provided meals, they sit like mounds in the ghostly cave under the black mountain. They call this ‘being silent and constantly illuminating’ or call it ‘dying the great death’ or ‘the matter before your parents were born’ or ‘the matter before the empty eon’ or ‘the state beyond the primordial Buddha.’

(translated by Morten Schlütter)

Zhaozhou’s question in this case lies on the fault line between those who would seek the Great Death and those who think that coming back to life is the real trick. It’s a conundrum for all of us. What are we trying to do in our meditation? Tranquilize the mind? Or quicken it?

It’s not Touzi’s style to mince words, so he gives Zhaozhou one of the more direct answers in The Blue Cliff Record: The practitioner must not travel at night. He arrives by walking in daylight. From the moment it was uttered until today, this statement has shaped Zen’s unique approach to meditation. 

When we sit in order to cut ourselves off from our thoughts or the world around us, we are meditating in darkness and interiority. Although this approach to meditation may have its virtues, it is not the authentic Way of Touzi. He wants us to activate our awareness so that it is vast and bright.

This active and lively meditation can take many forms. Touzi meditated on his breath as Shakyamuni recommends in the early sūtras. Zhaozhou sat silently with an ordinary mind that’s neither tight nor loose. (Many years after meeting Touzi, Zhaozhou said his house style is simply “knowing it’s cold when it’s cold and knowing it’s hot when it’s hot.”) On the other hand, monks like Dahui believed the only way to keep the mind properly stimulated was to let it wrestle with a koan. By continually investigating an impenetrable phrase like “the cypress tree in the courtyard,” a practitioner keeps himself suspended between attachment and torpor.

I don’t judge between koan meditation, breath meditation, and silent sitting. I enjoy them all. However, no matter which form of meditation we might choose, there is one fairly literal way we can ensure we are following Touzi’s advice to walk in the daylight. When we meditate, we should meditate with our eyes open. The Zuochan Yi, which dates from the twelfth century and is the earliest Zen meditation manual we possess, emphasizes this point:

The eyes should remain slightly open, in order to prevent drowsiness… In ancient times, there were monks eminent in the practice of meditation who always sat with their eyes open. More recently, the Zen Master Fayun Yüantong criticized those who sit in meditation with their eyes closed, likening [their practice] to the ghost cave of Black Mountain. Surely this has deep meaning, known to those who have mastered it. 

(translated by Carl Bielefeldt with modifications)

Keeping the eyes open is a reminder that we should be keeping our other senses open too. Throw the windows open, throw open the doors. We don’t retreat into a dark enclosure when we sit, but expand our mind outward. Awareness has a single function: to diffuse itself. The dawning illumination that arises in meditation comes from us but it does not belong to us. It merges with everything it touches: our impressions, our impulses, our bodies, our cushions, the colors in the room, the sounds outside the window and the boundless dome of the sky. Distractions are not distractions when you bring them forth and view them coolly in the light of day.


  1. “He must not travel at night [yè xíng]” — The expression  (“night”) xíng (“to practice,” “to travel,” or “to proceed”) is versatile. It can mean “a night outing,” “to keep watch at night,” “to perform an evening ceremony,” and even “to practice virtue in secret.”

  2. “He arrives by walking in daylight [tóu míng].” — Touzi’s reply to Zhaozhou conceals a pun. He uses the character tóu (“to tread”) even though it only rarely takes on the meaning of “walking.” (The principal meaning of tóu is “to cast.”) However, tóu is the first character in Touzi’s own mountain name.