Dragon-head snake-tail in Zen

In Chinese mythology the dragon is the transcendent, which lives in watery depths but mounts the heavens at times of storm, showing itself as the flash of lightning tearing the blackness of the clouds. To the snake’s eye (what we should call the worm’s eye) the dragon head is strange and awe-inspiring; it is supported by a mighty body and huge claws which rend the thick clouds of relative experience.

There is a phrase, ‘ dragon-head snake-tail’ – a thing of magnificent promise which tails off abruptly. Some great phrase like ‘heaven and I of one root’, or ‘clear and bright for ten thousand miles’, is a dragon head. But if the life, including the way of uttering it, are not in accord with the phrase, it has a snake tail. A dragon’s body must back up the dragon-head phrase, showing strength and inspiration, not necessarily in dramatic posturings but in contributing to life in spite of colossal disadvantages of character or circumstances, with inner freedom and calm light which sees the defects but is not overwhelmed by them. If there is this inner light and freedom, it is a real dragon; the words have their support not from other words, but from life itself. In fact, words themselves are then unnecessary.

Shunpo Roshi of Daitokuji temple collected many of the old temple records from all over Japan and found seventy-two accounts of public exchanges between Zen teachers and warrior pupils. This is one from Kuroda in Kyushu, where in the seventeenth century the clan lord Nagahisa, whose Buddhist name was Koshindo, had propagated Zen enthusiastically among his retainers.

In 1624 one of the annual ceremonies was held at Sofukuji temple, at which the Zen teacher Kosu spoke on direct intuition as tested in Zen. He mentioned the interview of a famous Chinese layman with the teacher Baso in the eighth century. After the sermon there was an
opportunity for the warriors to speak, and on these occasions there were many among the Kuroda retainers who used to present their views.

1. Hidetoki: That layman of old and our Koshindo are not different from one another.
Teacher: How are they not different?
Hidetoki: From the very beginning one rod of pure metal.
Teacher: You don’t have to put legs on it.

2. Chijun, who practised severe austerities, said: Shuffling along!

Teacher: How does this heart go?
Chijun: Pulling the cart as hard as it can, but it doesn’t get there.
Teacher: What is this pulling the cart and not getting there?
Chijun: The great earth supports, but does not get up itself.
Teacher: Dust about somewhere!

3. A senior named Toshiaki said: It is before the eyes.

Teacher: How is it before the eyes?
Toshiaki: The river shining with the moon, the pine blowing with the wind.
Teacher: How is this river shining with the moon?
Toshiaki: Bright and clear.
Teacher: How is this pine blowing with the wind?
Toshiaki: Clear and splendid.
Teacher: After all, what is it like?
Toshiaki: Bright and clear, clear and splendid.

The teacher shouted: With these people it’s still all dragon head and snake tail!

A phrase in use in Zen from early times was Maku-mo-zo! meaning ‘don’t have delusive thoughts!’ It is found in Bansho’s commentary on the Soto collection of koans called Shoyoroku, and it is said that a ninth-century Chinese master used to meet every questioner with Maku-mo-zo, Maku-mo-zo!

Daikaku wrote the phrase in three great Chinese characters, and presented it to Tokimune. It is a fine dragon head. But there needs to be a dragon body behind it.

In Japan there was a teacher who used it on every occasion in imitation of that old Chinese master. One day he roared Maku-mo-zo! at a questioner, who had a flash of understanding and made a deep bow. As he went out, one of the temple boys whispered to another,
‘They say he’s so clever, but I think our teacher’s a bit of a fool. Always says the same thing, Maku-mo-zo, Maku-mo-zo, and that‘s all he’s got.’

‘What’s that?’ cried the teacher, spinning round.
‘Oh,’ said the boy in confusion, ‘I was just saying Maku-mo-zo!’

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