Unmon’s Golden Wind

November 2, 2014

A monk asked Unmon, “What is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?”

Ummon said, “Body exposed in the golden wind.”


Many Zen communities gather together for a Golden Wind Sesshin at this time of year. The sheer beauty of the koan cannot be resisted just because “everybody does it”.   Trying not to be like everybody else is too much ego and no good reason to call it something else.

This koan most clearly captures the breath-taking clarity of Unmon’s teachings.  Of his style it is said, the cover (answer) fits the box (the question), the boat(answer) rocks with the waves (the question), and the answer cuts through the streams of delusion (of the questioner).  Even when you don’t quite grasp his response you are likely to gasp out loud in deep recognition. When the leaves fall and the tree is stiff, dry, and bare, you stand vulnerable and exposed in the searing blast of wind that comes on a deep autumn day.

This is the exhilaration of the season that long ago drew me to stay awhile in the northeast after a childhood in the south.  This is the embrace of vulnerability that liberates and allows self-built prison bars to fall away. Even if we taste the freedom for only a moment or a breath, we know that it is true.  We know that having experienced it once, we can summon it again. We know that it is ours. Though the words of another can release us, it is a release  to the self we have always been, will always be. It is sameness that lets one offer this to another. It is a willingness to feel vulnerable in brisk wind, on shifting ground that liberates the expression of our uniqueness and responsiveness.

We know that we can do this because we have done it this once, expressed it with this one gasp of self-recognition and for a brief instant let body and mind drop away. We can do this because there is no obstacle to being ourselves. The only thing we are certain that we can do is be ourselves. We can  let the personal creations be blown away by the golden wind. The only alternative is to lie to ourselves, and we can choose not to do that.

No matter what our circumstances, this gate of liberation is open to us. There are some gates held shut by that which would exclude us, but that is another matter. This one vast liberating and gateless gate is ours and it reveals itself to each of us who dare a straightforward and loving gaze at our life. Over and over again, we breathe and attend.