On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

August 09, 2009

Skeletons Part II

Ikkyu (1394-1481)

One night, I came to a lonely little temple, looking for a place to rest.  I was far off the main road, at the base of a mountain, seemingly lost in a vast Plain of Repose.  The temple was in a field of graves, and suddenly a pitiful-looking skeleton appeared speaking these words:

This world

Is but

A fleeting dream

So why be alarmed

At its evanescence?


Your span of life is set and entreaties to the gods to lengthen it are to no avail.  Keep your mind fixed on the one great matter of life and death.  Life ends in death, that’s the way things are.


The vagaries of life

Though painful,

Teach us

Not to cling

To this fleeting world.


Why do people

Lavish decoration

On this set of bones

Destined to disappear

Without a trace?


The original body

Must return to

Its original place:

Do not search

For what cannot be found.


No one really knows

The nature of birth

Nor the true dwelling place:

We return to the source,

And turn to dust.


We enjoyed ourselves together, the skeleton and I, and that illusive mind that generally separates us from others gradually left me.  The skeleton that had accompanied me all this while possessed the mind that renounces the world and seeks for truth.


Many paths lead from

The foot of the mountain

But at the peak

We all gaze at the

Single bright moon.


If at the end of our journey

There is no final

Resting place

Then we need not fear

Losing our way.


No beginning

No end;

Our mind
Is born and dies:

The emptiness of emptiness!


Let up

And the mind

Runs wild:

Control the world

And you can cast it aside.


This is how the world is.  Those who have not grasped the world’s impermanence are astonished and terrified by such change. 


Rain, hail, snow, and ice:

All separate

But when they fall

They become the same water

Of  the valley stream.


Without a bridge

Clouds climb effortlessly

To heaven:

No need to rely on

Anything Gotama Buddha taught.


Gotama Buddha proclaimed the Dharma for fifty years, and when his disciple Kashyapa asked him for the key to his teaching, Buddha said: “From beginning to end I have not proclaimed a single word,” and held up a flower. 

Kashyapa smiled, and Buddha gave him the flower saying these words: “You possess the Wondrous mind of the True Law.”  “What do you mean?” asked Kashyapa.  “My fifty years of preaching,” Buddha told him, “has been beckoning to you all the while, just like attracting a child into one’s arms with the promise of a reward.”

This flower of the Dharma cannot be described in physical, mental, or verbal terms.  It is not material or spiritual.  It is not intellectual knowledge.  Our Dharma is the Flower of the one Vehicle carrying all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future.  It holds the twenty-eight Indian and six Chinese Patriarchs; it is the original ground of being—all there is. 

All things are without beginning and thus all-inclusive.  The eight senses, the four seasons, the four great elements (earth, water, fire, wind), all originate in emptiness, but few realize it.   Wind is breath, fire is animation, water is blood; when the body is buried or burned it becomes earth. Yet these elements too are without  beginning and never abide.

Ikkyu (1394-1481)

Excerpted from Wild Ways -Zen Poems of Ikkyu- translated by John Stevens 2003

Ikkyu’s skeletons teach in rich and evocative koan-like poems.  Any one of them can be read alone, and in fact, each one deserves quiet contemplation rather than a single reading.  Powerful in imagery and content, these skeletons have much to share.

Certainly not traditional teachers, the skeletons personify death, one of our greatest teachers, and one many avoid speaking with until the game is almost up.  When one keeps company with death, most of the things of daily life pale in comparison. The greater perspective naturally is perceived. It’s much easier to tell the significant from the insignificant issues of life.  Things become crystal clear, and the present moment becomes naturally elongated.

Who doesn’t have time to contemplate any one of the skeleton’s poems when one is poised between being here and not here?   Amidst the vitality of our lives, we carve out time for meditation and contemplation to create a life of depth and clarity as best we can.  Who wants to wait till those last final moments to delve deeply into life’s most basic questions? 

Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

Quietly yours,


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