A student asked, “From one candle, hundreds and thousands of candles are lit. It’s not clear to me, from where has the one candle come?”
Zhaozhou kicked off his shoes and said, “A wise person does not ask about such things.”
This question about where the one candle that lights hundreds and thousands of candles has come from echoes the question we looked at in our previous gathering, “What is the depth of the deep?” In both cases the questioner is looking for an answer to a question about the source of something. In both cases and in other instances where similar questions are asked to Zhaozhou his response is similar to what he says here, don’t ask if you don’t want to be “deeped to death”.
Another koan comes to mind in which someone asks another teacher “What is Zen?” The response to that question is “The heart of the one who asks.” What also comes to mind is the instruction I received from the first koan meditation teacher I met, which was, “Make your mind a question mark.” So, how do we understand Zhaozhou saying “A wise person doesn’t ask about such things.”? Is Zhaozhou saying there are some things that we can ask about and others we should not ask about? And what does kicking his shoes off got to do with anything? It reminds me of a Hasidic saying that when you go to study with a wise person you shouldn’t listen to what they say, but rather watch how they tie their shoes. Perhaps Zhaozhou is saying you should also watch how they take off their shoes.
This question about the source of the light that lights other lights reveals the questioner’s assumption about that light. I can feel similar assumptions being made as in the question about the depth of the deep. One of those assumptions is that it is not here, not what is present in this moment, which is connected to the assumption that we must look outside of ourselves to find the answer. Another assumption the questioner reveals in their question is a lack of connection to the world around them. Zhaozhou addressed that issue and answered the question about the candle when he was asked, “What sort of a person is someone who has no connection with the ten thousand things?” and he said, “Not a person.” It was said that light emanated from Zhaozhou’s lips when he spoke, can you see it? Is your candle lit? What is the source of that light?