CASE #36:    P’ang Splits Wood

Layman P’ang wrote:

My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing.
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
My supernatural power and marvelous activity:
Drawing water and chopping wood.

Layman P’ang     P’ang Yun (“Lofty Interior”) was born around 740 and died in 811 C.E. A Ch’an devotee, he traveled with his daughter Ling-chao to various T’ang era monasteries honing his understanding with the most famous masters of the day. Repeatedly offered dharma transmission, he refused in each case, preferring the life of a layman instead. In China he is sometimes regarded as the reincarnation of the Buddha’s most famous lay disciple, Vimalakirti.

Grasping nothing…no conflict    May be a reference to the Heart Sutra. The relevant lines read:

Nothing can increase, nothing can decrease. Hence, in sunyata, no form, no feeling, no thought, no volition, no consciousness…. No suffering, no craving, no extinction, no path, no wisdom, no attainment. Indeed, there is nothing to be obtained. The Bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita with no hindrance in the mind. No hindrance, therefore no fear.

Drawing water…chopping wood    The expression subsequently became popular in Ch’an Buddhism, especially among practitioners called chu-shih, those who rejected the formality of established religious institutions, preferring the flexibilities of lay life and the freedom to study with masters from various schools.


“Drawing water, chopping wood.” Arguably, today these are nothing more than a kind of Zen cliché—a way of hiding from the reality P’ang called “daily activity,” rather than a way of living in the midst of it.

This must be what Derrick Jensen had in mind when, on the opening page of his environmental masterpiece Endgame: Resistance, he writes disdainfully of a so-called “American Buddhist activist” who said, “What I do for peace and justice is split wood.” Were that really true, he’d have chosen his own words instead of stealing P’ang’s. Jensen, who comes by his dharma honestly—from the dirt up, rather than the head down—wasn’t having any of it:

War has long since been declared and is being waged against the world, and a refusal to acknowledge this war does not mean it’s not happening. That American Buddhist can split all the wood he wants, and it’s not going to save a single species.


There’s doing nothing,
And then there’s doing nothing.
One blade releases
The energies of the Earth,
The other rusts in a stump.

Find all the Green Koans here.

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