Transmission of the Light

Talk by Abbot John Daido Loori, M.R.O.

Given During the Soto School's Tokubetsu Sesshin
Led by Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, Roshi, Green Gulch Farm, Spring 1995


Evening zazen hours advance;
Sleep hasn't come yet.
More and more I realize mountains and rivers
Are good for the efforts of the Way.
Sounds of the river valley enter my ears,
The light of the moon fills my eyes -
Outside of this, not a single thing.

-Master Dogen

It's good to be here with you this evening. I appreciate the opportunity created by Shumucho for me to address this distinguished assembly of visiting teachers and the students of Green Dragon Temple. When I was asked to give a talk at this Tokubetsu sesshin, I prepared to speak on a particular topic. Yet as our weeks together have begun to unfold and I've had the chance to experience the sangha gathered here-people from all over the world as well as the resident sangha -something shifted in how I was feeling. As I watched the students interacting with their teachers and with those of us visiting and, most importantly, as I interacted with my own teacher and Dharma brothers and sisters-spending an extensive period of time with them for the first time in fifteen years - I began to renew my appreciation for what this incredible Dharma is all about and how it manifests, working its magic very quietly, moment to moment, in such interactions.

Because of being so moved by all of this I decided I would like to speak this evening about the transmission of the light; not so much the technical aspects, but in the more personal sense of how it opens up day after day. One of the Green Gulch students asked me this morning what I was going to talk about tonight. When I mentioned "transmission of light," she said, "Oh, so you're not going to talk about anything that would be of interest to someone at my stage of training." Obviously, she assumed that the transmission of the light is something that happens only at the end of training. That is not the way it works. It is a continuum, the ceaseless practice we do day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment. It is every interaction we have with our teachers and with each other. Moreover, the really wonderful thing about the transmission of the light is that it has nothing to do with something going from A to B. We use the word "transmission" but it is a little misleading. The first words out of the Buddha's mouth when he realized himself were: "All sentient beings possess the Tathagatha's wisdom virtue." Each and every one of us. The light that is transmitted is precisely the Buddha wisdom we are born with. Transmission doesn't give us something that is different from or outside of us. It is more a process of discovery, of realizing the inherent perfection that is the life of each one of us. Transmission doesn't happen at any one point in time. The formality of it may. One day your Dharma brother or sister is walking around with a black kesa, and suddenly the next day they're wearing a brown one - but the process is endless, the practice is endless. Each time we take the bodhi seat we verify and actualize the enlightenment of the Buddha, of all Buddhas past, present and future.

I'd like to explore how this process of transmitting the light takes place in reality, Buddha to Budha, human to human. There is a point of coming together that formalizes and recognizes what has happened between the teacher and the student, though different teachers use different criteria for when and how this takes place. Master Dogen says, "In each generation every face has been the face of the Buddha." This original face is direct face-to-face transmission. Because we're an ancestral lineage, the thing that is handed down from generation to generation is primarily the relationship between the teacher and the student, their point of meeting. But what is that? Master Hyakujo said that if the student's understanding equals that of the teacher, the student diminishes the Dharma by half. It is only when the student has surpassed the teacher that Dharma transmission is complete. But surpassed in what way?

In his Mountains and Rivers Sutra (Shobogenzo Sansuikyo) Master Dogen reveals the heart of what happens in the transmission of the light:

Since ancient times wise ones and sages have lived by the water. When they live by the water they catch fish or they catch humans or they catch the Way. These are all traditional water styles. And going further, there must be catching the self, catching the hook, being caught by the hook and being caught by the Way. In ancient times when Tokujo suddenly left Yakuzan and went to live on the river, he caught the sage of the Flower In River (Kasan). Isn't this catching fish? Isn't it catching humans? Catching water? It is not catching himself? That someone could see Tokujo is because he is Tokujo. Tokujo teaching someone is his meeting himself."

The Mountains and Rivers Sutra has been a important teaching for me personally. Any one of the fascicles of Dogen Zenji is rich with incredible teaching, yet this one in particular always touched me, and it carried a special karma for me as well. While I was studying at the Zen Center of Los Angeles with Maezumi Roshi, I asked him if we could work on this sutra in dokusan. I wanted to know more about it. He told me, "Sure; get yourself a copy and we'll start working on it." At that time the only English translation was one Carl Bielefeldt had done as his doctoral thesis and it was only available from the university library. I got a copy and began studying it, but before Roshi and I got a chance to do anything with it, I was asked to come east to help Tetsugen Sensei set up a center in New York. My work on the Mountains and Rivers Sutra had to go on the back burner.

A few years later I set out on my own and found the place that was to become Zen Mountain Monastery. The site, as it turns out, is on a mountain with two rivers crossing in front. That seemed so auspicious to me in its relationship to the sutra that I started studying it again. Then, the morning after we moved into the building, I stopped at a coffee shop and bought a copy of the local paper, The Woodstock Times. I opened it and on the second page, in big, bold type right across the top, it said, "These mountains and rivers of the present are the manifestation of the Way of ancient Buddhas. - Dogen Zenji, 13th Century Zen Master." I started reading the article, and it was all about the sutra. Remember, this is a small town newspaper, quoting and commenting on Master Dogen. Another auspicious sign!

I got very excited about it and went to the newspaper office to see if they could tell me more about the author of the article: who around here would have written such an article? They said, "the editor." I burst into his office and asked, "Did you write this article?" He said, "Yes." I said, "This is a very obscure text. It hasn't been published in English anywhere. Where did you find out about Dogen Zenji?" He looked me straight in the eye and said, "Doesn't everyone know about Dogen Zenji? " As it turned out, the Mountains and Rivers Sutra was included as a chapter in a book called Mountain Spirit , just published by Overlook Press, a local company, and the local paper was running a story on the book.

So, the mountains and rivers become the spirit of our practice on Mount Tremper and the Mountains and Rivers Sutra became a personal koan for me. Indeed, it still is, for it has endless wisdom. The more I study it, the more that comes up and makes itself clear. In this koan Kassan could see Tokujo because he is Tokujo. Tokujo seeing someone is his meeting himself. My teacher meeting me is my teacher meeting himself, just as it is me meeting myself - isn't this the same as "The Buddha meeting the Buddha"? We often say, "To realize oneself is to be really intimate with oneself." Being intimate with oneself - isn't this also the same as "The Buddha meeting the Buddha"?

Tokujo was a student of Yakusan , and Yakusan was a student of Sekito, author of "The Identity of Relative and Absolute" (Sandokai.) This was during the time in Chinese Buddhism when the air was filled with Hua Yen philosophy and the teaching on the relationship between dualities. The Sandokai eventually became the seeds for the Five Ranks of Master Tozan, as Yakusan transmitted to Ungan, and Ungan to Tozan. Master Yakusan also transmitted to Dogo, the Dharma brother of Tokujo. At one point Tokujo left the assembly of Yakusan and, calling himself "good for nothing," he went off to live beside the Flower In River. He became a boatman there, and very appropriately, ferried people across the river, teaching all the while. This was during the time of a great purge of Buddhism in China, so many of the monks either hid away or became hermits.

In one of the talks presented during this sesshin a teacher spoke of vertical and horizontal succession, and about the part of the ceremony of transmission that has to do with establishing the merging - the identity - of teacher and student. In the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, Master Dogen speaks of the parent becoming the child and the child becoming the parent. The aspects of the transmission ceremony that reverse the role of teacher and student beautifully punctuate this fluidity of role, this unity of the light of teacher and student.

Maezumi Roshi spoke recently about the teaching on the Precepts, "to receive the Kai is to transmit the Kai." To transmit means to awaken, and in the process there is giving and receiving. Giving is receiving, and receiving is giving. We find this in all the different aspects of our training. It is brought up constantly. For me, it comes up most forcefully in liturgy. We receive the teachings, and when that happens, and it touches our lives deeply, we are overwhelmed with the need to give something back. Yet we may feel so inadequate; what can we possibly do? What can I possibly give my teacher who gives me so much? That's what liturgy opens up. It is a way of giving back, of giving our gratitude to the Buddhas and Ancestors, and in the process, identifying with them.

The Memorial Service we did today for Suzuki Roshi is a way of appreciating the endlessness of his teaching. Saiakawa Sensei mentioned when we were studying funeral ceremonies that at death there is simply a change in the place of the teacher's teaching. The teacher's teaching continues without end. Obviously, Buddha's teaching continues. Master Dogen's teaching continues. Suzuki Roshi's teaching continues. There is endless teaching, endless receiving and endless giving. That's why it is so important to be able to express our gratitude to them. It is this that maintains our identity with them through simultaneous giving and receiving. It is the same with Takuhatsu. When a monk receives a donation, he gives the Heart Sutra back to the person. In that process, giver and receiver merge, become one. In oryoki, when we receive food, we make an offering of food. We give back to the ten thousand things from which we receive our lives. Again, identity is expressed.

One of the things that really "hit me on the head" during this time here, being with my teacher again and watching him interact with the steady stream of people who come in and want to talk with him, is the subtle way that the teaching is taking place. He is so available; he offers himself with such generosity to whoever needs him. That kind of thing is so easy to take for granted, to overlook. Sometimes we miss it; we don't even realize we're receiving a teaching. Yet if it's one-sided, if we take and don't give back, it makes us into a kind of thief, and we end up feeling that something is missing. When we find a way to begin giving back, it makes the relationship between teacher and student spark with life.

There was an incident in my training that was really significant for me, though Maezumi Roshi probably doesn't even remember it. It was one of those small, seemingly fleeting moments of interaction when a teaching may take place. It required me to clear out some baggage from my youth, some ideas that were really hard to let go of. I had grown up during the Depression. My father died when I was eight years old and my mother had to go out to work. It was a very difficult time. She wasn't able to make enough money with just the one job, so she began taking on additional work, cleaning houses. My father had been in politics at the state level and she used to host dinner parties for government officials. After his death, in order to support us, she ended up cleaning houses for the very people who were once her guests. I remember her crying at night. She would not accept welfare; she had a principle that you earned whatever you received. You worked for it. So, she continued housecleaning, because it was the only alternative available to her at the time.

Not surprisingly, I grew up with an attitude about servants and having people come in to clean my house. It became an issue in my first marriage. We had enough money to afford a housekeeper, and my wife pressed for us to hire someone. I strongly resisted it, but when she persisted, I reluctantly agreed. I felt just awful though. I couldn't have this woman serving us, couldn't have her cleaning my house. My wife and I argued and finally we let the housekeeper go. That feeling stayed with me for a long time. Years later, after we were established on Mt. Tremper, Maezumi Roshi came to visit. We were sitting in the Abbacy, and I was cooking dinner for us and trying to talk with him. He said, "Daido, why don't you get the Anja to help you?" I proudly said, "I don't have an Anja; I do it myself." And he said, "Why are you being so selfish that you won't let your students serve you?"

I had never seen that. Having seen it, (which seems like almost nothing, a very simple thing), changed my whole way of relating to my students, of being able to receive from them what they had to give me, as well as being able to give back to them. That's the source of the inexhaustible strength that comes in the relationship between the teacher and the student. I never realized how much that nourished, and how when there's only giving and no receiving either the student dries up or the teacher dries up. One or the other suffers, because both need the nourishment of giving and receiving.

I recently reread a back issue of the "On Zen Practice" series, the memorial issue for Yasutani Roshi. In it, there is a description of the last Jukai he gave. He was very sick, quite close to death. He actually died a couple of days later. His friends kept telling him that he didn't have to do the ceremony, but he knew that his students were waiting for Jukai, and he insisted on doing it. One of the students was Aitken Roshi, and another was Ann Aitken. Yasutani Roshi had to be assisted as he walked in, and was very feeble and weak as they helped him to his seat. Then as the ceremony began, they describe him as becoming a lion, totally present, full of life. His chanting was strong. After it was over, he began to fade, but it had been one of the most powerful Jukai ceremonies people had ever seen. What had enlivened him? The juice that ran through his veins came from his students, and he gave it right back to them. That mutual nourishing is the crucial dynamic of the face-to-face relationship with a teacher. It doesn't just go in one direction; it flows both ways. It comes alive when they come together. The deeper and stronger that coming together is, the clearer and more powerfully it flows back and forth.

There is only one paragraph in the Mountains and Rivers Sutra that tells about the encounter between Kassan and Tokujo. We find more detail in the Eihei Goroku. There we learn that Dogo had come to the monastery where Kassan was Abbot. Dogo listened to one of Kassan's talks, and afterwards a monk came forward and asked, "What is the Dharmakaya?" Kassan replied, "It has no form." Then the monk said, "What is the Dharma eye?" Kassan said, "It has no crack." On hearing this, the visiting Dogo burst out laughing in spite of himself. After the talk Kassan came down from the rostrum and asked Dogo why he had laughed. Dogo said, "I have a Dharma brother who teaches others on a boat in the Flower In River. Go see him, and you are sure to realize it." He also suggested that Kassan change out of his temple clothes. Kassan did that; he put on traveling clothes and made the journey to the river.

As soon as Tokujo saw him coming he said, "Chief monk of an assembly, in what temple do you stay?" Kassan said, "I stay at no temple or I wouldn't look like this." Tokujo asked, "If you say you don't, then what do you look like?" Kassan said, "I am beyond sight, hearing and consciousness." Huh? At this point Tokujo goes in for the kill and asks, "Where did you learn that! " Beyond sight and hearing, indeed. "Even one phrase of ultimate reality would lose its freedom forever if we were to attach to it. To drop a thousand foot fishing line means to seek a fish with golden scales." A fish with golden scales is a way of referring to enlightenment, to realization of the light.

"Why don't you say a word?" Tokujo said to him, and as Kassan was about to open his mouth to respond, Tokujo leapt on him, threw him into the water and held his head under. Then Tokujo lifted him up, gulping and gasping and demanded "Say a word, say a word!" Again, just as Kassan started to open his mouth to say something, Tokujo pushed him back under water and held him there. By the second or third time, Kassan realized himself and suddenly when he came up, began bowing to his teacher. Tokujo said, "You are welcome to the fishing line, but the meaning of 'It ripples no quiet water' is naturally profound." The teaching, in other words, doesn't alter the natural harmony that already exists. Kassan asked, "Why do you want to give away the fishing line?" The fishing line in this case is a symbol of being a teacher; Kassan is handing it over, just as sometimes the kutz, staff, shippei or fly whisk are used as symbols and handed over at the time of transmission from teacher to disciple. Here, because the teacher was a boatman, the symbol was the fishing line. "Why do you want to give away the fishing line and hook?" Kassan asked. Tokujo's answer was, "To fasten a green float to a fishing line and decide whether a fish of golden scales is or is not." That is, to find out if someone has realized it or not. "If you have realized it, say it quickly, tell me quickly; words are wondrous and unspeakable. You can see such a fish only after you've fished out of the sea wave, only after you've gone beyond discrimination." But while Tokujo was speaking, Kassan covered his ears and began to walk away. At this, Tokujo said, "Quite so, quite so."

And so the Dharma was transmitted to Kassan. Tokujo advised, "Staying on Mount Yakuzan for thirty years, I clarified this. Now that you have grasped it, you must not live in Castle City or human habitation and cover your traces. Nor should you hide yourself where you leave no trace. You must go to mountain recesses and lead one person or half a person to succeed in the essence of this Dharma, so that it is not extinguished." Realizing Tokujo's meaning, Kassan made a thankful bow, and departed. At this, Tokujo called out "Abbot!" When Kassan looked back, Tokujo raised and oar, and said, "Ask me . . . I have something more." At that point he jumped out of his boat and disappeared in the water. Later Kassan became a great vehicle of the teaching.

Master Dogen comments in the Eihei Goroku:

Although when Kassan was at the other temple he was excellent in discussion, he expounded the teachings to humans and celestials, he was perfect in speech and no one could defeat him in argument, it still wasn't complete. Since he had seen Tokujo, he had realized himself, so there was nothing more to be desired. He succeeded in the essence of the Buddha and became the master. We may seek such a person in the world now, but we find it impossible - ah, what a shame. Noble Buddhist trainees must know this: first of all you must have an indestructible bodhi-seeking mind and fix your eyes upon the absolute realm beyond increase and decrease; see how Tokujo left a fishing hook. Who could do such a deed?

The part of this story where Tokujo calls out to Kassan, and when Kassan turns to look, Tokujo jumps out of the boat and disappears is especially interesting to me. Who knows if it really happened that way, but his disappearance is similar to the mujuhai aspect of the transmission ceremony. After the ceremony is over and this incredible bonding process is concluded, bringing the years of training and practice with the teacher to its apex, suddenly the ceremony is over and the teacher leaves. The successor comes back into the empty room and does bows in the teacher's direction. What a feeling that was, just my teacher's empty seat being there. What a feeling it must have been for Kassan when suddenly his teacher disappeared and he was there alone. But does the teacher ever really disappear?

Needless to say, no. It doesn't happen. If the process is complete, the teacher and the teachings are always present. We say, "Don't let the Dharma be extinguished." But how could it possibly be extinguished? We say, "Protect the Dharma." But protect it from what? What is outside of this incredible Dharma? What is it that is realized? At Vulture Peak, the Buddha held up a flower, blinked his eyes, Mahakayashapa smiled and the Dharma passed was passed on. Mahakayashapa called out to Ananda. Ananda answered, and the Dharma passed to the next generation. A pebble hits bamboo; again, the Dharma is transmitted. Tokujo practically drowns Kassan and it is transmitted. But transmission is not confined to these instances of sudden awakening recounted in the koans. The process is a continuum that begins the moment we take the Bodhi seat. It begins the moment we meet our teacher, perhaps even before we meet.

That was the case for me: I was filled with the fact that it was about to happen. I had no idea what it was all about, and then it happened. "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." It made no sense. There was no logic to it. My intellect couldn't do a thing with it, but my heart knew something was taking place. I resisted every step of the way; it felt as if I was struggling against an incredible force. This force is the light that is transmitted. But the light is already part of us; we are born with it. It doesn't come from outside. All the teachers throughout the ages have the same light as the Buddha. All that any teacher can do is help us uncover that truth, help us work through the layers of conditioning that obscure the natural radiance of the light.

We are all conditioned. We are conditioned from birth and there is no way to avoid it. We are conditioned by our parents, our teachers, our culture, our peers, our religion. So thorough is this conditioning, that by the time we reach adulthood we don't know who we are or what our life is. We are profoundly confused, and flail around doing our best to construct a life out of what we have been told. What the Buddha Dharma suggests is that we turn that process around and go deep within ourselves to find the foundation of our life. The truth is not something we will find in a book. We have to be willing to dig for it, to go through all those layers of conditioning to find what is underneath it all: a person, a Buddha, alive and well, long-buried under all the conditioned responses we've been fed. To arrive at that ground of being is one thing, to not only realize it but learn to live our life out of that realization is the work of daily practice. We have to dedicate ourselves to actualizing it, because until it is manifesting, our training is not yet complete. It is not enough to ascend the mountain, to reach the peak. We still need to come back down, back into the world until that which has been realized has been actualized in everything that we do, the way we drive a car, raise a child, grow a garden, make love.

Somehow we figure that the basic characteristics of the human species are war, pillage, hate, insensitivity to the environment, and the capacity to rip each other off. That is all we seem to be if you read the chronicles of our history. There are people who have even tried to justify, anthropologically and psychologically, that violence. But there is a small handful of humans who, for 2,500 years, have been constantly verifying and actualizing the truth of the Buddha nature by realizing it and actualizing it in their lives, generation to generation. And it is that inherent characteristic that is the actual birthright of each one of us. It is the thing that lights the fire, that raises the bodhi mind, that brings us into practice. It raises the questions and enables us to endure the unendurable, to engage in one of the most difficult encounters that any of us will ever experience: to encounter the self, a lifetime of ego specifically designed not to be forgotten.

There isn't one of us sitting here right now that would be here if that spiritual fire weren't burning within us. It brings us into a heated inquiry: Who am I? What is truth? What is reality? What is life? What is death? As we enter into it, we realize it is no small thing. What is it that is uncovered under all the conditioning? What is the truth? We are surrounded by It, interpenetrated by, we coexist with It to such an extent that It cannot be spoken of or pointed to. Where can you stand to talk about It? How can we even point? The finger pointing to the moon is the moon, and the moon is the finger; the finger sees the moon, and the moon sees the finger. The moon realizes moonness, the finger realizes fingerness; they realize each other. There is no way to separate them - except by the way we use our mind, by what we tell ourselves, by what we construct concerning who we are and what our life is. Master Dogen says:

The interdependence between the Buddha and each one of us cannot be measured. We should sit quietly and reflect on this. Through Shakyamuni's face we will reflect his eye in our own. When this occurs, it becomes Buddha's vision, an original face. This transmission has been handed down right up to the present time and has never been broken. This is the meaning of the direct face-to-face transmission. In each generation, every face has been the face of Buddha. And this original face is direct face-to-face transmission. Open the eye, directly transmit through the eye and receive the Dharma through the eye. Find the direct transmission of the face through the face. Direct transmission is giving and receiving of the face. Open the mind. Transmit and receive through the mind. Reveal the body and transmit the body through the body, regardless of the place or the country. The transmission has always been just like this.

What an incredible teacher. How can we ever repay him for these teachings? How can we ever repay our own teachers? This is why the Buddha upon realizing himself did not retreat into solitude and live out his life in peace and quiet. He remained in the very samsara he had sought to escape, so that this Dharma could reach us here, so that we can we can practice it today. Every teacher that followed the Buddha in India, China and Japan had the same motivation. I take it very personally. It was for me that they did this. How do I repay them? How do I repay my own teacher? There is only one way to begin, and that is to realize ourselves, and then pass it on to the next generation. In other words, to do as they have done, and give our lives to this incredible Dharma. In that way, giver and receiver merge in unity, and we give life to the Buddha.

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