On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

August 10, 2007

Sho-do-ka – Song of Realization Part II

Yoka-daishi (d.713)

You cannot praise nor blame realization.

Like the sky, truth has no bounds.

Wherever you stand, it surrounds you.

When you seek it, you cannot reach it;

Your hand cannot hold it,

Nor your mind exclude it.

When you no longer seek it, it is with you.

In silence, you speak it loudly;

In speech you manifest its silence.

Thus the gate of compassion opens wide

To the benefit of all beings.

When you begin to study Zen, you aim to attain realization. Your motive is good in so far as motive is concerned, but in your meditation you should aim at nothing. You may aim at realization to encourage yourself when you are not meditating, but beware of clinging entanglements. Encouragement is one thing, meditation is another. Do not mix them up. Carry your meditation as the eternal present, and saturate your everyday life with it.

When a person asks me what branch of

Buddhism I studied, I tell him about

Mahaprajna, the root of the teaching.

Without Mahaprajna, though you know right and wrong,

You are beyond the truth.

With the root of the teaching,

Wherever you go it is the land of truth.


The teaching came from Buddha through the generations.

The lamp of wisdom was first transmitted to Mahakasyapa,

Then genealogically through twenty eight patriarchs.

Bodhidharma, the Patriarch of India, came to

This country across the seas.

My teacher, who works in So-kei,

Received his robe to become the Sixth Patriarch

Who knows how many generations will carry the teaching

In the future?

Buddhism is the teaching of self-enlightenment. No God or gods will help you to realize the truth. The power of realization within you is called Mahaprajna, meaning great wisdom. This is the root of the teaching, the source of all streams of Buddhistic thought. Those who speculate, reading scriptures or clinging to creeds and dogmas, wander far from realization. Ethical deeds and kind actions may be praised, but they are without real value until they spring from Mahaprajna. The brilliancy of Mahaprajna illumines all beings; Buddhas and Patriarchs reflect this brilliance one to the other.

The true does not stand by itself,

And the false never exists alone.

When the idea of existence and non-existence

Vanishes, the idea of emptiness and non-emptiness


The Sutra gives twenty names to emptiness, each showing

You the one body of Buddha-nature.


The mind rises and contacts the outer world,

Thus, delusions appear.

Subjectivity and objectivity are like dust on the

Surface of a mirror.

When the mirror is free of dust,

It shines brightly.

If no mind rises, there is no contact,

No delusion; only the true nature appears.

Yoka is warning us not to postulate true and false. Without dualism many can easily reach the truth, but they must experience it in their meditation. The goal of meditation is beyond words and ideas The names of emptiness are like lists of drugs. If you are well and strong, you are not interested in them. Many teachers seek to hold or to mystify a student by using the various designations of good or evil built up through the ages. If you wish to make a business of teaching, then memorize the names, but if you want emancipation for yourself and others, give up the drug business and practice Zen meditation.

No other trees grow in the forest of sandalwood;

For countless ages only lions have lived there,

Roaming freely in the silent, dark grove.

No birds and no other animals enter the forest,

Only the lion cubs follow the older beasts.

Even the three year old cub roars loudly.

How can a yelping fox imitate the kind of Dhamma?

Even though hundreds of monsters open

Their mouths, it will be in vain.

It is said in India that no inferior trees grow near a forest of sandalwood, so Buddhists use the name as a symbol of ultimate wisdom. In this stanza birds and beasts represent fame and glory. Monks are indifferent to these in any form in any age. Only the lion cubs can follow the older lions, and even they have learned to roar while still young. A yelping fox may fool some with his imitations, as a false teacher will use the words and rituals of true teachings, but when he meets a real lion he will be helpless.

Zen doctrine is no subject for sentiment.

Doubts cannot be cleared by argument.

I stubbornly demand your silence

To save you from the pitfall of being and non-being.

Zen allows no student to waste time even for a second. If you have a koan, work on it; if you have no koan, just count your breath. Doubt? What is it? Just keep on meditating. This is the only means of learning to walk the Middle Way

Yoka-daishi (d.713) Commentary by Nyogen Senzaki 1953

Excerpted from Buddhism and Zen edited and translated by Nyogen Senzaki and Ruth Stout McCandless 1953

The stanzas italicized above were translated from a copy of the original by Nyogen Senzaki, and the commentary following the stanzas was from Senzaki’s own instructions to his students. The Sho-do-ko is a rich teaching in the history of Zen, hence this second part stays with Yoka-daishi a while longer to allow us to continue the rhythm of this work.

Sometimes in practice there seems to be nothing to hold onto. One feels stripped of concepts and goals in training. It’s as if one holds onto this pull inward, being unable to name it, but trusting that to stay true to its directive will bring realization. Trust in the Way seems to be all that carries us in times of challenge. We experience the full range of emotions, questions, and doubts, and yet, still we continue meditating. Meditating without a goal, just because it is part of our nature to do so, has become what we do.

“Carry your meditation as the eternal present, and saturate your everyday life with it.”

No one’s explanations or theories about what Is will ultimately satisfy. Zen is meant to be experienced directly beyond words and letters. Of course, the most crafty person we have to be aware of is the one inside. One can often recognize the teachers who can be seductive in their knowledge and appearance of transcendence, but what about

questioning the one inside who seems at times above questioning? That is where we have to be most sharp.

“Doubt? What is it? Just keep on meditating.”

Questioning again,


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