The theme of host and guest is popular within Chinese Zen, broadly used to illustrate the interplay between relative and absolute. One of Zen’s major tenets is that our personalities and beliefs are not absolute, but rather ‘guests’ within an impenetrable ‘host’. This relationship then becomes more complex when we talk about guests within hosts and vice versa, as well as the host within the host. This exchange between master Ch’eng-t’ien and his student explores the various combinations of that relationship.
Ch’eng-t’ien was asked, “What is host within guest?”
He replied, “unrecognized when met.”
Then he was asked, “What is guest within host?”
Ch’eng-t’ien replied, “Poverty at home is not yet poverty; poverty on the road saddens people to death.”
Finally he was asked, “What is host within host?”
Ch’eng-t’ien replied, ‘The words of the monarch are like strands, their dissemination is like strings.”