Sansheng’s Golden Fish

Dharma Discourse by Abbot John Daido Loori

Master Dogen's 300 Koan Shobogenzo,* Case 52

Featured in Mountain Record 17.1, Fall 1998

 The Main Case

Sansheng asked Xuefeng,1 “What does the golden-scaled fish that goes through the net eat?”2
Xuefeng said, “I will tell you after you have come out of the net.”3
Sansheng said, “The teacher of fifteen hundred monks and you can’t say a turning word?”4
Xuefeng replied, “This old man is busy with abbot’s matters.” 5
[View Footnotes]

The Commentary

The net is elusive; appearing and disappearing it creates edges that are nonexistent. When it knows the net, the golden-scaled fish is inherently free in every way . Be that as it may, the golden fish who has passed through the net clearly does not eat ordinary food. What is its food? Sansheng is a distinguished adept, so why did Xuefeng say, “I will tell you after you have come out of the net?” Although Sansheng knew how to turn the spear around, still old Xuefeng remained poisonous. Can it be said that these two have passed through the net, or is it that they are just harmonizing in delusion?

The Capping Verse

The old mountain pond —
crystal clear through and through.
The solitary carp swimming by
flourishes its tail and stirs up the bottom.

The Footnotes

1. This is not a casual Zen pilgrim. He is an adept to be reckoned with.
2. Neither the questioner nor the question should be taken lightly. There is something going on here.
3. The old man is not impressed. He does not hesitate in diminishing his reputation.
4. The dragon’s roar has an echo to it.
5. Lightning flashes, the pure wind blows and when the dust finally settles, it’s clear there has been a meeting of adepts.

[Return to Main Case]

*300 Koan Shobogenzo is a collection of koans gathered by Master Dogen during his study in China. The koans from this collection, often called the Chinese Shobogenzo, appear extensively in the essays of Dogen’s Japanese Shobogenzo. These koans have not been available in English translation but are currently being translated and prepared for publication by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Abbot John Daido Loori. Abbot Loori has added a commentary, capping verse and footnotes to each koan.

What does this case from thousands of years ago involving two old Chinese masters, whose bones

have long since turned to dust, have to do with us and our lives? What is the business of the golden-scaled fish? That fish may have been a big deal in ancient China, but to us it’s a goldfish like the ones kids have in their goldfish bowls. So, what is going on here?

Barriers and limitations of some kind beset us all. Some practitioners, like those in our prison Sangha, may be in literal prisons — locked behind bars in cage-like cells. Others of us may dwell in more intangible prisons — prisons of the mind and heart. “The net” in this koan is exactly that sense of being trapped, of there being something that stands in our way and limits our freedom.

The net is the restrictions, limits, and chains we place on ourselves. The net is the rigid way we have defined our lives; the cages and prisons we lock ourselves up in. The net can be many things. It can be greed, anger, and ignorance. The net is about apathy, anxiety, fear, separation, defensiveness, aggression, arrogance — all of the mental constructs that confine our lives. If we don’t deal with it, we haven’t begun to deal with our lives. We haven’t begun to realize our freedom to serve all sentient beings. Since so much depends on it, let’s dig deeply into the subtle points of this koan together.

The first line says, Sansheng asked Xuefeng, “What does the golden-scaled fish that goes through the net eat?”The golden-scaled fish is a metaphor for someone who is realized. This fish is not restricted by the net. It goes through it. The question that Sansheng starts his challenge with begins with a certain assumption, “When you are liberated, what food do you eat? What keeps you going?”

Sansheng was a successor of Master Linji (Jap., Rinzai), and a very prominent monk. It would be surprising if Xuefeng had not known of him and his reputation. Still Xuefeng answered, “I’ll tell you after you have come out of the net.”This implies that Sansheng is still hung up in the net. Sansheng then said, “The teacher of fifteen hundred monks, and you can’t say a turning word?”In other words, “Is that the best you can do for an answer?” Xuefeng replied, “This old man is busy with abbot’s matters.”This surprising reply is where the koan formally ends. Obviously, there is more going on here than appears on the surface of this seemingly heated dharma combat.

I have added footnotes to help clarify what is going on in the dialogue. Sansheng asked Xuefeng,and the footnote says, This is not a casual Zen pilgrim. He is an adept to be reckoned with.Right away we know we are dealing with someone who is pretty clear. “What does the golden-scaled fish that goes through the net eat?”The footnote to that says, Neither the questioner nor the question should be taken lightly. There is something going on here. Xuefeng said, “I will tell you after you have come out of the net.”The footnote says, The old man is not impressed. He does not hesitate in diminishing his reputation. Sansheng said, “The teacher of fifteen hundred monks, and you can’t say a turning word?”The footnote says, The dragon’s roar has an echo to it.There’s an implication that Sansheng’s roar, his confidence, is just an echo of Linji, his teacher. Xuefeng said, “This old man is busy with abbot’s matters.”The footnote to that says, Lightning flashes, the pure wind blows, and when the dust finally settles, it’s clear that this has been a meeting of adepts.In other words, these two people, each with the understanding of an adept, are doing a Dharma dance.

This koan has something to say about one of my current concerns. I’ve been reading and hearing a great deal about what is referred to as “engaged Buddhism” And I’ve been thinking about the dangers inherent in doing “engaged Buddhism” without basing our actions in the practice heart of the Dharma — in wisdom and compassion. It is not wrong to engage in social activism; doing good is always valuable. But we should understand that doing good is different than realizing compassion. It is only doing good. We should examine what is being served when we do good. Almost always doing good arises from a sense of a self. In compassion there is no sense of self, no sense of the doer, or the thing the doer is doing. I would characterize the only true compassionate Buddhism as realized Buddhism.

The Buddhadharma can be seen as having two aspects: wisdom and compassion. In coming to a new culture, the Dharma responds to the relevant needs and conditions of that culture. All the wisdom for taking care of the problems is present within the Dharma. The difficulty is that Dharma can be distorted, warped to suit our own self-centered views. This is the danger of being too easily satisfied with our “goodness:” we need to keep going, challenging ourselves with honest, raw practice.

Years back Gary Snyder talked about the relationship of wisdom to compassion as they inform engaged Buddhism. In 1968, Snyder was studying in Japan, and had a good appreciation of the Dharma. He wrote a piece that was called “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution.” It was written during the time of heavy American involvement in Viet Nam when people were very committed to social activism. But it was the same time when many people who had been activists were beginning to practice Eastern religions and becoming pacifists. Many retreated from social involvement and weren’t doing anything. They were just sitting there getting enlightened. In response to this, Snyder wrote, “Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or to ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under. This can be death to Buddhism, because it is death to any meaningful function of compassion. Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.”

In this passage he also pointed out the danger of how easy it is to distort the Dharma. He went on to say, “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom (prajna) meditation (dhyana), and morality (sila) Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the mind to see this for yourself — over and over again until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live through personal example and responsible action, ultimately towards the true community (sangha) of all beings.”

Another example of how Dharma can be distorted in social activism was recently brought to my attention. A few months ago I received a book from a student who works for Weatherhill Press titled Zen at Warby Brian Victoria. The student asked me to read it, and if I was so moved, to write a blurb for the back of the book. The author is a Soto priest from New Zealand who is a professor at the University of Auckland. I started reading the book, and I was appalled by what I read. It was an indictment of Buddhism and its involvement in some of the worst atrocities of World War II. The book quoted Zen Master Harada Roshi — my Dharma great-grandfather — as saying, “[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp. [If ordered to] shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of Enlightenment]. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war [now under way].” Harada Roshi said that in 1939. I was stunned. I kept reading and learned how not only Harada Roshi, but Yasutani Roshi, the Soto School, and the Rinzai School were all co-opted by the Japanese government in support of the war effort. The book also talked about Soen Shaku who was the first Zen Master to come to America, appearing in Chicago in 1893 at the World Parliament of Religions. The book details how he served as a chaplain in the war between Japan and Russia. At that time Soen Shaku wrote: “In the present hostilities into which Japan has entered with great reluctance, she pursues no egoistic purpose, but seeks the subjugation of evils hostile to civilization, peace and enlightenment.” The truth is, most historians agree that the Japanese invasion of Russia was entirely self-serving and hardly reluctant. But to Soen Shaku, Japan was engaged in a holy and just war, a war of compassion fought by bodhisattva soldiers against the enemies of the Buddha.

Examples of this sort multiplied as I continued reading. The book talked about how the Soto School raised money during World War II for two fighter planes called “Soto I” and “Soto II.” Not to be outdone, the head of the Rinzai Temple, Myoshin-ji, contributed three fighter planes to the Imperial Navy. The Bodhisattva of compassion, Kanzeon, was officially renamed Kanzeon Shogun. One reviewer of the book said: “This would be the equivalent of renaming Jesus Christ, General Jesus.” D.T. Suzuki — and you can read it for yourself in Zen and Japanese Culture— writes, “Zen treats life and death indifferently. It’s a religion that teaches us not to look backward.” He goes on to say, “Zen has no special doctrines or philosophies, but is extremely flexible in adapting itself to almost any philosophy and moral doctrine.” This is clearly not an enlightened insight.

Another of our Soto ancestors — Sawaki Kodo — who died in 1965, talked about how when he was a soldier, they justified killing people. In 1945 he wrote, “It is just to punish those who disturb public order. Whether one kills or does not kill, the precept of forbidding killing is preserved.” What an unmitigated distortion of Dharma! He continued, “It is the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword. It is the precept forbidding killing that throws the bomb.” There is definitely something wrong here.

All of us to one extent or another can fall into that kind of a trap, though maybe not so dramatically. It may be hard for us to appreciate what was going on in Japan at that time. Keep in mind that long before World War II, the history of religion and mankind was filled with similar atrocities. The Christian Crusaders and the Moslems they fought both saw themselves as killing the enemies of God. In the crusades, thousands of people were annihilated. The God of Exodus ordered the extermination of the Canaanites, instructing his chosen people to show no pity. The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” did not apply in this case. Somehow, I did not expect this from the Buddhadharma. My first reaction was to want to deny this kind of behavior, defend it if I could, ignore or evade it: anything but acknowledge it, confront it, and change it.

I immediately wanted to know, “Who is this guy Victoria who wrote the book? What does he have against the Soto School?” I called the publisher and asked about the author. “He’s a professor who spent many years in Japan and is well-regarded.” Victoria was not the first person to reveal some of this material. He actually quoted Japanese sources that had written about this already. This is kind of interesting since almost none of their writing has been translated. Victoria also revealed that in addition to the stories I have mentioned, there were several priests who were incarcerated or executed because they resisted the official Buddhist support of the war. The government either imprisoned dissidents or killed them — the traditional ways of dealing with opposition. Throughout the history of Asian Buddhism any monk who opposed official government actions would meet this kind of threat. If you spoke out, the government would burn the monasteries down, cut off the heads of the monks, and that was the end of Buddhism. As a result, Buddhist practitioners in the non-democratic countries where it tended to thrive often looked the other way when social issues were at stake.

I remember when I joined the United States Navy. The guy at the recruitment desk said, “Do you have any hesitation about killing?” I was sixteen years old, and grew up during the war and we were always afraid that we were going to get bombed. The media propagated stories about the Japanese landing on Long Island and about enemy submarines being spotted off the coast. We were told it was a just war. Hitler was a despot. Tojo was a despot. Still, when I was confronted with that question, “Will you kill?” I hesitated, “Well... you know... I don’t know.” He said, “If somebody was trying to kill you, would you kill them?” And I said, “Yes!”

I was in the Navy during the Korean War in the ’50s. Everyone was supposed to hate Communism. My ship was in a port with a large Communist population and we had a little altercation on the dock. The commander was afraid that local people were going to board us, so we moved the ship offshore and anchored it. On sentry duty we were all given orders to shoot to kill. We carried loaded weapons with a round in the chamber. One evening I was on duty with a loaded gun on the stern of the ship, “protecting democracy.” I heard a noise. Somebody was climbing a rope up the stern. I took the rifle off my shoulder and said, “Halt!” In the dark, a figure came over the ship’s railing. Again I said, “Halt!” Attached to my waist were printed instructions, orders from the captain, “Shoot to kill anyone who comes aboard.” To shoot would have been perfectly within my rights. I cocked the rifle and pointed it at the man. He just stopped for a second, looked at me, and kept coming. As I kept cocking the rifle, a round would pop out, and fall onto the deck making a noise. I was trying to scare him, but he kept coming. Yet somehow, I couldn’t shoot. The man walked right by me and headed for the food garbage, filled a bag with garbage, then dropped it off the stern into the rowboat where his wife was waiting. These were starving people. I could have killed him. I would have been right according to my orders and I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. So what was the net in that case? How much delusion was involved? How much do we justify where we stand? How difficult it is to see outside of our own narrow perspective.

Sometimes, life is a lot more subtle than this. Noticing the net of our oppression is the critical thing. In the commentary it says, The golden-scaled fish is inherently free in every way when it knows that it is in the net.You have to see the net in order to be able to do anything about it. It has been difficult for me to see into certain areas of my life because of the conditions I encountered growing up. As gender issues came up in practice they would annoy me. I grew up in a society that related to gender inequality in a completely different way. Even my mother taught me sexism. I remember when I went to visit her in Florida, I took my laundry and my son’s laundry and was headed to the laundromat in the little village where she lived. In a panic she asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “I’m going to wash the clothes.” She said, “I’ll wash them.” I said, “No, I’ll wash them,” “No, you can’t wash them.” We were pulling back and forth on the bag of clothes. “Men don’t wash clothes.” I said, “Ma, that was yesterday, who do you think washes the clothes at my house every week?” I was a single parent; I washed the clothes. Finally she cried in embarrassment, “Everyone will laugh at me if my son washes his clothes.” I had to let her wash my clothes. I absorbed that mentality. When I am asked to shift, it is not always easy. We need to practice patience in order to allow the time for transitions to take place. We can’t always leap through the net. We sometimes have to work our way through it.

The net is elusive, appearing and disappearing it creates edges that are nonexistent.In actuality, the net does not exist. First and foremost, there is no net. We manufacture the net. We inadvertently manufacture the net and we consciously manufacture it. However it happens, it is our net, and we cannot do anything about it until we recognize that. It is your net; it is my net.

The commentary continues, The golden fish that has passed through the net clearly does not eat ordinary food. What is its food?Its food is the activity of wisdom in the world. Another name for that is compassion. Gary Snyder says, “Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.” That is very true. But as far as I am concerned, if compassion has not manifested, then realization is not complete. If the precepts have not manifested, then realization is not complete. Enlightenment without morality is not yet enlightenment. Morality without enlightenment is not yet morality. It is not yet the Buddha’s precepts. On one side, we have the danger of wisdom without compassion. On the other side we have the danger of so-called compassion without wisdom. But compassion is dependent on wisdom, wisdom is dependent upon compassion. They are mutually arising and interdependent. They live together; lift up one and you have lifted both. That is realized Buddhism.

If Buddhism is not realized, it doesn’t matter if it’s engaged or disengaged. Disengaged Buddhism is the so-called wisdom with no compassion; engaged Buddhism could be no more than so-called compassion without wisdom. When the Way is realized, it brings wisdom and compassion home. That is Samantabhadra Bodhisattva and Manjushri Bodhisattva sitting on either side of the Buddha. They are the embodiment of wisdom and compassion, and traditionally sit flanking the Buddha statue in the Buddha Hall of every monastery.

In the koan, Sansheng is a distinguished adept so we need to answer the question: Why did Xuefeng say, “I’ll tell you after you come out of the net?” Sansheng was clear. He knew how to turn the table. “The teacher of fifteen hundred monks and you cannot say a turning word?”Is that the best you can do? Although Sansheng turned the spear around, still old Xuefeng remained poisonous.Even though he was skilled, Xuefeng persisted, “This old man is busy with abbot’s matters.”

In a sense Xuefeng was responding to the question, “What does the golden-scaled fish that passes through the net eat?” “I will tell you after you have come out of the net.”That is what golden-scaled fish do. They challenge, they poke, they test, they manifest the Dharma. “Fifteen hundred monks and that is the best you can do?” He passes through the net again, “I’ve got things to take care of, I’m busy.”

In Zen we tend to say that after realization you drink a cup of tea. We can take that kind of metaphor and miss the whole point of realization. “Have a cup of tea” means to patch up the hole in the ozone layer and keep it from happening again. “Have a cup of tea” means to take care of those who do not have a shelter over their heads and are hungry. To take care of kids living in abject poverty who do not have an opportunity to thrive; or people discriminated against because of their race, culture, or gender. Thatis to have a cup of tea.

You end up with distortions of Buddhism when Zen is not realized but is self-styled, intellectualized, self-serving. D.T. Suzuki was a great scholar. He was well read in both Eastern and Western literature; he was a master of the philosophies of the world and understood the different religions. But he had not realized himself. He was not transmitted to by his teacher, Soen Shaku. Even if he had been, I don’t care how many transmissions you have, or how many certificates you can pile up, if compassion and wisdom are not manifesting in your life, your realization is not real. If it is not manifesting in how you interact and interface with the rest of humanity and this great earth itself, it is not real. The problem is that many Zen students have not engaged authentic training. They have not yet employed the “bullshit-burning furnace.” Real Zen training does that. A training center supports that. It is easy to read books on Zen, and sit by yourself, and not have to confront someone who is going to call you on your distortions. It is easy practice outside the context of a Sangha which will call you on your stuff. That is why Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are the three treasures. They all help us be aware of the net that holds us tight and then help us take care of it.

It is very difficult to take responsibility for our actions, particularly when they have to do with our closest concerns. I did not want to believe the revelations in Zen at War.I called some Japanese friends — priests, lay people — and asked them, “Do you know about this? Is this true?” I did not get a straight answer. I was sidestepped, sidetracked. I was advised not to get involved in that kind of a controversy by writing a blurb and identifying myself with the book. But if it was true, I did want to identify myself with the book. If it was true, it is vitally important to get involved. But it is very hard to look at our own actions, or actions realization, verification, and actualization. When you have actualized it, your life can touch the life of another and nourish it, heal it. Then you have verified all the Buddhas of past, present and future.

I implore you to know for yourself how to flourish your tail even if it stirs up the bottom of the pond as you pass by. Weare the Buddhadharma; not the sutras, not the history, not what we have heard or been told. With our lives, we create the Dharma with each step. Please tread carefully, tread wisely, tread with wisdom and compassion.

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