On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

September 07, 2012

Sermon of Zen Master Bassui

Bassui Tokusho (1327-1387)

If you want to avoid the pains of transmigration, you should directly know the way to become enlightened. The way to become enlightened is to realize your own mind. Since your own mind is the fundamental nature of all sentient beings, which has never changed since before your parents were born, before your own body existed, it is called the original face.

This mind is originally pure: when the body is born, it shows no sign of birth; and when the body dies, it has no sign of death. Neither is it marked as male or female, nor has it any form, good or bad. Because no simile can reach it, it is called enlightened nature, or Buddha nature.

Furthermore, all thoughts arise from this inherent nature like waves on the ocean, like images reflecting in a mirror. For this reason, if you want to realize your inner mind, first you must see the source of thoughts arising. Whether awake or asleep, standing or sitting, deeply questioning what thing is your inner mind with the profound desire for enlightenment, is called practice, meditation, will, and the spirit of the way. Questioning the inner mind like this is also called zazen.

One moment seeing your own mind is better than reading ten thousand volumes of scriptures and incantations a day for ten thousand years; these formal practices form only causal conditions for a day of blessings, but when those blessings are exhausted again, you suffer the pains of miserable forms of existence. A moment of meditational effort, however, because it leads eventually to enlightenment, becomes a cause for the attainment of buddhahood.

Even someone who has committed the worse crimes is a buddha if he instantly transforms and becomes enlightened, but that doesn't mean that you should do wrong on the pretext that you should become enlightened; when you delude yourself and degenerate into evil ways, even the buddhas and patriarchs can't help you. It's like the case of a child sleeping next to its father, having a bad dream about being beaten or falling sick; though he calls to his parents to help him in his distress, since they can't go into his dreams, even his father and mother cannot help him. Even if they are going to give him medicine, they have to wake him up.

If one can awake on his own, he can avoid suffering in dreams without the help of others; in the same way, if you realize that your own mind is Buddha, you can suddenly avoid repeated involvement in routines of birth and death. If the buddhas could help us, how could anyone go to hell? You must realize the truth of this yourself.

Now, then, when you look what is the host, the master who is now seeing colors, hearing sounds, raising hands and moving feet, though you realize all this is the doing of your own mind, actually you don't know what its inner reality is. If you say it is nonexistent, it is clear that it is free to act; if you say it exists, still its form cannot be seen. As it is simply inconceivable, with no way at all to understand, when your ideas are ended and you are helpless, this is good work; at this point, if you don't give up and your will goes deeper and deeper, and your profound doubt penetrates the very depths and breaks through, there is no doubt that mind itself is enlightened. There is no birth and death to detest, no truth to seek; space is only one's mind.

For example, it is like getting lost in a dream, losing the road to return home, asking people or praying to gods and buddhas to find the way back, until you awaken, when you find you've been in your own bedroom all along; then you realize that there was no other way to return from your dream journey except to awaken. This is called “returning to the fundamental,”and it is also called “birth in the world of peace and ease.”

This is a way of understanding through attainment of power from a little bit of cultivation; everybody who cultivates meditation and works at it, whether householders or homeless, has at least such experience. This already is beyond the ken of people who do not meditate. This is already real enlightenment, but if you think you have no doubts about reality, you're greatly mistaken. This would be like giving up the search for gold when you see copper. When you have such a tendency, you should resolutely deepen your effort by observing your body as an illusion, like a bubble, like a reflection and see your mind as like space, with no form. Here, hearing sound in the ear, what is the host that cognizes the echo?

Tenaciously, profoundly, wholly doubting, when no cognizable principle exists anymore and you have forgotten about the existence of your body, when your former views and understanding die out and your doubt has become complete, your enlightenment will be complete, just as no water remains in a bucket when its bottom falls out. It will be like a dead tree bursting suddenly into bloom. If you can be like this, you will realize freedom in the midst of things and become greatly liberated.

But even if you have such an enlightenment, you must give up every enlightenment you realize and time and again return to the awakening host, go back to the fundamental; if you can guard it firmly, as sentimental consciousness dies out, your inherent nature will become clear just as a jewel becomes more lustrous with polishing; eventually it will illuminate the worlds in all directions. Don't doubt this; if your determination is not deep, even if you don't awaken in this way in this life, people who face death in the midst of meditation will surely become enlightened easily in the coming life, just as a journey prepared for yesterday is easily traveled today.

When working on sitting meditation, don't suppress arising thoughts, but don't enjoy them; just search out the inner mind, source of thought. Realizing that whatever drifts through the mind or appears to the eyes is illusory, not real, you shouldn't fear, esteem, like or dislike; if your mind is like empty space not affected by things, then when you die also you will not be attacked by the devil of heaven. Also, when doing meditation work, it should only be a question of what your own mind is, without keeping such and such a thing or such and such a principle on your mind.

When you realize what the host is who hears all sounds right now, this mind is the fundamental source of all buddhas and sentient beings. Kannon is called Seer of the Sounds of the World because she attained enlightenment by way of sound. Just see what it is that hears this sound, whether standing or sitting, look for this; when you don't know what you're hearing anymore and your direction is ended and you are diffused and far out, even here as long as sound is being heard, when you look deeper and deeper, even the appearance of vague diffusion dies out, and it is like a clear cloudless sky.

Herein there is nothing that can be called self. The host who hears cannot be seen either. This mind is the same as universal space, yet there is no place that can be called space. At this time you think this is enlightenment, but you should doubt even more; who hears this sound? If you go on investigating without producing a single thought, the realm where seems like nothing exists, like empty space, also dies out, there is no more taste at all; where it is dark as night, if you exert all your power to fully doubt what it is that hears this sound, then when the doubt shatters and you are like someone who has completely died coming back to life, this then is enlightenment, satori.


Bassui Tokusho (1327-1387)

Excerpted from The Original Face: An Anthology of Rinzai Zen trans by Thomas Cleary 1978

There are sutras like the Heart Sutra that are chanted in temples and are a part of practice handed down from long years ago.  For those of us who don’t have a temple to attend or a teacher to train with, we seek out forms and practices which sustain us. 

The teaching above could easily serve that purpose.  This sermon also reaches back hundreds of years and shines a clear light on our own, at times, misguided side trips we find ourselves enmeshed in.

One of the very real keys of practice is not to give up or give into the distractions of our imagination and illusions.  Those of us who are responsible for our own training need to keep the fires of enthusiasm burning bright. 

Keep your spirit intact; there is no teacher or teaching who can do that for us.

 “…your inherent nature will become clear just as a jewel becomes more lustrous with polishing; eventually it will illuminate the worlds in all directions. Don't doubt this…”

Shining together,


Recent Journals

Journal Archives