Do you think Huineng was saying, “You have to follow all these rules”? No, not at all, he was simply provoking. This is the push. He was hitting hard, he was hitting at this new arrival who was just on the verge – as everybody else is. You can misunderstand it, then you have postponed your enlightenment. Yoka could have retorted, “What nonsense! One has to be spontaneous. And I had never thought that a man like you would expect those stupid rules – three thousand or eighty thousand….” He could have retorted and missed.
Yoka replied, “Birth and death is a problem of great moment; all changes ceaselessly.”
It looks unrelated; it is not. He is saying, “Any moment I can die. Do you want me to follow all that ritual – eighty thousand rules? And if I die following those eighty thousand rules, then who will be responsible? Who will be responsible for my misery – for my rebirth into misery again – you or I?” He has not said that, he simply indicates. It is a beautiful answer: “Birth and death is a problem of great moment. And we are not certain even of the next moment – how can I go into those rules?” But he has not said so much, he has simply indicated why he is not following all those rules. “All changes ceaselessly, everything is a flux. I can die any moment. If you say so, I will bow down as many times as you say, but if I die in the middle of it without becoming enlightened you will be responsible, sir.” He has changed the label. The master has pushed and he has rightly responded.
The master asked, “Why not embody the unborn and grasp the timeless?”
Why be worried about death and birth? Another push, another provocation, another temptation. “Why not embody the unborn? Why don’t you yourself think that there is no death, that the soul is immortal, that life never dies? Everybody else believes that, why don’t you believe that? Embody the unborn and grasp the timeless. Why be worried with time and flux and change? Grasp the eternal!”
Yoka replied, “To be unborn and deathless is to embody it; to be timeless is to grasp it.”