The Monk from Tan-hsia Burning a Wooden Image of the Buddha

The story of the monk from Tan-hsia burning a wooden image of the Buddha, an incident in the life of the Ch'an master T'ien-jan Ch'an-shih (738-824), is told in The Record of the Transmission of the Lamp: "Later, when he was staying at the Hui-lin-ssu in very cold weather, the Master took a wooden statue of the Buddha and burned it. When someone criticized him for doing so, the Master said: 'I burned it in order to get the sarira [i.e., the ashes of the Buddha, which were venerated as relics].' The man said: 'But how can you get sarira from an ordinary piece of wood?' The Master replied: 'If it is nothing more than a piece of wood, why should you upbraid me [for burning it]?"

On a separate piece of paper on the left of the scroll, is a poem written by the Chinese Ch'an priest Ch'u-shih Fan-chi (1297-1371). The translation is as follows:

At an old temple, in cold weather, he spent the night.
He could not stand the piercing cold of the whirling wind.
If it has no sarira, what is there so special about it?
So he took the wooden Buddha from the hall and burned it.

This poem bears the poet's seal: Ch'u-Shih. The other seal is one of the several enigmatic motto-seals for which Yin-to-lo was known. It reads: "Children do not know that snowflakes in Heaven are just like willow flowers."

-from Zen Painting and Calligraphy by J. Fontein and M.L. Hickman