On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

July 09, 2009


Ikkyu  (1394-1481)

These thin lines of India ink reveal all truth.

Students, sit earnestly in zazen, and you will realize that everything born in this world is ultimately empty, including oneself and the original face of existence. All things indeed emerge out of emptiness.  This original formlessness is “Buddha,” and all other similar terms-Buddha-nature, Buddhahood, Buddha-mind, Awakened One, Patriarch, God—are merely different expressions for the same emptiness.  Misunderstand this and you will end up distracted for eons.

Filled with disgust and longing to liberate myself from the realm of continual birth and death, I abandoned home and set off on a journey.  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:

A melancholy autumn wind

Blows through the world:

The pampas grass waves,

As we drift to the moor,

Drift to the sea. 

What can be done

With the mind of a man,

That should be clear

But, dressed up in a monk’s robe,

He just lets life pass him by?

All things become naught by returning to their origin.  Bodhidharma faced the wall in meditation, but none of the thoughts that arose in this mind had any reality. The same held true for Buddha’s fifty years of proclaiming the Dharma.  The Mind is not bound by such conditioned things.

Such deep musings made me uneasy and I could not sleep.  Toward dawn I dozed off, and in my dreams I found myself surrounded by a bunch of skeletons, acting as they did in life.

One skeleton came over to me and said:


Flee and

Are no more:

All are empty dreams

Devoid of meaning.


Violate the reality of things

And babble about

“God” and “Buddha”

And you will never find

The true Way.


Still breathing,

You feel animated,

So a corpse in a field

Seems to be something

Apart from you.

I got on well with this skeleton—he had renounced the world to seek the truth and had passed from the shallows to the depths.  He saw things clearly, just the way they are.  I lay there with the wind in the pines whispering in my ears and the autumnal moonlight dancing across my face.


What is not a dream?  Who will not end up as a skeleton?  We appear as skeletons covered with skin, male and female, and lust after each other.  When the breath expires, though, the skin ruptures, sex disappears, and there is no more high or low.  Underneath the skin of the person we fondle and caress right now is nothing more than a bare set of bones. Think about it—high and low, young and old, male and female, all the same.  Awaken to this one great matter, and you will immediately comprehend  the meaning of “unborn and undying.”

If chunks of rock

Can serve as a memento

To the dead,

A better headstone

Would be a tea mortar.

Humans are indeed frightful beings.

A single moon

Bright and clear

In an unclouded sky:

Yet still we stumble

In the world’s darkness

Have a good look—stop the breath, peel off the skin, and everybody ends up looking the same.  No matter how long you live, the result is not altered.  Cast off the notion the “I exist.”  Entrust yourself to the windblown clouds, and do not wish to live forever.

Ikkyu  (1394-1481)

Excerpted from Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu- trans John Stevens

Death, the great equalizer, has a way of bringing life into a different kind of focus. Ikkyu’s skeletons share teachings from their point of view, which is accessible to those of us who remember we too will be those skeletons, and in fact carry them with us daily. Getting caught up in the world of form, we meditate and put our toes into formlessness, then get enmeshed again in form. To realize the teaching of the Heart Sutra is one of the highest teachings we can “attain.”

“Form is emptiness; emptiness is form; form is not other than emptiness; emptiness is not other than form.”

That about sums it all up, but realizing the depths of this teaching can take lifetimes or no time. Just to hear this and contemplate this teaching plants seeds that will awaken when the conditions are right.

Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

Humbly yours,


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