Book of Serenity, Case 63

The case: Joshu asked master Touzi: "When someone who has undergone the great death returns to life, how is it?"

Master Touzi said, "He can't go by night, he should arrive in daylight".

Enlightenment is often referred to as the great death, particularly in Rinzai. Practitioners in that tradition are encouraged to have dramatic and extreme experiences. Likewise, 'night' or 'darkness' is often used in Koan stories as a way of talking about non-duality. In the dark we can't see individual things, so everything is whole; likewise in the non-dual state, although the metaphor is not exact: in the non dual state, this and that don't disappear into an ambient mush, yet things cease to exist in the familiar way. So Joshu's question is: how does the person who has experienced non duality function in the world?

The tone of 'great death' and 'night' however is different. In Joshu's question, there is the seed of our self sickness.  The assumption that practice is to get something, some special experience. Master Touzi's answer is less dramatic, more realistic: night and day balance each other, duality and non duality are in a dance of forward and backward.  

We call it the great death because the experience does not belong to the self.


The foundation of Buddhism is Anatta, no self. Dogen's way of expressing this in our practice is 'dropping off body and mind'. Dropping as we would drop off a cloak. But a cloak that we keep finding ourselves wearing again. 

We might imagine that this dropping off reveals a purer self, but that would be a mistake. This dropping off, the activity of non fabrication, non talking the self into existence, doesn't reveal a purer self. Rather, it uncloaks this one piece zen, where everything, including the activity of the karmic mind, is an unbroken whole. Everything is as it is, which is nirvana.


Book of Serenity, Case 98

The case: A monk asked Dongshan "Among the three Buddha Bodies, which one does not fall into any category?"

Dongshan said, "I am always intimate with this"


In Mahayana Buddhism, the three bodies of the Buddha are the dharmakaya, which is identified with all existence, the sambhokaya, which is identified with practice and the fruits of practice, and the nirmanakaya, which is the body of the historical Buddha. It is quite conceptual, and the monk's question seems be be enquiring into the relationship between the conceptual ("category") and the ineffable.

What should be make of Dongshan's reply? What is the 'this' that he is always intimate with?

Frequently in Chinese Buddhism, words like 'this' or 'what' or 'that' refer to ineffable reality, reality before thinking. So we might imagine Dongshan’s response means something like ‘unlike you, with your conceptual question, I am always intimate with the ineffable’. But I don't think that is what he means. Dongshan is making a point about practice. So, when we sit, often we imagine that thinking is bad; but that feeling sensing, being-ness is good. The ineffable is good. But somehow we can’t stop thinking. We could say that Dongshan’s intimacy is with both the conceptual, exemplified here by the schema the monk is putting forth, and also ineffable reality. And that the conceptual and the ineffable are intimate with each other. 

This is a very important point about practice. The head is not suspended in mid-air, and practice is not nullified by the natural movements of the karmic mind. But, as it were, we see the smoke of our thoughts through the flames of our being.


Master Dogen describes Zazen as dropping off body and mind. That is, dropping off this sense of a me and things that belong to me. It is his way of describing anatta.

He doesn’t say that dropping off body and mind is a preliminary to the real activity of Zazen, but that Zazen is the continuous dropping off of body and mind. The activity of Zazen is this continuous activity of dropping off. It is an activity, not a state. It is an orientation, not an attribute.

He also says, although he attributes this to his teacher, Nyojo, that when body and mind are dropped off, we are free of the five desires and the five hindrances. The five desires correspond to the desires of the sense organs. The five hindrances are desire, ill-will, laziness, restlessness and doubt. If we think that practice is the vehicle for our own aggrandisement, we are full of these hindrances. But if there is no me and nothing belonging to me then where can these hindrances attach? Hence, Zazen is the dharma gate of ease and joy.



Zen is transmitted I Shin Den Shin. 'Shin' is mind, or heart. So, from one real person to another. But how many is the real person? One, or many, or both?

'Mind' doesn't mean the personal, karmic mind, obviously. And, likewise, heart.

In the Shiho, the document of transmission, the whole lineage is written out, one name after the other. And all the names are connected by a single red thread. A heart thread. So all the names are an expression of that heart.

This heart.



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