Koans of the Way of Reality is a collection of 108 Zen koans, together with prologue, capping verse, and footnotes, culled from ancient and modern sources that are particularly relevant to Zen practitioners today. It is part of koan study at ZMM.
Master Seppo was one of the great masters of Zen who lived about 850 c.e. in China. He was a successor of Master Tokusan. It took Seppo a very long time to come to realization. While he was studying with Tokusan, along with his Dharma brother, Ganto, both Tokusan and Ganto put a lot of effort into trying to get Seppo to realize himself. They were unsuccessful for over twenty years. Finally Ganto, who was already enlightened, asked Master Tokusan if he could take Seppo on a pilgrimage. Ganto thought that perhaps by visiting other temples Seppo might come to realization. Master Tokusan approved of the idea, so Ganto began the pilgrimage with Seppo. They were two or three days into the journey when Seppo finally got it. He was close to fifty at the time. Then Seppo went off to practice by himself to allow his insight to mature. After a period of time, Seppo established a monastery on Elephant Bone Cliffs. This is a very steep mountain in China, also called Snowy Peaks; it is one of those places with snow cover throughout the year.
One day in late summer Seppo and his student Gensha went for a walk together. Gensha had already studied with many other masters before he came to Seppo, and it was Gensha who helped convince Seppo to enter the world as a teacher. As they were walking through the mountains they came upon a piece of land. They were simply enjoying the mountain scenery when suddenly Seppo said, "Look at this piece of land. It's so beautiful! I'd like to make it into a field of longevity!" - that is, a cemetery.
Gensha said, "Yes, it's a good place to build a seamless tomb." Seppo began taking measurements, pacing off the place.
While he was doing that Gensha was watching. He said, "That's right - but I wouldn't say it like that."
Seppo said, "How would you say it?"
Gensha said, "Build a tomb!"
Seppo said, "Good, good."
This event took place, as near as I can figure it, around 880, and the story subsequently appeared in various koan collections. In 1235, over three hundred years later, the great Master Dogen made this koan a part of what is called his "Chinese Shobogenzo," the collection of 300 koans that he used for personal reference in producing what we call the "Japanese Shobogenzo," which contains his teachings.
Master Dogen was a thirteenth-century Zen master, probably one of the finest masters in Japan. He was a great poet, and has been appreciated, both in ancient and modern times, as one of Japan's greatest mystics. He was also a founder of the Soto school of Zen in Japan.
Dogen became a monk at a very young age. He studied at a Tendai monastery in Japan and later studied with Master Eisai who had brought Rinzai Zen to Japan. Eventually, Dogen received Dharma transmission from Eisai's successor, Myozen. But Dogen still wasn't satisfied. He went to China to find the source from which these teachings had sprung. There he met Ju-ching, and with Ju-ching, experienced deep enlightenment. Ju-ching was of the Soto lineage. So Dogen succeeded in both the Rinzai and Soto schools. He came back to Japan and ultimately established Eihei-ji Monastery, where he began teaching. A line of teachings and teachers followed from him in Japan and has eventually come to this country as part of our lineage, here at Zen Mountain Monastery. Dogen placed this koan in the Shobogenzo, in 1235, and here we are, almost eight centuries later, taking it up again. We will use it today to illuminate the shadows, freshen the air, and sweeten the earth.
This afternoon we will bury the skandas of my Dharma son - and your Dharma brother - Robert Genjin Savage. Genjin's name means "divine harmony." Genjin was a musician. The character for "harmony" in his name means harmony in the musical sense as well as harmony in the sense of being in accord with the ten thousand things. In the process of his burial we will go to one of the sacred places of this mountain - there are several of them. In fact, when we first established this monastery there was a photograph taken of me and my teacher walking up the mountain with our hands folded behind us. That day I took him on a little tour of the grounds and a situation took place, very similar to the one which transpired between Seppo and Gensha, as I gestured to the area where we have our cemetery. The area was obviously a very sacred space. It had been recognized as such by the Catholics who built this monastery and the Lutherans who had maintained the property later. There was already an outdoor chapel in that space and that's where we established what was to become the cemetery at Zen Mountain Monastery.
There is a similar sacred space up on the mountain itself, as anybody who has walked the back road will know. That's where we established our hermitage. If we were ever to build another building for use as a monastery it would be there. There is a little valley deep in the mountains that is a another sacred space.
According to the Chinese science of geomancy, the spot on which the Monastery stands is a sacred space because it has two rivers meeting in front and a mountain in back. Shortly after we bought the place, before we moved here but after we already had a deposit on it, the Karmapa of the Tibetan Kagyu lineage came with a group of people and immediately wanted to purchase it. At another time an old Chinese Taoist came to the area looking for the sacred place where the two rivers meet and a mountain stands behind. Someone took him to the Tibetan monastery in Woodstock and he said, "No, no, two rivers and a mountain. Very important." So they brought him here and he knew this was the place. Geomancy is one way to recognize a sacred space. Another way to recognize such a place is by the sense of the space, the way it feels, how it affects the body. We take up this koan to appreciate what sacred space is really about.
So what is sacred space? In the prologue it says, Within a single speck of dust, the whole earth is contained. When a single blossom opens, the entire universe arises. This points to being present in the moment, allowing the moment to fill the universe, so there๊s nothing outside, and no place to stand to observe it. You are the moment, and when you are the moment, the moment is a hundred thousand eons, and a hundred thousand eons are the moment. A single thought - just one thought - and you move away from it. Heaven and earth are separated. Good and bad, up and down, self and other - all the dualities appear. Then the question is: But before the particle of dust appears, before the blossom opens, how will you see it? The prologue answers its own question: If you cut away all complications and bring out your own treasure, you will see that there are originally no seams, no gaps, not a single flaw or scar, and that everything is perfect and complete, above and below, in front and behind.
This is what Shakyamuni Buddha said at the moment of his own enlightenment. All beings are perfect and complete, lacking nothing. That is what he realized. He realized that not only did he attain the Way but that all beings everywhere simultaneously attain the Way. He realized that all beings are by nature Buddha. That is the original perfection that is our starting point. It is what's buried under layer upon layer of conditioning. It is what's obscured by the internal dialogue, the words and ideas that we constantly pump through our heads. And it is these words and ideas, this conditioning, which separate us from the moment, from our life, from each other. Nothing else. We search for perfection, we search for the miraculous, we search everywhere else, and all along we carry it with us, not knowing, trying to put another head on top of our own. All the while, there it is, buried beneath all the stuff, beneath all the baggage, beneath all the permutations and combinations. Underneath all of that, there lives a buddha, alive and well. This practice is about getting through all the conditioning and realizing that buddha; it is about actualizing that buddha in our lives.
I've added footnotes to this koan to help you understand what's going on from the point of view of realization.
The first line says, Once when Gensha was attending Seppo, they went to enjoy the mountain scenery, and the footnote says, In going, following the summer breeze; in coming, pursuing the fragrant grasses. This is a line from the koan in which Chosa went for a walk and when he came back his head monk said to him, "Where did you go?" He answered, "I went following the summer breeze and returned pursuing the fragrant grasses." In other words, wandering aimlessly. We have a tendency to make a project out of everything we do and rarely appreciate just simply being present. Chosa is speaking from intimacy here. The same dialogue came up between Jizo and Hogen. When the master asked, "Where are you going," Hogen said, "I am on an aimless pilgrimage." "What is the purpose of your pilgrimage?" Hogen said, "I don't know." The master said, "Ah, not knowing. Very intimate, very intimate indeed." When we know, we have the knower and the thing known: that's two things. In intimacy, there is no knowing. The whole body and mind is involved. It's not objective; it's very subjective. There's no separation." The second line says, Seppo said "and the footnote interrupts to say: Unavoidably, complications are sure to follow. The moment a teacher starts teaching, there are complications. There are complications because of what Buddha first realized: that everything is perfect and complete, lacking nothing. The moment we start talking about it, we create complications. But sometimes those complications are necessary for realization. Teaching does not take place only in formal situations; it takes place all the time. Every situation is an opportunity for teaching. Probably this afternoon, during the funeral ceremony, many people in this sangha will go deeper into their practice than they have in many sesshins."
Seppo said, "I'd like to make this piece of land into a cemetery." The footnote comments: Please, create one, Master - but without edges. The footnote is challenging the old man to create a cemetery that's vast, boundless, reaching everywhere. How is such a magical feat done? Immediately Gensha said, "Yes." And the footnote says, Dirt from the same hole is the same. These two people have been working together for many years, and Gensha, at this point in his practice, is very mature. It's around the time that Gensha is getting ready to go out on his own to become a teacher and so Seppo takes this opportunity to test the depth of his student's understanding. Dirt from the same hole is the same: master and disciple are one reality.
Gensha continues: Yes, it's a good place to build a seamless tomb. Here, Gensha is challenging Seppo. The footnote says, Where do you start? What does it look like? Draw me a picture of it. What is a seamless tomb? Seamless is without edges, vast, endless, reaching everywhere. There is another koan which deals with this point in which the National Teacher was meeting with the emperor who was also his student. The emperor wanted to do something for his teacher whom he loved very much. He said, "What can I do for you?" The master said, "Build me a seamless pagoda. Do you understand?" The student said, "No, I don't." The master said, "I've transmitted the Dharma to Tangen Oshin, why don't you go and ask him?" After the master died his student went to the National Teacher's successor, and asked about this. Tangen Oshin said, "South of the North Pole, north of the South Pole." What is a seamless pagoda? What is a seamless tomb? What does it look like? How do you create it? Where does it start? Where does it end? Does it start? Does it end?
The instant Gensha says, "Yes, it's a good place to build a seamless tomb," Seppo begins taking measurements. The footnote says, He doesn't hesitate. Father and son seem to know it exists. No question about it: It exists. Gensha says, "Yes." The footnote says, The elder one lies, the younger swears to it. Why does the elder one lie? What's the lie? What are they in cahoots about? Again we come back to this seamless tomb. What is it? You need realize this in order to understand the statement: The elder one lies, the younger one swears to it.
The next line says, That's right. But I wouldn't say it like that. The footnote says, Without a seam or with all seams? Is there a difference? Seamless or all seams? Is that the same, or is that different? Is it one, or is it two? After Ganto says, "I wouldn't say it like that," Seppo asks, "How would you say it then?" And the footnote says, Without blinking an eye they exchange faces. The teacher becomes the student; the student becomes the teacher. That's a very important part of the Dharma transmission. In the Transmission Ceremony there are actually gestures and actions which point to that truth. Suddenly the teacher, someone you have been serving all your life, serves you. That exchange of faces only happens when the transmission has been completed. What is it that's realized? What is it that's seen? To see it, transforms one's life, transforms one's way of seeing the universe. Obviously Gensha had experienced this. Seppo didn't hesitate for a second in exchanging faces with him.
Gensha replies, "Build a tomb." The footnote says, Vast and boundless, reaching everywhere. Why would the footnote say that? Why is "Build a tomb" vast, reaching everywhere. Many of you know that a shout is vast and boundless, reaching everywhere. But did you know that a whisper is also vast and boundless, reaching everywhere?
Seppo says, "Good, good." And the footnote says, If the ancestor doesn't finish it, the descendants must. This is an appreciation of Gensha's ability to step in as this teaching of Seppo's is being unfolded and bring it to completion. This is a true successor. But the question still remains: What is a seamless tomb? What is a cemetery that is vast and boundless with no edges? What does it mean that "within a single speck of dust the whole earth is contained"? And that: "When a single blossom opens, the entire universe arises"? Most importantly, how is it "before the particle of dust appears" and "before the blossom opens"? How do you see that? What this koan is pressing, the point it is making, is the point of intimacy - the point of no separation, when the whole body and mind are involved. It is in that process of whole body and mind involvement that we realize there is no outside. There is no self and other. There are no gaps and edges. It is all one reality. The question is: What is that reality? It's not an idea, not a description, not a word, and not a belief system. It's not about understanding. It's about intimacy - whole body and mind intimacy: no separation.
The capping verse says:
The field of longevity fills all of space.
The seamless tomb towers high,
Where the eye cannot reach.
Shedding the skinbag completely,
There remains only one true reality.
Can you imagine the field of longevity that reaches everywhere, throughout vast space, existing within a speck of dust? It is inconceivable, unimaginable. That's why we have to be it. The seamless tomb towers high, where the eye cannot reach. It is vast and boundless; it cannot be seen. Shedding the skinbag completely, there remains only one true reality. What is that reality? When body and mind fall away: What is that reality? This question - "What is it?" - is the key. No one can answer it for you. No one can explain it to you. It has to be realized: just like Buddha realized it, just like Seppo realized it, just like Dogen and Gensha realized it, and just like the countless buddhas who have preceded us have realized it. Thousands of Buddhist men and women have confirmed it for themselves. And that's exactly what we need to do. Only a buddha can realize Buddha; only an enlightened being can realize enlightenment.
Sooner or later, one of these days, you will realize yourself. You will realize what the Buddha realized, and when you do - acknowledge it, throw it away, and keep going. This Dharma is boundless. It has no edges. Don't create any edges with anything you realize. Trust your zazen and keep going. Trust yourself and keep going. Most important of all: don't put another head on top of the one you already have. Guaranteed, if you persevere - persevere with great faith, great doubt, and great determination - sooner or later, you too will realize it.
ฉ2003 Zen Mountain
All words and images on these pages are protected by copyright