To transcend birth and death, one has to open and penetrate the Mind-ground (hsin-ti).” — Zen master Yuan-wu
The koan, according to Zen master Yuan-wu, is the instrument or key by which we open up the Mind-ground. This opening is done, not by a kind of literary analysis, which amounts to the production of possible meanings, but by investigating what can only be described as the living word. The living word is not meant to be an interpretation since, by the very nature of language, there is no limit to different ways of interpreting a koan.
Words that constitute the living word, or huo-chü, reach the primordial Mind-ground, itself. Put another way, living words are not like words which have been entrapped in investigating the meaning of a koan. Living words are really like a knock on a door where the Mind-ground suddenly opens up for us. On the other hand, dead words provide us with dead explanations and rationalizations. They are incapable of taking us to the word’s very source (hua-t’ou) which is beyond words, but which, nevertheless, makes language possible.
Invariably, when the Mind-ground opens for us we are able to experience the living light which best describes pure Mind. When we reach this ground, subsequently, everything we do afterwards reveals the true life of Zen whether it is putting on our sandals, making tea, or shouting “Wu!” We realize that all of mundane existence, from the standpoint of the Mind-ground, is a mere projection of its immense productivity. Speaking about this productivity, one day Zen master Yuan-wu said: “As soon as Yun-men picks up his staff we immediately see the boundless, marvelous productivity.”
Naturally, this marvelous productivity is ineffable. For those who know and see it, it is a constant delight. But for those who haven’t, it is too late. All they see is what has passed, as it were, an afterimage. It is the world of the dead—not the living. From the vantage point of a Zen master like Yuan-wu, the vast multitude of human beings were dead rather than living. They were more interested in the body than the living light which animates it; or more interested in their concepts than the formative power which makes them appear. Without a doubt, everyone who has not witnessed the Mind-ground is doomed to revolve in the cycle of birth and death. It is even worse for those who reject its possibility.