The Master used to say to us when we were his students, “When I was twenty I became a novice at Kennin-ji. I never left the zendo at all but gave myself up completely to my practice. The next winter I went down east to enroll at the zendo of Kencho-ji.
“An old priest there gave me this advice: ‘The records of the phrases and sayings that have been saved from the satori experiences of the Zen masters of the past have been written down only in order to help Zen students to reach satori through the contemplation of those words. But many people today trade secondhand Zen stories, gossip, rumors, and they use the collections any way they please. And there are people also who call themselves Zen monks but do zazen in an absentminded way, without bothering to learn from the great teachers or read the records of the patriarchs. All of them are ignorant of why those books were preserved for us.
“In this degenerate latter day of the Dharma it is very hard to find true teachers. But if we read the records in order to encourage our own earnest aspiration, we will come to see that the forerunners’ satori experiences are really our own, here and now. Where in the world, then, is the difference between past and present?”
I followed his advice and in the hours outside zazen time, back in the sleeping hall, read the records. At that time Issan Kokushi was in charge of both Kencho-ji and Engaku-ji. For some years I become his disciple. From morning till evening I learned directly from his teachings and from the Zen of the Five Schools. I began to flatter myself that I had grasped the whole truth of Zen Buddhism. But when I looked back into my own mind I found that same old uncertainty there. It had never changed. Finally I realized that ‘nothing that is brought through the gate from the outside is the real family treasure.’ A master once said, “The light of the spirit must always be clear. That is the unalterable rule. Once you have entered the gate of Zen, do not put your faith in intellectual understanding.”
I had left Buddhist theory only to lose myself in Zen scholarship. The two kinds of study may appear to be different, but both of them are based on intellectual understanding. If I had gone on that way I would have dimmed the light of my own spirit. So I gathered up all the odds and ends that I had treasured up until then and put them in my satchel, and without a moment’s hesitation threw them into the fire.
As it happened, Bukkoku Zenji was then in charge of Manju-ji. I entered his room for the first time and told him what I was trying to find.
Bukkoku sighed and said, “When I was sixteen I became a Zen student at Tofuku-ji, under the guidance of an old priest. He told me to read the Zen classics. Each line that I read I asked him about, and he said to me:
“The words that are used in Zen are different from those of the other sects of Buddhist doctrine, and I would not dare to say anything about them.”
“But how can we understand what they mean if there is no explanation?”
He said to me, “Satori is something you must arrive at without help from anyone.”
“If I try very hard to understand the Zen classics, will that lead me to satori?”
He answered, “If you really want to attain satori you should do your best without relying on books.”
As soon as I heard that I stopped reading, and instead I devoted myself entirely to Zazen, back in the zendo. Several of my friends came and kept advising me, “While you are young you must study, first of all. Your momentary zeal for the Dharma cannot be expected to last. In your old age you will surely regret what you are doing.” But my mind was firmly made up, and I continued my zazen harder than ever. Now I am over sixty years old but I have nothing to regret. My teacher laughed as he said it.
Once he had given me his advice I made up my mind to do the best I could. I practiced zazen every day whatever the weather. My practice did seem to advance a little, but I did not arrive at any final breakthrough. So I decided to look for a retreat deep in the mountains and try to see my Original Self.
I left Engaku-ji and went to the Deep North to build a hut far out in the mountains. I made a vow to myself. I said, “I will either come to see my Original Self, or I will die among the grass and the trees.” As a keisaku (warning stick) I kept three books on my table, Yuan-wu’s Essential Principles of Mind, Ta-hui’s Letters, and Chueh-fan’s Forest Life, but no other possessions. I spent three years in my secluded life in the mountains but I had not yet reached a final view. One day I remembered Bukkoku Zenji’s parting words: “If a Zen student makes the slightest distinction between the secular world and priestly world, satori will remain unattainable.”
I realized that although I had coveted nothing at all in this secular world, my desire for the Dharma had ensnared my mind and stood in the way of enlightenment. When I realized what my mistake had been, even my craving vanished, and from then on I could spend every day with my mind empty. And one night I happened to kick over the nests and dens of delusion that I had kept clinging to, and at last I could say that Bukkoku’s words are true.
So I gave those three books that I had treasured to my friends. I stayed away from books, and never let my back or my sides rest on the bed. In that way I spent twenty years doing nothing special. But as I grow older my body is growing weaker, and now it is a little hard for me to sit zazen for very long at a time. The winds of karma have led me to preside over a few temples and to teach students, and to run back and forth, east and west.
My daily life is not what I wanted at the beginning, but I have not clouded over my own original light, even in the dusty world, and that was because I had practiced zazen as hard as I could, sitting persistently and not sleeping in bed. My teachings and sermons in the Dharma Hall, my talks on the records of the Patriarchs, and my lectures on the sutras in response to people’s questions may sound a little unusual, but I am not concerned about that.
That is all because of my turning away from intellectual interpretation years ago. Now I have come to understand what a Zen master meant when he said, “The more is hidden, the more appears.” Hide it, and hide it, and hide it! When there is nothing more to hide, the original, inborn great function and great working appears all by itself. Never, never doubt that.
Muso Soseki (1275-1351)
Excerpted from Poems and Sermons of Muso Soseki translated by W.S. Merwin
Muso’s story of his experience is an honest account of the many starts and turns into blind alleys that sound familiar. Who hasn’t been lost at times in the study of Buddhism? Zen started as a teaching that breaks free of dogma and scripture into direct experience, but look at all the stories and writings of the Zen masters themselves! Who hasn’t read sutras, commentaries, and enlightenment stories and confused this absorption with the Ultimate?
How many Zen masters have shared sincerely that their “desire for the Dharma had ensnared my mind and stood in the way of enlightenment?” Practice and life itself seems filled with paradox and irony. We have the time and the enthusiasm for practice only to be confronted with the dilemma of which teacher to trust with our beginner’s mind. Even as they wrote then of being in the “degenerate age of the Dharma” how much more so do we feel when Zen has been so incorporated into the lingo of Western culture that there is a book on the Zen of doing everything today. There is so much, it is too much and has been watered down in the process.
At the end of our selection Muso shares that “My daily life is not what I wanted at the beginning, but I have not clouded over my own original light…” As we go through this adventure of life and practice if we can keep our original light and attention about us, there is a clarity that itself is profound throughout all aspects of experience. Sometimes we have to be more like that little child in the Emperor’s New Clothes who simply declared, “but he has nothing on!” To see clearly ourselves, our teachers, the teachings, and life around us – all as it really is rather than what we would like it all to be, that is one facet in the jewel of training that will never derail us.