Calligraphy by Harada Tangen Roshi, Abbot of Bukkokuji Temple in Obama, Illustration by Nyogen Nowak
Calligraphy by Harada Tangen Roshi, Abbot of Bukkokuji Temple in Obama, Illustration by Nyogen Nowak

One day P’u-hua went about the streets asking people he met for a one-piece gown. They all offered him one, but P’u-hua declined them all.

Lin-chi had the steward of the temple buy a coffin, and when P’u-hua came back the Master said: “I’ve fixed up a one-piece gown for you.”

P’u-hua put the coffin on his shoulders and went around the streets calling out: “Lin-chi fixed me up a one-piece gown. I’m going to the East Gate to depart this life.” All the townspeople scrambled after him to watch.

“No, not today,” said P’u-hua, “but tomorrow I’ll go to the South Gate to depart this life.” After he had done the same thing for three days no one believed him any more. On the fourth day not a single person followed him to watch. He went outside the town walls all by himself, got into the coffin, and asked a passerby to nail it up. The news immediately got about. The townspeople all came scrambling; on opening the coffin, they saw he had vanished, body and all. Only the sound of his bell could be heard in the sky, receding away, tinkle . . . tinkle . . . tinkle . . .

P’u-hua was a lunatic. Or else he was a wise man in disguise.

In such cases it is sometimes impossible to tell.

At any rate, according to the story, P’u-hua went looking for “a one-piece gown.” This must surely be a koan in itself, for the townspeople rush about offering him bolts of cloth. Only Lin-chi understands and gives him a coffin instead.

Why would P’u-hua want it? Can’t he just die like everybody else? Presumably he has his reasons for making a show of it, but finally it doesn’t work. The townies follow him . . . he sits on his coffin for a while . . . then each time says, “No, not today.”

Finally, no one comes.

At last P’u-hua climbs into his coffin and pulls on the lid.

But wait! Hasn’t he forgotten something? Who will nail it shut? Alas, after all that trouble, he has no choice but to sit in his coffin and wait.

As many times as I read this story and think I have understood it, I come up short with this “passerby.” Who is the one P’u-hua must rely upon at the last possible moment to deliver him, mind and body, to the sky? Who drives the last nail into the coffin of the self—because it can’t be driven from within?

I ask because I have no answer. Presumably, in Buddhism, there is no God.

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