CASE #48: Ta Tsung Makes a Stool
One day three students from a nearby university offered to do some chores for Ta Tsung in exchange for his teaching. The old Ch’an master brought out a hammer and nails, a saw, and several two-by-fours and invited them to make a stool for him to sit at while tending his woodstove.
The students each fashioned what they thought was an elegant but functional design, while Ta Tsung stood by, occasionally flashing one of his toothless grins by way of encouragement.
When the stools were done, all of the available materials had been used, except for two small scraps of board. Using these to form a simple T-shaped design, Ta Tsung drove a single nail through the top and, placing it under his bottom, sat down and began tending the fire. Tapping each of his knees, he said, “Stool need one leg. Ta Tsung already have two.”
Ta Tsung Ta Tung (1907-1986), also known as Deh Chun, was a Ch’an master who retired to Monteagle, Tennessee in 1965, where he kept a small organic garden and produced many traditional Ch’an-style landscape paintings. It is not known whether his decision to live in Monteagle had anything to do with its proximity to The University of the South in nearby Sewanee. It is true, however, that the stories about him presently in circulation virtually all originate with students who attended that institution between 1965 and 1983. For a fuller biographical treatment of his life in America, read Michael Sierchio’s Ancestors essay for Tricycle: Keep Sweeping: A Ch’an Life in Rural Tennessee.
How much of what we design is suited to a human scale? How much of it do we really need? Surely, almost none of it.
A similar koan comes courtesy of the ancient Greeks. A sphinx sat outside of the city of Thebes and posed a riddle to all who passed by: What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? If a traveler failed to answer the riddle correctly, the sphinx would devour him alive. If the traveler answered correctly, the sphinx would destroy herself.
In the play by Sophocles, Oedipus answers the riddle correctly: A man crawls on all fours as a baby (in the morning), walks on two legs as an adult (at noon), and walks with a staff in old age (in the evening). The staff is the only implement required for the journey.
Professor Ta Tsung
Hasn’t a tooth in his head—
Only the Dharma!
Are best for learning the Way.
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