The White Hare of Master Misshi

As Zen has a totally unrestricted and universal outlook, among the “cases” or koan, reputedly seventeen hundred in number, there are stories about kittens and dogs, about turtles, and about water buffaloes. The fifty-sixth case of the Chinese anthology of Abbot Wanshi, the Shoyoroku, is the story called “The White Hare of Master Misshi.” In such stories everything in the world–sun, moon, and stars, the voice of the valley stream and the colours of the mountain, the wind in the pines and the rain on the bamboos– is pressed into service to teach. The great truth of Zen manifests itself, filling the earth and filling the heaven. The ancients could pick up anything at all and say: “This is It.” They made their Zen koan out of anything that came to hand. The inmost spirit of Zen is that everything is treasure in our own home.

Among the Zen cases, then, is the story of the White Hare of Misshi. One day a white hare ran across in front of him, and he and his fellow master Tozan used it as the occasion for their Zen. This is the Case of the White Hare. But as in the fable of the hare and the tortoise, the real point is not contained in the literal interpretation. Still, it is important to appreciate how skilfully in the dialogue the two masters manipulate the theme of the hare. First let us look at the case as it appears in the anthology.

The case: Misshi and Tozan were walking together when they saw a white hare run across in front of them.

Misshi remarked: “How quick!”

Tozan said: “How so?”

Misshi: “Like a white-robed (commoner) achieving the dignity of premier.”

Tozan: “Oh venerable, oh great!” and other phrases.

Misshi: “How so yourself!”

Tozan: “The cords which have tied on the nobleman’s hat for generations suddenly fall away.”

The words “the case” at the beginning mean the formal presentation of a Zen koan, namely that there is now being given an incident between the ancient masters from the old records. Tozan was the founder of our Soto sect in China; Misshi, like Tozan, was a disciple of the master Ungan, so that they were fellow students under the same master.

They were once walking together along a mountain path when a white hare darted across in front of them. Misshi remarked how quickly it had gone. Tozan asked: “How so?” He puts a penetrating question, and with this thrust by Tozan the story of the white hare is no longer an ordinary incident but becomes a koan. Now in the discussion universal truth is contained in the one white hare.

Misshi at once replied: “Like a white-robed achieving the dignity of premier.” In China the “white-clad” meant the common people, and there could be no quicker success in the world than for one of the commoners to become premier at one jump. He expresses the Zen principle of not dabbling in the labyrinth of logic and academic discussion, but entering at one stroke: the passions are realization, birth- and-death is Nirvana, living beings are the truth-body of the Buddha.

This unwavering upward-looking consciousness is the mark of a genius who kicks down every obstacle. Misshi, looking ever upward, takes the white hare above the clouds. But against this, Tozan has the freedom to look down and shows the way to set the white hare free in the fields. He pretends to express great veneration and admiration, but that expression contains a reproof that Misshi is yet unripe. Misshi cannot understand and retorts: “How so yourself!” Tozan replies that the cords which have held the noble’s hat for generations quickly fall away. His meaning is that a man, though born into a noble family which for generations has worn the ceremonial hat, can fall in one hour. He falls– but he is a Buddha child, and so far as he is conscious of that, he may when needful take a fall without loss of poise.

From the absolute point of view, universal truth is certainly something noble, profound, and eternal. But following the law of association (karma), the moon in the sky lodges its reflection in the puddle left by the horse’s tread. So the subtle body of the Truth, according to association, becomes an earthworm, becomes a frog, a badger, a hare. With the “falling away of the cords,” it is not only things accounted high which are Truth. If it were only the great ones, there would be many difficulties. Tozan’s view is that the hare is just right as it is, and we should not merely look at the strength of its legs for jumping but savour a taste of Zen when it appears just as it is before the eyes. The white hare which for Misshi was to be cloud- hidden, lifted above the skies, is once more released in the meadow and given its freedom.

Some one will ask: “Well, which side is the victor?” Both of them are skilled marshals of words, and each of the views, one upward- looking and the other downward, is doctrinally quite sound. Still, from the Zen standpoint, the view of Misshi, which attains the heights and remains there exclusively, flying in the heavens, must be taken as surpassed by the downward- turning view of Tozan, which gives freedom in the mountains and fields. On a high place there is generally the danger of a fall, and this means a loss of freedom; but the one who is already down has no fear of falling and moves about in freedom.

And particularly in the case of a hare!

So in Zen we are always told to take one step more from the top of the hundred- foot bamboo, to leave the danger of the high places and go on the path of safety. That path means just ordinariness. It is ordinariness, but different from the former ordinariness. It is like the case of cold water. Cold water which has not been boiled must be different from cold water which has been through boiling. So with ordinariness: that before satori is very different from the ordinariness of after satori.

What is this ordinariness? It is things being what they properly are. Men being men, and women women, the business man being a business man and the scholar a scholar. As it says in the Zazen-gi: “The bird flying as a bird, the fish going as a fish.” In this everyday life there is nothing strange or marvellous, and this is the basis of Zen. Official as an official, merchant as merchant, farmer as farmer, student as student, husband as husband and wife as wife– if they act as the part implies they can have peace and be at rest. They will have no disturbing thoughts and will not be passing meaninglessly through the light and shade of time. Each day of their ordinary life will be noble.

In the true doctrine there are no miracles, but it is this sort of everyday human life. There is nothing extraordinary in it. The great master says: “Everyday mind is the way.” To be able to return and settle in normality is the final stage of Zen. Put like this, it seems nothing. But this forgetting of aspirations and returning, as it were a fish or a bird, is the life of greatness, and if we look at the difficulties we see it is hard indeed. Bansho too says it is easy to mount from earth to heaven, but hard to descend from there. In Zen it is easy to trumpet the upward-looking view, but then very hard to return to the despised everyday life. They know the way out and forget the way back. But without this returning home and sitting at rest, Zen is only a ghost.

To sum up the Zen process: just as the sweating war- horses are lashed and the thousand swords mobilized only that the land may return to peace and each to his calling, so the real demonstration of Zen is to show the essential element of serenity in life. Tozan raises his banner on behalf of this return to peace. Still, it is only when that state of Misshi has been passed through that this is born, and it is by passing through both these views that one can experience the real taste of Zen. Zen master Wanshi says in one of his verses on the koan called “The Kindness of Jizo”:

“Travelling till sick of travelling, now it is as it was; the veils disentangled, I have reached not-knowing. Let it be short or let it be long, have done with cutting off and tacking on. Following where it is high and following where it is low, things even out of themselves. As the circumstances are rich or straitened, act accordingly; walk supremely at leisure in the fields as your feet take you.”

If we can make our gait in life supremely at leisure, then the great master Tozan will admit us unreservedly to his friendship and company.



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