Daily Zen

On The Way          




West Evening Mountain Talk


                Part 3

            Muso Soseki



The monk asked, “Zen masters these days give a koan to their disciples.  This makes students study words, doesn’t it?”


The Master answered, “No it doesn’t.  Yuan-wu said, ‘Students who have just started Zen practice have no idea about it. So out of compassion the masters give them a koan as a signpost, so that the disciples can devote themselves to discovering oneness and dispelling random illusions, and to realizing finally that Original Mind is not something that comes from outside.  After that, all the koans turn out to be pieces of tile for knocking at the gate.’


“Do you consider this explanation of Yuan-wu’s a deception?  You must understand Zen masters give their disciples a koan simply in order to guide them through the Gate of Satori into their own homes.


“Ta-hui used to cite a passage from some forerunner’s sermon to his own students:  ‘Don’t try to use your intellect to grasp the truth.  Don’t just swallow everything that has been preached.  And don’t lock yourself up in the storehouse, where nothing happens.’  This teaching is a sign of Ta-hui’s deep, grandmotherly kindness.  With it he blindfolds your eyes to let you see with your mind.  You can understand from this that it is not words at all that Ta-hui wants you to study. Any students who have succeeded in returning their minds to the Original Silence by sitting on the zazen cushion, but are still content with their marvelous skill with words, are still a long way form the true study of mind.


“Yuan-wu says, ‘The phrase “This mind, the Buddha” shows the truth as plainly as though it were seen through a wide open gate.  The other one, “No mind, no Buddha,” forces one to face the truth directly and see through it.  Without getting stuck in these words, pass right through them and then you will see clearly the whole mind of the Patriarchs unveiled.   If you get stuck in the words you will never attain enlightenment.’  He says beside, ‘If you are someone with great inborn genius there is no need to make a study of the old words and koans.  When you wake up in the morning, make your mind clear and calm. Whatever has to be done then, do it as well as you can.  Afterward think it over carefully, and see what you have done and what it amounts to.  When you have done these things thoroughly you will find yourself right there in the monastery of purity and no-happening.’


“These two masters set forth the very core of Zen practice.  But most students these days fish words and dialogues of the masters out of books and store them in their heads until they have a chance to spar with others.  Using their cleverness in Zen talk, they flatter themselves that they have attained the subtle way of the Patriarchs.  But this is just what Yuan-wu calls conceit and delusion.”


The monk questioned him again:  “Those students who repeat Zen stories secondhand, and swallow hearsay and gossip, and convince themselves that they have attained satori, are of course full of conceit and delusion. But there are some very gifted students who have penetrated to the core of Zen words.  Are they not to be called people of satori?”


The Master answered, “Even those who have a keen insight into Zen words are to be called people accomplished in words but not in mind unless they have attained clear satori.  As for those who merely pass on second hand stories, swallow rumors, and gossip, they are not worth commenting on.  A master says, ‘Just grasp the essence, don’t concern yourself with the results.’ Attaining genuine satori is the essential.  The manifestation of its great working is the result.  It’s like planting a tree.  If the root goes deep, the leaves and flowers and fruit will be sure to flourish.


The monk asked, “If words and letters have a bad influence on students at the beginning, why did the masters in the past leave so many words of different kinds which are now widely used?”


The Master answered, “Those masters of discerning insight had a perfect command of words, and they used their skill to teach their disciples.  Each word and phrase may show a different aspect of Zen, but each is not more than a means—like the woman’s call for her maid, not for an errand but simply so that her lover would hear her voice and know that she was there inside the window.  The masters’ words did no harm to their students, and some bright ones grasped the essential beyond those words. But with the passage of time, misunderstandings inevitably occurred. Many stupid people came along, like the man who dropped his sword into the current from his moving boat and marked the side of the boat to show where it fell, and then searched in the water underneath. 


“Once Yuan-wu, when he was living on Chia Mountain, prepared lectures for his disciples, called Hsueh-tou’s Hundred Koans with Verse Comments.  Later the lectures were compiled and published under the title of The Blue Cliff Records. But Fo-chien, a Dharma brother, wrote to him reproachfully, saying, ‘When I served Wu-tsu Fa-yen he encouraged us by saying, “Each of you, when you become a Buddha some day, a teacher of the world, be sure that you devote yourselves entirely to ‘this matter’—I mean the attainment and deepening of satori.”  I was so impressed with his words that I have never forgotten them.  I hear that you have added many comments to Hsueh-tou’s Verse Comments, with a view to helping your students to understand. When I learned that I could not help shedding tears.  I thought that you were a man of true satori.  Why on earth have you been doing such a thing? Why don’t you show your disciples the one Original Truth that was there before Bodhidharma visited China?  And so on…’  According to Ta-hui’s Discourses,‘When my teacher read Fo-chien’s letter he gave up the undertaking.’


“But some meddlesome fellows published Yuan-wu’s lectures in book form and so they came into general use.  Later, Ta-hui burned the printing blocks.  In 1304, two hundred years after the blocks were burned, Chang Ming-yuan republished the book, which was then widely read.  A man named Old Man San-chiao wrote a preface to it.  He said, ‘Someone asked me whether it would be better to keep the copies of  The Blue Cliff Records or to burn them.  I answered that either would be good….’  The writer of the preface maintains that there is a good reason for both of the contradictory things: for Yuan-wu’s lectures and for Ta-hui’s burning them. This official is ignorant of the fact that the masters’ intention was neither to keep nor to burn the book.


“Before the days of Ma-tsu and Pai-chang, masters put much emphasis on richi (teaching) and little on kikan (koans).  Later they paid a great deal of attention to practice and little to theoretical study.  Later, in the days of Feng-hsueh and Hsing-hua, they resorted to higher expressions of Zen experience, and this tendency made it more difficult to grasp their teachings.  We should remember that the Patriarchs’ aim is neither study nor practice, but that both are merely means, like the woman calling her maid for an errand.


“So the Master says, ‘If I meet someone who is ready for my Dharma I will hand it on to that person.  Otherwise, I will leave everything to the way of the world.’  He adds, ‘Face the Buddha’s teachings as though they were the enemy you will never forgive, and then you may learn something of them.’”


The monk went on, “Well, then, would it be best to spend one’s time in complete silence, without reading anything?”


The Master answered, “One master said, ‘The truth can be attained neither by words or by silence.’  The Patriarchs and the descendants of the Bodhidharma are not supposed to rely on words and letters.  Is that supposed to mean that silence is to be preferred and words to be avoided?  On the contrary, the one thing they want is for students to see that the real truth lies neither in words nor in silence.  Once this fact is clear to you, all the teachings of the Buddha and the Patriarchs are matters within your own house.  So if you want to understand their teachings, please let go of whatever knowledge and wisdom you may have acquired up until now, and forgetting about yourself entirely, devote yourself completely to the one koan. Those students who are naturally gifted will not only go beyond koan study but will also escape falling into mere silence. They always go straight to the essential.  Those are the ones who are unquestionably my disciples. 


“Everything I have said up until now is for their sake. I am unwilling to teach those scatterbrained students who have no sincere wish for the truth but only a restless urge to collect knowledge. But some who are aware of the unremitting law of cause and effect, and live a modest life, or who try to learn something from Zen monastery life, and practice to make something of their lives, may be able to accomplish a kind of Zen in their own way.  I cannot turn aside from such people either.



Muso Soseki (1275-1351)


Excerpted from Sun At Midnight – Poems and Sermons

Translated by W.S Merwin and Soiku Shigematsu 1989


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