The White Hare of Mi-shi

Among the Zen ‘ cases ‘ there is the story of the White Hare of Mi-shi. One day a white hare ran across right in front of him, and he and his fellow master To-san 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 Ju-Yo-Roku.
The case: Mi-shi and To-san were walking together when they saw a white hare run across in front of them. Mi-shi remarked: “How quick! “.    To-san said: “How so? “.  Mi-shi: “Like a white-robed (commoner) achieving the honour of Premier “.  O-san:  ”O venerable,  O great! “, and other phrases.    Mi-shi: “How so you’re self!”. To-san: “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 Ko-an, namely that there is now being given an incident between the ancient masters from the old records.

To-san was the founder of our Soto sect in China; Mi-shi like To-san was a disciple of the master Rei-gen, 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. Mi-shi remarked how quickly it had gone. To-san asked ” How so? ” Now he asks a penetrating question, and with this thrust by To-san the story of the white hare is no longer an ordinary incident but becomes a Ko-an. Now in the discussion universal truth is put into the one white hare.

Mi-shi at once replied: “As the whiteclad becomes honoured as 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.    This illustrates how Zen does not dabble in the labyrinth of logic and academic discussion, but enters at one stroke: the passions are enlightenment, birth-and-death is Nirvana, living beings are the Dharma-body. This unwavering upward-looking consciousness displays a genius who kicks down every obstacle.    It is Mi-shi who looking ever upward takes the white hare above the clouds. But against this, To-san 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 Mi-shi is yet unripe.    Mi-shi cannot understand and retorts: “How so yourself!” To-san 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 the Buddha’s 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 so-called “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.    To-san’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 Mi-shi was to be cloud-hidden, lifted above the skies, is once more released in the meadow and given its freedom.
Someone will ask: “Well, which side is the victor?” Both of them are skilled marshals, and each of the views, one upward-looking and the other downward, is doctrinally quite sound. Still, from the

Zen standpoint, the view of Mi-shi which attains the heights and remains there exclusively, flying in the heavens, must be taken as surpassed by the downward turning view of To-san, 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 make one step more from the top of a 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 before boiling has always some difference from cold water which has been boiled. So with ordinariness-that before enlightenment is very different from the ordinariness of after enlightenment.

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: “The bird flying as a bird, the fish going like 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 daily life will be noble.

In the true doctrine there is nothing of the marvellous, but it is this sort of everyday human life.    Again there is nothing extraordinary.    The Patriarch 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 difficult 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 warhorses 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 as the essential element of serenity in life. To-san raises his banner on behalf of this return to peace. Still, it is only when that state of Mi-shi 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 Tendon Shokaku says in one of his verses on the Ko-an called “The Kindness of Jizo “.
” After travelling till sick of travelling, now it is as it was; the veils disentangled, Not-Knowing is attained. 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 Do-zan will admit us to his friendship without reserve.

Translated from the Japanese by T.L.

In autumn when I view
The midnight moon, my eyelashes are wet with drops of dew.


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