The withered trees of which the patriarchs speak are the learning in practice of “the sea having dried.” The sea having dried is a tree having withered, and a tree having withered is the vivid state of “meeting spring.” - Zen Master Dogen, Shobogenzo Ryugin (1243)
The question, does the dragon's roar exist among the weathered trees?, is not an esoteric or overly poetic one. The question comes up all the time in dokusan, although in different terms. After greed, hate, and delusion are extinguished and body and mind have dropped away (the withering of the tree), what is left? When our attachments are finally dropped, will we still love our spouse and family? Is there any feeling at all, or is one like a statue, unfeeling and uncaring?
In the practice of certain ascetics and even some Hinayana Buddhist sects, one renounces not only greed, hatred, and delusion, but all passions, all desires, and all attachments. But such extreme renunciation does not produce compassion, joy, or understanding, but only cold, emotionless individuals.
In a famous Zen story, an old woman supports a monk for over twenty years, feeding him and letting him stay in a little hut. To find out what progess he's made, she sends her daughter to the hut and tells her to embrace him and see what happens. The daughter does as she's instructed, and embracing him askes what he is feeling.
"An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter," replies the monk somewhat poetically. "Nowhere is there any warmth."
"To think that I fed that fellow for twenty years!" exclaimed the old woman in anger when she learns of his words. "He showed no consideration for your needs, offered no teaching for your condition. He need not have responded to passion, but at least he should have evidenced some compassion."
She at once went to the hut of the monk and burned it down.
I like this story because is so vividly illustrates that the withered trees of Zen practice do not grow cold on winter rocks. The old woman's anger was over the withered tree in her hut producing deadwood rather than spring blossoms.
Taking up this matter, Master Dogen metaphorically compares the withered trees of Zen to the drying up of the sea. We can picture that when the sea dries up, there are no more waves. There is no motion, nothing to move. Waves no longer crash on the shore, only to recede back to the sea and come crashing over and over again on the shore. The drying up of the sea is a metaphor for the end of the great cycle of birth and death. It is both the stillness of practice and the cessation of the cycle of samsara. The stillness of practice is itself the end to the cycle of samsara.
The sea having dried is the same dropping away of body and mind referred to as the withering of the tree. However, the withered trees of Zen do not yield deadwood and cold ashes - it is not the cold practice of the compassionless monk of the story above. It is not result in existential nihilism, but instead blossoms into liberation and freedom.
Letting go of greed, hatred, and delusion, we lose our egocentric attitudes, which in turn opens us up to others so that we can experience compassion, generosity, and intimacy on a deep and profound level.
And that is the roar of the dragon among the withered trees.