The 74th Case: Jinniu Breaks into a Dance

THE 74th CASE:

Every day at the midday meal, Master Jinniu personally manned the rice bucket and standing before the Sangha Hall broke into a dance. Whooping and laughing, he would say, “Little bodhisattvas! Come and eat the rice!”

(Xuedou said, “Although he acted this way, Jinniu was not good-hearted.”)

A monk asked Changqing, “The man of old taught, ‘Little bodhisattvas! Come and eat the rice!’ What did he mean?”

Changqing said, “It really seems1 he was extolling each meal as an occasion for joy.”2


Happiness is a word rarely spoken by the Zen Masters of yore. It certainly never appears in the koans of The Blue Cliff Record. Perhaps this is because the dharma often presents detachment rather than joy as the ideal state of mind — as Yuanwu said, “Those who have attained Zen just keep free, desireless, and independent all the time.” In this way of thinking, to be happy is just as unhelpful as being miserable because both are poles on the same worldly duality. Seeking for one conjures the other. Instead the ancient worthies adopted a dry, if not quite dour, attitude. Even their strange acts were rarely performed with a smile, and when they laughed, they were often laughing at folly.

It makes for a dehydrated landscape, and in the 74th Case, Master Jinniu falls on it like a shower in spring. He is one of the most obscure figures in The Record. We know almost nothing about him, besides the fact that he was abbot of a temple at Zhenzhou in the late eighth century and had been a disciple of Great Master Ma. The story of his capering before the monk’s hall at mealtime is the only account left of his life or teachings. But what a teaching it is! It thrums with the cheer that comes from cheering others. Whatever Jinniu was serving in that pot of rice, I want some.

Jinniu’s palpable joy is what gives so much power to Xuedou’s comment: “Although he acted this way, Jinniu was not good-hearted.” Even after many readings and re-readings, I still find his statement to be a monolith of great mass and unseasonable coolness. Old master Jinniu acted like a good-hearted person. And he spoke like a good-hearted person. Did he have the mind of a good-hearted person? Xuedou says “no,” but I think what he’s really saying is, “it doesn’t matter.” 

Most of us who gravitate to meditation are preoccupied with mind. We want to be calmer or happier or more selfless, so we focus on adjusting the way we think. However, one of the healthiest insights of Mahāyāna Buddhism is that spiritual cultivation isn’t limited to what happens inside your head. 

Our personhood divides equally between body, speech, and mind. This trinity is sometimes called “The Three Gates.” None is more essentially “us” than the others. A sound sitting practice does not aim solely towards the gate of mind but crosses all three at once. This holistic approach makes sitting much easier. So, when you meditate, don’t make your mind the sole focus of your attention. Meditate also with your body. Let it take some of the load away from your overworked brain. Indeed, the bum is the primary organ of meditation. Keeping it on the cushion is the first and longest stride into the garden of Buddhas. Most of us think it can’t possibly be that simple, but it is. 

Likewise, meditate with your breath, the speech of silence. It, too, can share the burden. Sometimes your mind will be busy or sluggish while you sit. Sometimes your body will let you down, aching with stiff knees, numb feet or sore back. However, if your breath is even and tranquil, you will always be growing in tranquility. Sitting, you embody the Buddha. Breathing calmly and quietly, you sound like the Buddha. Don’t worry about the Buddha-mind; it will see to its own affairs. 

Deemphasizing the mind is not for meditation alone. I often reflect on the teaching of the Three Gates when I am off the cushion, especially when I get depressed or stricken with the causeless anxiety that occasionally visits me. I honor and observe this pain, but I also try to place it in perspective. The mind that gets anxious is such a small part of my true self. Beyond my stormy mood is a larger self: breath, speech, body, and actions. Petting a cat, tending a garden, serving rice — all of these things are “self” as much as my feelings. Beyond that self is an even larger self: my relationships, my memories, the view out my window, and the tree in my yard. And beyond that is the sky and beyond the sky is limitless space. This approach is not about repressing or ignoring our suffering. However, by expanding our sense of self, the importance of mood dwindles by comparison. So, I let my temper be black, because it is the business of tempers to blacken and lighten and blacken again. In the meantime, I go about my own affairs. This is what the Hermit of Lotus Flower Peak called “walking straight into the 10,000 peaks.”

That’s one way of confronting suffering. But what about bliss? And Master Jinniu dancing as he feeds his beloved monks? This brings us back to the troubled question of happiness and how it fits into the Buddhist path. Perhaps it’s true that most of the ancient Zen Masters avoided the topic of happiness because they preferred detachment and equanimity. But there is another reason they held their tongues. 

Happiness can be a tyrant. This was true 1200 years ago, and it is even more true today in our modern, mobile society. We think everything should make us happy. Little things should make us happy: seeing a movie, visiting a friend, eating a cinnamon bun. And big things should make us happy: having children, getting a good job, falling in love. And, of course, sometimes these things do bring happiness. Much of the time, they do not. Your ideal job leaves you bored. Your children leave you exhausted. Your cinnamon bun leaves you sticky and penitent. When we do things in hopes of achieving happiness, and then we are not happy, we naturally think that something is wrong — wrong with us, wrong with whatever we did, wrong with the people we did it with. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That’s how happiness enslaves us. 

Liberation comes when we stop worrying about whether our actions should induce happiness or even goodwill. Having children, visiting friends or eating a bun are good for their own sake — we don’t need to complicate them with the expectation of a good mood. We’re allowed to find them unsatisfying. 

When there is no goal, there is no disappointment and we naturally return to the Tao. This is the Great Function. It accomplishes what no amount of effort can do. Contentment fills the gaps like wildflowers growing between paving stones.


  1. “It really seems [dà sì]…” — Literally: “great” () “to-seem/to-be-like” ().Changqing’s language is quite informal. The word dà (“great”) does not usually function as an adverb in Classical Chinese. However, during the Tang dynasty, dà was sometimes used as an adverbial intensifier as part of colloquial speech. Linji often used dà in this way: “One day Puhua was eating raw vegetables in front of the Monks’ Hall. The master [Linji] saw him and said, “Just like [dà sì] an ass!” (Translated by Ruth Fuller Sasaki).
    I try to avoid using mushy words like “really” in my translations. However, in this case, “really” is the most appropriate stand-in for  since it is an informal intensifier common in spoken English.

  2. “…he was extolling each meal as an occasion for joy [yīn zhāi qìng zàn].” — This is a thorny passage subject to differing understandings. R.D. Shaw’s version: “Oh! that was a sort of purificatory rite with thanks-giving.” Katsuki Sekida’s version: “He seems to observe reflection and thanksgiving before the midday meal.” Randolph Whitfield’s version: “It seems very much as if there was a congratulatory feast.”

    Much of the difficulty arises from the ambiguity of the words qìng zànQìng may be “a blessing”, “a celebration,” or it may be the verb “to rejoice.” Zàn can mean “to appraise,” “to praise” or “to participate in.” To add to the uncertainty, it is unclear whether these characters are to be read as individual semantic units or as a compound word. Taken as a compound, qìngzàn is a religious thanksgiving (“a service of felicitation” in Prof. Muller’s words) that was offered at the dedication of a Buddhist temple, the consecration of a statue or even after a personal act of repentance.

    I chose “extol” to represent zàn. I hoped to preserve the enigmatic flavor of Changqing’s teaching by using this archaic verb which connotes both “to-celebrate” and “to-hold-something-aloft.” The Maiden’s soliloquy from Chapter 1 of the Song of Songs uses “extol” in a manner reminiscent of the 74th Case: “We will rejoice in you and be glad; We will extol your love more than wine.”

A note on the text: The “Changqing” in the 74th Case is customarily thought to be the well-known Zen Master Changqing Huileng (854-932) who appears in several other places in The Blue Cliff Record. This supposition is most likely an error because the dates do not line up.

The biography of Changqing Huileng in the Jingde Records of the Transmission of the Lamp states that he taught for the last 27 years of his life, which is to say from 906 (when he took over Zhaoqing Temple) until his death in 932 at the age of 78. Although there are some recorded dialogues involving Changqing that predate his abbacy, these dialogues present him as a subordinate of his teacher Xuefeng Yicun (as in Case 22) or as one member of a panel of senior students sparring with an established Zen Master (as in Case 8). There are no records suggesting that Changqing gave dharma talks or took questions from junior monks beforebecoming abbot in 906. 

So far, this timeline is compatible with Changqing Huileng being the commentator in the 74th Case because old Master Jinniu did his dancing around 750. A problem arises, however, when we consider this dialogue’s cousin, the 93rd Case. There we see Daguang Juhui (836-903) being asked about Changqing’s teaching, “extolling each meal as an occasion for joy.” Daguang died in 903 when Changqing Huileng was still a student. How could Daguang comment on one of Changqing Huileng’s teachings before Changqing Huileng became a teacher?

Another candidate for the “Changqing” in Case 74 is Changqing Da’an (793-883), also known by the mountain name Guishan Da’an. Chronologically, this fits because Changqing Da’an could have said “Joyful praise on the occasion of a meal” any time during his long teaching career in the mid-to-late 800’s, long before Daguang passed away. 

Attributing the case to Changqing Da’an has the attraction of helping to explain why “Changqing” was being asked to clarify the teaching of a little-known personage like Jinniu. (He was so obscure that even the monk asking about him seems to forget his name, since he refers to Jinniu vaguely as “the man of old.”) Changqing Da’an could be expected to know something of Jinniu because they were closely related members of the dharma family of Great Master Ma. Changqing Da’an’s teacher, Baizhang, was Jinniu’s dharma brother. (On the other hand, Changqing Huileng did not share the lineage of Great Master Ma, instead descending from the Patriarch Shitou.) On balance, my view is that the comment in the 74th Case should be attributed to Changqing Da’an.