The life and poetry of Layman P’ang

Old P’ang requires nothing in the world;
All is empty with him, even a seat he has not,
For absolute emptiness reigns in his house.
How empty indeed it is with no treasures!
When the sun is risen he walks through emptiness;
When the sun sets, he sleeps in emptiness.
Sitting in emptiness he sings his empty songs,
And his empty songs reverberate through emptiness.
Be not surprised at emptiness so thoroughly empty,
For emptiness is the abode of all the Buddhas.
Emptiness is not understood by men of the world,
But emptiness is the real treasure.
If you say there is no emptiness,
You commit a grave offense against the Buddhas. (Suzuki, Passivity in the Buddhist Life)

“Into White” – Cat Stevens, Tea for the Tillerman

Layman P’ang Yun (d. 808)

Layman P’ang was the wealthy son of a prefect and a family man. A Confucian by birth, he and his family practiced Zen Buddhism. He built a hermitage near his house, and later donated his house to be used as a temple. One day Pang loaded all of his money and possessions onto a boat and sunk them in a river.

P’ang experienced his first awakening under Shih-t’ou, and his greatest awakening under Ma-tsu, who formed eighty enlightened masters in his life. When Ma-tsu certified P’ang’s awakening, he asked him if he would put on the black robe or continue to wear white. P’ang replied, “I wish to do as I please”; thus he remained a layman.

P’ang’s wife, son and daughter were all devout Buddhists. He was accompanied in his travels by his daughter, Ling Zhao, who sold the bamboo utensils they fashioned in local markets. The day P’ang planned to leave his body, he asked Ling Zhao to tell him when it was noon. There was a solar eclipse that day and she called him to the window to see it. She then ran to his bed and left her body, obliging her father to pass on a week later than he had planned.

P’ang was a great poet: he is the source of one of the most famous sayings in the literature of Chan Buddhism: “Supernatural power and marvelous activity — Drawing water and carrying firewood.” He is also the source of “Fine snow falling flake by flake, each flake landing in its own proper place.”

The Recorded Sayings of Layman P’ang

by Ruth Fuller Sasaki

THE LAYMAN, whose personal name was Yun and whose nickname was Tao-hsuan, was a native of Hsiang-yang. His father held the office of Prefect of Heng-yang. The Layman lived in the southern part of the city. There he built a hermitage, carrying on his religious practices to the west of the house, and after several years his entire household attained the Way. This was what is now Wu-k’ung Hermitage. Later he gave his former dwelling near the hermitage to be made into a temple. This was what is now Neng-jen Temple.

During the Chen-yuan era [785-804] of T’ang he loaded the treasure of his household — several tens of thousands of strings of coins — onto a boat in Tung-t’ing Lake to the right of the river Shao, and sank it in the middle of the stream. After that he lived like a single leaf.

The Layman had a wife, a son, and a daughter. They sold bamboo utensils in order to obtain their morning and evening meals. The Layman often used to say:

I’ve a boy who has no bride
I’ve a girl who has no groom
Forming a happy family circle
We speak about the Birthless

During the Chen-yuan era of T’ang, the Ch’an and Vinaya sects were in high favor, and the Patriarchal doctrine likewise flourished, diffusing its brilliance abroad, spreading rampant as a hop vine, and effecting its entrance everywhere. Then it was that the Layman initially visited Shih-t’ou, and in an instant his former state melted away. Later he saw Ma-tsu and again sealed his Original Mind. His every act manifested his penetration of the Mystery, and there was nothing about him that did not accord with the Way. He had the boundless eloquence of Manjusri,  in conformity with the Mahayana treatises on reality.

He whose name is “Nameless” has written this preface

 * * *

AT THE BEGINNING of the Chen-yuan era [785-804] of T’ang, the Layman visited Ch’an Master Shih-t’ou.* He asked the Master: “Who is the man who doesn’t accompany the ten thousand dharmas?”
Shih-t’ou covered the Layman’s mouth with his hand. In a flash he realized!

ONE DAY SHIH-T’OU said to the Layman: “Since seeing me, what have your daily activities been?”
“When you ask me about my daily activities, I can’t open my mouth,” the Layman replied.
“Just because I know you are thus I now ask you,” said Shih-t’ou.
Whereupon the Layman offered this verse:

My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, pushing nothing away,
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
Who assigns the (official) ranks of vermilion and purple?
The hills’ and mountains’ last speck of dust is extinguished.
Supernatural power and marvelous activity —
Drawing water and carrying firewood.

Shih-t’ou gave his assent. Then he asked: “Will you put on black robes or will you continue wearing white?”
“I wish to do as I please,” replied the Layman. So he did not shave his head or dye his clothing.

*Shih-t’ou Hsi-ch’ien (700-790), was a Ch’an master of great renown.

Wherever the Layman dwelt there was much coming and going of venerable priests, and many exchanges of questions. According to the capacity of each the Layman responded as an echo to a sound.

* * *

DURING THE YUAN-HO ERA [806-820] the Layman traveled northward to Hsiang-han, stopping here and there. His daughter Ling-chao sold bamboo baskets for their morning and evening meals. The Layman had these [three] verses, which go:

When the mind is such, circumstances also are such
There’s no real and no unreal
Giving no mind to existence
And holding not to nonexistence
You’re neither saint nor sage, just
An ordinary man who has settled his affairs

Easy, so easy!
These very five skandhas* make true wisdom
The ten directions of the universe are the same One Vehicle
How can the formless Dharma-body be two!
If you cast off the defilements to enter bodhi
Where will any Buddha-lands be?*

To save your self* you must destroy it
Having completely destroyed it you dwell at ease
When you attain the inmost meaning of this
An iron boat floats upon water

* Five components of a sentient being: 1. rupa: form; 2. vedana: sensations 3. samjna: knowledge of differences; 4 samskara: expectations; 5. vijnana: consciousness.
* A Buddha-land is comprised of the disciples of a particular Buddha.
* Hsin


People have a one-scroll sutra
Without form and without name
No man is able to unroll and read it
And none of us can hear it
When you are able to unroll and read it
You enter the Dharma and unite with the birthless
You don’t even need to become a buddha
Even less a bodhisattva


Some people despise old P’ang
But old P’ang does not despise them
Opening my gate, I await good friends
But good friends do not stop by

As my mind is endowed with the threefold learning*
The six dusts* do not mix with it
This one pill cures the ten thousand ills
I’ve no need for the myriad prescriptions.

* Precepts (moral code), practice and doctrine.
* Dusts: Rajas in Sanskrit, meaning impurities. The six sense-phenomena: sights, sounds, sensations, scents, tastes and thoughts.


Traveling the path is easy
Traveling the path is easy
Within, without, and in-between I depend upon innate wisdom
Innate wisdom being non-sentient, dharmas do not arise
No form, no mind, a single radiance streams forth
In the mind-ground appears the Udumbara tree of emptiness

*Udumbara tree: a legendary tree said to flower once every three thousand years.


It is called wisdom,
And wisdom is the honored
Mind and wisdom joining, you penetrate the Dharma
And the ten thousand things likewise return through the gate of non-duality
Existence is not existence—the Dharma is ever present.

Emptiness is not empty
Emptiness is the ground of existence
All buddhas of the future also will be thus
Those of today are the same as the ancient world-honored ones
Throughout the three realms* there is no other Dharma
What buddha imparted to buddha is being transmitted today

* Desire, form, and formless


Without, there is nothing that is not-self, within there is no self
Not wielding spear and shield, I accord with the Buddhadharma
Well-versed in the Buddhadharma, I travel the non-path
Without abandoning my ordinary man’s affairs
The conditioned and name-and-form all are flowers in the air*
Nameless and formless, I leave birth-and-death

* hallucinations


A resolute man
In the past
But not today
I destroyed my treasures utterly
And ransomed back my retinue of servants

The six in number
Always accompany me before and after
I do not restrain them
They do not venture to run away

Were there never any other reward of what little services we do, or of the marks of homage we render Thee than this fixed state above the vicissitudes in the world, is it not enough? The senses indeed are sometimes ready to start aside, and to run off like truants, but every trouble flies before the soul which is entirely subjected to God. – Madame Guyon (Autobiography)

The Awakening of Prefect Yü Ti (from the INTRODUCTION by Dana Fraser)

Yu Ti learned about Layman P’ang from reading his poetry. He sought him out and became close friends with him. It was Yu Ti who compiled The Recorded Sayings of Layman P’ang.

There was a time when Prefect Yü Ti of Hsiang-yang issued orders that all mendicant monks in his territory should be apprehended and sent to the capital. There was not a single monk who escaped with his life — all were killed. There were numerous instances of this.

Having heard the news, Master Tsu-yü wanted to visit the Prefect, so he searched among his assembly for companions. About ten men volunteered to accompany the master. He started out at the head of ten followers. Upon reaching the border the ten others feared to go on. The master alone crossed the border. The soldiers found the master coming, put cangues on him, and escorted him under guard to the capital city of Hsiang-yang. When he arrived in front of the government building, still with cangues on, he donned his monk’s robe and entered the courtroom.

The prefect, seated grandly on a chair, put a hand on the hilt of his sword and asked: “Bah! you teacher. Don’t you know that the Prefect of Hsiang-yang has the freedom to put you to the sword?” The master said: “Do you know a King of Dharma doesn’t fear birth and death?” The Prefect said: “Ho-shang*, have you ears in your head?” The master responded: My eyebrows and eyes are unhindered. When I, a poor monk, meet with the Prefect in an interview, what kind of hindrance could there be!” (*title of respect for a monk who is a teacher)

At this the prefect threw away his sword, donned his official uniform, bowed low, and asked: “I have heard there is a statement in the teaching that says that the black wind blows the ships, and wafts them to the land of the Rakshasas.* What does this mean?” “Yü Ti!” the master called. The prefect’s face changed color. The master remarked: “The land of the Rakshasas is not far!” The prefect again asked: “What about Buddha?” “Yü Ti!” the master called again. The prefect answered: “Yes?” The master said: “Don’t seek anywhere else.” At these words the prefect attained great enlightenment, bowed low, and became his disciple. (*Man-eaters: See Suzuki, Manual of Zen Buddhism)

P’ang’s Confucian roots

From the INTRODUCTION by Dana Fraser:

What was P’ang Yün’s relationship to the Confucian traditions of his ancestors? Although he must have been taught the precepts of Confucius as a child, these seem to have had little influence upon him in adult life. The compiler of The Recorded Sayings of Layman P’ang or its later editors hardly mention him at all in connection with Confucianism. There is an account, known only in a Korean edition dated 1245 and not mentioned by any Chinese editors, that gives more information in this regard. This is the Chodang chip, the earliest known history of Chinese Ch’an, compiled in 952 by Ch’an Master Ch’ing-hsiu and two assistants. It was lost in China and, until recently, known only in Korea. Here is the Chodang chip ‘s account of Layman P’ang:

“Layman P’ang succeeded [was a Dharma-heir of] Great Teacher Ma-tsu. The Layman himself was born in Heng-yang.
“He had occasion to ask Great Teacher Ma: ‘Who is the man who doesn’t accompany the ten thousand dharmas?’ Teacher Ma replied: ‘Layman, wait till you’ve swallowed in one swig all the water of the West River, then I’ll tell you.’ At that the Layman attained great enlightenment. He went directly to the administrative office, borrowed a writing brush and ink-stone, and composed a verse which says:

[People of] the ten directions are the same one assembly
Each and every one learns wu-wei
This is the very place to select Buddha
Empty-minded, having passed the exam, I return

“And then he stayed [at Ma-tsu’s temple]. He received further instruction for one or two years. In the end, without his changing his Confucian appearance, his mind sported outside of objects; his feelings were unrestrained, but his conduct fitted with the true purport; his way of life was turbid, but he was preeminent among men. Indeed he was a Mystery-learned Confucian, a householding bodhisattva.

“He first lived at East Cliff in Hsiang-yang, and later lived in a small hut west of the city wall. He had an only daughter, who served him and fashioned bamboo utensils. He had her sell them in the city, by which to provide for their daily needs. He daily enjoyed the Way.

“His verses number nearly three hundred, and circulate widely in the world. All by their words fit the Ultimate Principle, and by their phrases reveal the mysterious course of things; to accomplished Confucians they are jewels and gold, to Buddhists they are cherished treasure.”

Sasaki, Ruth Fuller. The Recorded Sayings of Layman P’ang; a ninth-century Zen classic 
[compiled by Yü Ti]. Translated from the Chinese by Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Yoshitaka Iriya & Dana R. Fraser. 
New York, Weatherhill, 1971. (

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