Zen Koan Discussion: “Linji’s Four Realms”

In the Zen tradition, koans are used as direct expressions of the truth of Zen. Examining the words of masters past allow koans to take on an awesome depth and join us on our inquiry to help guide us. Koans are a challenge to look at their truth for ourselves without turning away from our humanity. We can use them to come to our own understanding of Zen’s “Only Don’t Know,” an unraveling of our most basic assumptions and ways of looking at the world.

Looking at koans, I was initially confused and couldn’t really make sense out of them. A daily sitting practice has gradually shown me that koan answers are so precisely tuned that it’s easy to overlook them. Instead of molding koans to try to fit our expectations of them, we have to look at the koan and try to understand it on its own terms.


The koan collection Entangling Vines, translated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner, is one the of the most valuable koan references I’ve found. It’s packed with intriguing details that enhance the original text, as well as a fantastic translation. I haven’t finished the whole book yet, but it has steadily become my favorite koan collection. One of the koans featured in Entangling Vines that struck me recently is called “Linji’s Four Realms.” After some biographical details, we’ll take a look at the main text of the koan, and discuss how it locks together to form an organic whole. Linji’s economy with his teaching is astounding, and he covers a lot of ground in a short span of time.


According to Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and their Teaching by Andy Ferguson, Linji was the founder of the Rinzai school of Zen.

Linji Yixuan (d. 866) was a disciple of Huangbo Xiyun. Linji is a preeminent figure in the history of Zen. He came from the city of Nashua in ancient Caozhou (now the city of Dongming in Shandong Province). As the founder of the Linji school of Zen (in Japanese, Rinzai), his tradition remains, along with the Caodong school, as one of the two lineages that survive to the present day.
After taking the vows of a monk, Linji studied the sutras, the Vanaya, and the various doctrines that were carried on the currents of Buddhism in his era. Although he practiced under Guishan Lingyou, his enlightenment came about under Huangbo Xiyun, with the teacher Gao’an Dayu a key player in the drama.

And according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (PDB), koans such as these are extremely important to the Rinzai tradition:

[Rinzai was] one of the major Japanese Zen schools established in the early Kamakura period . . . After the decline of the Gowan monasteries, the Otokan lineage came to dominate the Rinzai Zen tradition during the Edo period and was the only Rinzai line to survive to the present. Despite the presence of such influential monks as Takuan Soho and Bankei Yotaku, the Rinzai tradition began to decline by the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. The monk credited with revitalizing the Rinzai tradition during the Edo period is the Myoshinji monk Hakuin Ekaku. Hakuin systematized the koan method of meditation, which is the basis of modern Rinzai Zen practice; it is also through Hakuin and his disciples that most Rinzai masters of today trace their lineages. (715)

The information on Linji quoted in the Ferguson volume contains a story about Linji’s interviews with monks Dayu and Huangbo. The first part of the story involves Linji asking for the dharma teaching in various ways. He only gets hit in response. I’ve included some of the text here for reference:

When Linji reached Dayu, Dayu said ‘Where have you come from?’
Linji said, ‘from Huangbo.’
Dayu said, ‘What did Huangbo say?’
Linji said, ‘Three times I asked him about the essential doctrine and three times I got hit.  I don’t know if I made some error or not.’
Dayu said, ‘Huangbo has old grandmotherly affection and endures all this difficulty for your sake-and here you are asking whether you’ve made some error or not.’
Upon hearing these words, Linji was awakened.


Now let’s see the main text of “Linji’s Four Realms” taken from Entangling Vines:

Someone asked Linji, “What are the four realms of no-form?” The master said, “A thought of doubt in your mind and you’re obstructed by the element of earth; a thought of desire in your mind and you drown in the element water; a thought of anger in your mind and you’re scorched by the element fire; a thought of joy in your mind and you’re blown about by the element wind.”  Understand this, however, and you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go. You can appear in the east and vanish in the west, appear in the south and vanish in the north, appear in the center and vanish at the border, appear at the border and vanish in the center. You can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.  Why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions. (Kindle Version, loc  4848)

Like many koans, “Linji’s Four Realms” is structured in a question and answer format. In the first part of the koan, Linji is asked the question, “what are the four realms of no-form?” The question is used as a springboard to address Zen’s concerns in an honest and direct fashion. The question is usually set up to indicate that the student is looking for some kind of doctrinal answer, or is seeking clarification on some area of Buddhist doctrine. Linji twists this question around and breaks it down. The question also indicates the artistry called for in these responses, as the master uses the question to create something new and interesting, while still broadly reflecting the Zen tradition as a whole.

In the next part of the koan, Linji uses the concept of “four realms of no-form” and creates an outline based on the student’s question that uses doubt, desire, anger, and joy. This outline is used to show the student their own mind, and the consequences of thinking and feeling in certain ways. When we have thoughts of doubt, desire, anger, or joy, those thoughts suffuse our actions and we enact the corresponding state of mind. Since we have examined anger a little bit in a previous article, let’s use desire as an example of what Linji is talking about.

When we look into desire, several components of the experience come immediately to mind. There is an abstract longing for the desired object, in which we fantasize about situations with that object, and how by acquiring it we will make our current experience happier or more meaningful. There is a tendency, at least in my own experience, to abstract out the problems associated with acquiring and keeping the object. Desire perpetuates itself through any objects that exist at hand, and can readily shift between them. There is also a corresponding sensation that is stimulating or enthralling, like a compulsion that moves us closer to the object.

Based on this examination, we can see how when we fully give ourselves over to desire, according to Linji we “drown in the element water.” Once this happens, we no longer see the ephemeral basis of desire and drown in its elemental nature. Linji’s succinct analysis indicates that forms such as desire are unfounded, and in fact are empty as discussed in Buddhist texts such as the Heart Sutra. By showing us that emptiness is in fact the fabric of our own minds, Linji gives us the key to pulling down the entire structure. He ties this point into the last segment of the koan, how insight into this empty nature of thought helps us respond to change.

In the next sentence, Linji says that “you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go.” Once we see into the empty nature of mind and constant change, we no longer have to rely on rigidly controlling situations or relying on external situations for happiness. One of the realms of reality that Buddhism describes is the “realm of hungry ghosts,” in addition to “hell denizens, animals, and sometimes demigods or titans” (PDB, 677).  Read metaphorically, we are no longer hungry ghosts that chase after the ephemerality of our own minds. We become much more capable of utilizing the intelligence of situations to help others and ourselves.


This is why Linji says we can “appear in the east and vanish in the west.” Understanding this passage was informed by my own deepening process of self-observation. Closely noticing my own behavior, I could no longer believe in a necessity to the way I did many things. My approaches were often limited and sometimes arrogant if they did not allow for change. For example, at my job my skill set was a mix of approaches built over time. Some of these I had fine tuned to deal with many of the problems that arise at work and take the form of flexible programs. Many others were subjective, allowed within the wide scope of the job but not correct in any absolute sense. Some of my methods seemed more neurotic, entangled with a variety of personal and idiosyncratic details and repeated only for their own sake.

Over time, I have used these insights to broaden my own situational awareness and change my behavior as needed. Within these situations a tremendous amount of potential exists. Knowing this can result in a much more childlike, playful sense of existence. We can do things that seem unlikely because we are no longer relying on following rigid lines of behavior. We can break out of these boundaries as needed while still understanding the value of rules and obligations to social life. After this, Linji says that “[we] can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.” Linji reflects this childlike attitude through playing with the concepts of land and water.

In the last sentence of the koan, Linji says “why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions.” It’s as if we thought that elements such as desire, anger, joy, and sorrow were the proper way to live our lives. We spent our time patterning things after their structure. But what if we want to experience a different dream? Can we see through Dogen’s “colors of the mind” to the thing that interlinks us all? Can we do this, through our own efforts and with the help of Zen students of the past and present?

Let’s pursue this question fully, with the help of koans such as these, to realize our true capabilities and our identity with the boundless universe.

A Path Unknown To Any Vulture

Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
– Dongshan

One crack and all knowledge is dissolved.
The struggle is over.
I follow the ancient Way, not lapsing into doubt.
Dignified bearing and conduct
that is beyond sound and form;
no trace remains of my passing.
Those who have mastered the Way
call this unsurpassable activity.
– from “Xiangyan’s Great Enlightenment”

Coming to Zen is to come to a basic unknowing. There are no texts that structure the kind of insight Zen offers. It is a rupture that evades thought, indicating the place at which the practitioner and the rest of existence co-occur. Zen brings the entrails of time and space squirming into the light.

It is interesting and highly symbolic that becoming a monk is known as “home-leaving.” To take up Zen is to leave home in more ways than one. It is not only leaving one’s family and former life. We also leave our projections behind. What is constitutes itself instantly as “a path unknown to any vulture.” There is a depth to that path that cannot be known or understood through theory. Instead, we forsake theorizing to begin our own unique inquiry.

When they seek the source of this practice, the student is often thrown into a more confusing position than before. Confronting the behavior of experienced Zen monks, and the lack of belief system, easy answers do not materialize. No respite is offered. We are told to simply sit in position, breathe, and follow the room exhaling in tandem.

These sitting periods compound our questions. Zen deals with these questions in surprising ways. It does not deny their importance for the spiritual seeker. Rather, it sees them as superficial and incomplete. Zen does not succumb to grand theories. Its questions arc interminably with no explanation of existence as a guarantee. Many metaphysics amount to a story we have provided for ourselves, and little more.

Gazing into our thought for long enough gradually reveals our ignorance. The Koan is one of Zen’s most important tools in helping to show us this. Since the mind hungers for explanation and security, the koan seems confusing on the surface. Continued practice, however, reveals their depth and breadth.

The Koan may display some of Zen’s insights in action, or present us with a situation to which we are asked to respond. They grab us and our base assumptions by the throat. Many Zen koans that I have read place emphasis on one’s present, concrete reality. That moment is a source of freedom, explanation, or experience. These koans are directing our attention to that moment:

Yuezhou Qianfeng was once asked by a monastic, ‘Bhagavans in the ten directions have one path to the gate of nirvana. I wonder, what is the path?’
Yuezhou drew a line with his staff and said, ‘It’s right here.’

Discussions such as these are attempting to approach the student in way that does not appeal to reductionist, idealistic thinking. Masters try to show us this in experiential ways. Rather than getting entrenched in a discussion on gradations or paths, Yuezhou hits the student with a physical, embodied answer. This is displayed in Zen literature frequently. An example of this, from Cultivating the Empty Field, utilizes a gorgeous description of natural detail:

A person of the Way fundamentally does not dwell anywhere. The white clouds are fascinated with the green mountain’s foundation. The bright moon cherishes being carried along with the flowing water. The clouds part and the mountain appears. The moon sets and the water is cool. Each bit of autumn contains vast interpenetration without bounds. (41-42)

The present that Zen teachers want us to appreciate is not capable of being fully understood. Beneath our opinions is something immense, which can be intuited through examination. Unknowing is explicitly demonstrated in Shitou’sAsk the Pillar”:

Shitou was once asked by a monastic, ‘What is the significance of Bodhidharma’s coming from India?’
Shitou said, ‘Ask the pillar.’
The monastic said, ‘I don’t understand it.’
Shitou said, ‘I don’t understand it either.’

Integral to this understanding is what has been referred to as suchness. Suchness does not designate a stable entity that we close ourselves around.  It reflects our intuition into a more consistent effort. Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton elaborates on how this word describes an adjustable, engaged practice:

Known in Sanskrit as tathata, this suchness is described in Indian Buddhism as ultimate truth, reality, the source, or the unattainable. Experientially, this suchness might imply the direct apprehension of the immediate present reality, harking back to early Buddhist mindfulness practices of bare attention. So, in varying contexts suchness may refer to our clear perception of reality, or else to the nature of that reality itself. (9)

No codification can hold us at this point. Suchness is to practice at the precipice, existing in transformation. As described in a line of the Four Great Vows: Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them. Dharma gates demonstrate the truth, allowing us to awaken in every lineament of the entire world.

A grove of trees invites us in. They speak in melodies, in the thrum of sun and wind, and the throb of blood in universal channels. This time we brim with compassion for all things. Reality fills itself in a newly imagined flood, each act merely a beginning. Our center dissipates throughout the universe and we come once more to unknowing. For when we really begin to question, all dividing lines begin to crack. Thoughts, opinions, and beliefs become like gossamer strands.

As streams of fluid chaos, we navigate what we are in every sensation. Zen takes hold of this movement, and everything flourishes without our understanding.

A Hammer to Strike the Earth, A Scream to Rend the Sky

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, and even on the Mount, nothing.   – St. John of the Cross 

A monk asked Chao-chou, ‘has the dog buddha nature or not?’
Chao-chou said, ‘Mu.’

Mu is a hammer to strike the earth and a scream to rend the sky.  It is an open palm, a thunderclap, and a bank of foaming clouds.  Most of all, it is simply MuSimple, direct, and profound, Mu invites the student to fully experience their own existence.  It is not something that can be expressed through familiar territories.  Instead, it distorts and undermines our own certain foundations.

Although it means “no,” or “negation,” Mu resists all of our attempts at easy definition.  Once taken on by a student, the intellect scrabbles for a foothold.  Generating this tension we arrive at the Great Barrier.  The teacher will not let us pass without a reply, and we throw ourselves headlong into Mu’s great ocean. The teacher, understanding what we are attempting to do, summarily rejects all of our answers.

The monk in the koan is ourselves, always grasping at an authoritative interpretation of reality.  Mu only flows through our fingers like sand.  We strain for an answer, the understanding examining the question from every angle, drawing up vast schematics.   The mind seeks its limits in scripture, philosophy, and previous experience, dredging up former skeletons from their graves.

In our practice, we bring a mountain of speculation, hoping to set our lives upon a new system, and fashion a new set of chains to bind ourselves.

In a sense the unlimited assemblage is the impossible.  It takes courage and stubbornness not to go slack.  Everything invites one to drop the substance for the shadow, to forsake the open and impersonal movement of thought for the isolated opinion.  – Georges Bataille

The more the intellect attempts to ground Mu, the more it finds uncertain purchase.  The student has reached a point where they cannot proceed.  The trail veers off in uncertain directions.  We lift our gaze and look upward.  The answer stares us in the eyes, and reaches out its hand to touch our own.

The Mu koan is an embodiment of Zen practice. It doesn’t dwell in bounded concepts but in its very incomprehensibility.  Rather than giving the student a system to assimilate, it draws the seeker deeper into their own lives.  There is no fixed abode, and like life, Mu admits of unparalleled inventiveness.  Rather than parroting old responses, Mu asks us to display a new understanding, rooted in the newness of each moment of experience.  Free from our concepts, we are pulled into each new moment divested of the past.

Eihei Dogen expressed this understanding in one of his discourses on practice-realization. He indicates this using startlingly direct language.

It is not in the realm of ordinary people or sages.  Thus it can neither be measured by the intellect of those who are wise, nor guessed at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge.  Neither can it be discussed by the intellect of those who are beyond wise, nor can it be arrived at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge beyond knowledge.  Rather it is buddha ancestors’ practice-realization, skin, flesh, bones, marrow, eyeball, fist, top of the head, nostril, staff, whisk, leaping away from making.

Mu explicates itself atop mountains, deep in the earth, and everywhere.  It is bound up in all our responses to the questions of life.  The ideas of past and future cannot encapsulate the moment as it swells outward in all directions.  The complex situations of life cannot be done justice by discursive thought.  Mu gestures us towards what Dae Gak has called “the power of possibility in the unknown” :

The nature of all existence is change.  This does not mean change into the familiar, but in spite of the familiar into the unknown.  This is the heart essence of Mu practice.  This is the bone of these Mu ashes left by JoJu for us to investigate, to manifest again and again, and make vibrant and brand new, alive.

As we throw ourselves headlong into Mu, we notice the question becoming more transparent, until that question arises to embrace everything that is.  It is this ambiguity that we carry with us throughout our lives, always unresolved, incessantly questioning, beating like a heart.

Bring this question forward, until doubt infects your whole being, and Mu runs through the veins and arteries of the world.