Huangbo said, ‘You are all drinkers of dregs. If you meditate this way, when will you meet ‘Today’?’

Huangbo originated this expression which became a popular saying used to refer to people whose meditation practice involved imitating what they read in texts and what they heard from teachers, but never making it their own, never integrating it into their lives. The literal meaning is that you eat the grain left over by the vintners after they have extracted the wine and then think that you have had a taste of the real thing.

It harkens back to the words of the Buddha when he said, “In my forty-nine years of Dharma activity I did not preach a word.” Huangbo’s way of saying this was, “Don’t you know that in all of China there is no teacher of Zen?” When someone in the audience objected, citing the many meditation centers where people were practicing, Huangbo’s response was, “I didn’t say there wasn’t any Zen, I just said there weren’t any teachers of Zen.”

This koan lit up for me recently as part of my response to the pandemic. It reflected back to me the way I was drinking the dregs of my own making. Relying on my old familiar strategies to cope with things being turned upside down. It can feel as if I am imitating myself, rather than responding to what is arising in the moment.  Koans are like a mirror, encouraging us to trust ourselves down to the bottom, that’s what awakening is. Deshan, the expert on texts, which he pulled behind him in a cart, said upon his realization, “I will never doubt any more what the old master has said to me.” He was not talking about Lungtan, the teacher who blew out Deshan’s candle. He was talking about the ‘old master’ who is reading these words.

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