Sogen Bukko

Mugaku Sogen, as the Japanese pronounce it with the posthumous title of Bukko Kokushi. Bukko Zenji, Zen master ‘Buddha light’, was a posthumous title granted by the Japanese Emperor to this Chinese monk, whose name was Zǔyuán pronounced, by the Japanese, Sogen. He was born in 1220, and as a child was always fond of temples and Buddhism.

One day when he’d accompanied his uncle to a temple and was playing in the garden, he heard a monk reciting a verse from a famous Taoist classic: “The shadow of the bamboo sweeps the steps, but the dust does not stir. The moon’s disk bores into the lake, but the water shows no scar.” This verse seized on his mind, and he finally made up his mind to renounce the world.

When his father died the next year, he became a monk at the age of 13. The next year, he climbed the Jingshan mountain and put himself under the Zen Master Wu-chun. As it happened, there were some Japanese monks there at the same time. When he was 17, the teacher set him his first kōan, “No Buddha-nature in the dog.” He determined to resolve this in one year, but he could not come to an understanding of it, nor in the second year either. It was the same until the sixth year when he was 22.

He could now sit in profound meditation for long periods without fatigue. Finally, he reached a state where in sky and earth, there was only the one character, ‘Mu’, no, everywhere.  Even in his dreams, it was the same. Then a senior monk told him to drop the Mu, but he could not separate himself from it.

After a good time, he was sitting in meditation when the Mu disappeared, and his body-consciousness along with it. There was only an immensity of space, rid of mental cogitation. He says, “It was like a bird escaped from a cage.” The body and mind were paralyzed, and his fellow monks thought he was dead.  But a senior monk told them that this was a samadhi state in which the breath stops for a time. If the body were kept warm, covered, and looked after, it would revive of itself; and after a day and night, empirical consciousness returned.

One night after this, he was sitting on the bed, in deep meditation, when the head monk hit the board with a mallet in one of the usual temple signals. As Bukko heard this, the blow, he says, struck through to the original face and it appeared to him. When he closed his eyes, there was a vast expanse of space and when he opened them, he saw everything in this vastness.

He could not contain his joy, he jumped from the bed to run out under the moon. He looked at the sky and cried, “How great the universal dharma body – from the very beginning, vast as it is, now.” He presented a poem a realization to the teacher, Wu-chun. “One hammer blow, smashed; the Spirit came and outrushed the Titan, unabashed. Ears deaf and mouth as dumb; yet, one casual touch and a meteor shoots away.”