Xiangyan Zhixian and Guishan Lingyou were both students of Baizhang Huaihai. Before coming to Baizhang, Xiangyan had devoted himself to the study of the Chinese classics as well as the traditional Buddhist scriptures, and he acquired a reputation for scholarship. He kept copious notes on his studies and was known to have a ready answer to every question he was asked.
After Baizhang died, Xiangyan presented himself to Guishan, who had been declared the master’s dharma successor, and, even though they were about the same age, Xiangyan asked to be accepted as a disciple. Guishan, however, was reluctant to grant the request.
“When we were both disciples of our late master,” Guishan said, “you were said to be able to give ten answers to a single question. This, however, isn’t the way of Zen. Such intellectual attainments only result in an abstract or analytical comprehension, which really isn’t of much use. Still, perhaps you do have some insight into the truth of Zen. So tell me: what is your true self, your self before your mother gave birth to you, before you came to know east from west?”
Xiangyan was unsure how to reply to this question but ventured a number of attempts, each of which Guishan dismissed. Finally he said, “Please, then, teach me. Show me this original self.”
“I’ve nothing to give you,” Guishan told him. “Even if I tried to instruct you, that would only provide you an opportunity to ridicule me later on. After all, whatever I have is my own and can never be yours. How can that be of any help to you?”
Xiangyan retired to his quarters, where he searched through the books and notes he had collected over the years, but nothing he found in them helped him understand what Guishan was asking for when he demanded that Xiangyan “show” his original self.
“A picture of rice cakes will never satisfy hunger,” he admitted to himself. Then he gathered all his papers together, took them outside, and set fire to them. “What’s the use of studying Buddhism, so difficult to comprehend and too subtle to receive instruction from another?” he said to himself. “I’ll become a simple monk, abiding by the precepts, with no desire to try to master things too deep for thought.”
He left Baizhang’s temple that day and traveled for many weeks, eventually coming to a ruined mountain temple where the remains of the National Teacher were buried. Xiangyan found the tomb in a state of deterioration. So he built a grass hut nearby and took upon himself the responsibilities of care-taker.
He carried out his tasks as mindfully as he could, and one day, as he was sweeping the grounds with a broom, a stone he cleared away struck a bamboo stalk. The sound, sharp and hollow, was clear in his attention, and the moment he heard it he came to a deep awakening. He was speechless for a moment, then broke out laughing.
He went into the ruined temple, lit incense in gratitude, and bowed in the direction of Guishan’s temple. Then he traveled to see the man who had refused to teach him. “Your kindness to me was greater than even that of my parents,” Xiangyan told Guishan. “Had you tried to explain this truth to me in words, I would never be where I am now.”
[Xiangyan Zhixian – Zen Masters of China: 210-13, 245]