There is a fork in the road on the way to Mount Tai, that is where an old granny set up her teashop. Whenever a pilgrim came and asked directions, she would say, “Go straight.” After they had taken a few steps, they would hear her muttering under her breath, “Just another common temple-goer.” This was reported to Zhaozhou, and he went to investigate. He asked her the same question and she gave him the same answer and muttered the same comment. When he returned to his community Zhaozhou reported, “I have seen through the old granny at the fork in the road.”

Mount Tai was, and still is, one of the great pilgrimage sites in Chinese Buddhism. Even before Buddhism, it was a great Daoist site. For Buddhists, it is a sacred mountain said to be the abode of Manjushri, the embodiment of wisdom. There is a statue of Manjushri in the temple and it is believed that whoever climbs the mountain and pays homage to the statue will be endowed with wisdom. Even Zen monks would sometimes be found there, hoping that a miracle would save them the work required to free themselves.

Like Mount Tai, Old Grannies have been a feature of Chinese culture since before Buddhism. The Chinese character refers to an old woman, but also suggests a person of wit and resourcefulness who is usually marginal and ambivalent in social status and who crosses social boundaries, sometimes depicted as a witch or a sorceress. Is that what Zhaozhou saw when he “saw through” her? Wumen’s comment about this case in the Gateless Barrier is that both she and Zhaozhou had their faults.

When he was young, Zhaozhou himself planned a pilgrimage to Mount Tai hoping to reap the benefits of such an undertaking. However, one of his teachers wrote a poem for him about that:

“All mountains are equally good. Blue ones afar, and a green one near, Each one has a Manjushri enshrined. So why go to Mt. Tai in particular? The sūtras depict Manjushri riding on a lion. You may see many illusions like that In the mountain clouds. It is not real to the eye of a Zen person; It is not the happiness a Zen person seeks.”

Is that what Zhaozhou saw when he saw through the old granny?

The old granny’s instructions were echoed by an American “old granny” named Yogi Berra who said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”


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