Vastness, No Holiness

Vastness, no holiness

EARLY in the sixth century A.D., Bodhidharma carried Zen to China, where he became the First Patriarch. His successors handed it on to chosen disciples. There is a tradition, not found before the time of Shumitsu, that the Fifth Patriarch invited his hundreds of disciples to submit poems from which he could judge their attainment. The head monk Jinshu wrote a verse expressing the view of gradual progress and gradual realization. Against this Eno, an obscure servant in the monastery, composed a poem on sudden realization without stages. The Fifth Patriarch approved the first poem but gave the succession to Eno, who became the Sixth Patriarch. Jinshu’s school continued in the North for many years. Eno (637-713) moved to the South. The Northern school was not attacked by any of Eno*s disciples except Kataku Jinne, whose own line stressed sudden realization almost to the exclusion of the traditional zazen meditation sitting. Jinne,s school became purely philosophical, and with Shumitsu (779-641) became absorbed into the Kegon philosophical sect. The line of Jinne, called Kataku Zen, died out before the last remnants of the Northern school of Jinshu, which he had so bitterly attacked.

The reader is already familiar with the concept of original realization,” but an example will illustrate this difficult point. A nervous man, addicted to ghost stories, reads a well-written one late at night. He gets the notion that the ghost he has been reading about is in the house. He barricades the door; he trembles with fear and is in danger of a heart attack. In a way he knows it is all illusion, only something he has been reading about—this is his “original realizationwhich is never quite lost. But in practice he accepts the ghost, and this affects him physically. Every creak of the furniture and gust of wind reinforces his belief in the ghost. From the point of view of original realization there is nothing which needs to be done, as the ghost has no existence; from the point of view of practical reality, to free himself from the fear which oppresses him, he must adopt a discipline of restraining his mind from thoughts based on acceptance of the ghost’s existence, and return to his original realization. But if he should regard this regimen as a sort of spell to kill the ghost, he is again asserting its existence and obscuring original realization. Even to say that the object of the practice is to free him from the ghost is not to the point; there never has been a ghost. The practice of realization is its own end. The furniture creaks and the wind blows, but the house is ever at peace.

What follows is a sermon delivered in 1930 by the famous Oka Kyugaku, late abbot of the Soto temple of Shuzenji. He was well known as an artist, and two pictures by him appear in this book.


It is said that the poem of the head monk Jinshu was this: The body is the bodhi tree,

The heart as it were bright on the mirror-stand.
Often and often labour to wipe it clean That it do not collect the dust.

It is a very fine verse. Against this, the verse of the Sixth Patriarch was:

Bodhi is not a tree;
The bright mirror is not on a stand.
From the very beginning not a single thing—
On what could the dust collect?

This verse too is very fine. Still, beginners must not think that the verse of Jinshu is bad. Of course to cling only to his idea of progress by stages is righdy condemned as a limited view, but equally to incline too much to the Sixth Patriarch’s “sudden realization” will inevitably lead to spiritual pride. The Sixth Patriarch’s verse is from the higher level, but spiritual students do have to polish and polish just as the verse of holy Jinshu says. An ordinary man, if he polishes enough, becomes a Buddha. It does not mean only spiritual students, but each and every one.

If a jewel is not polished, it does not shine. Even a diamond, with its innate quality of sparkling, glitters only after it has been polished. There are no ready-made Shakyamunis, no natural Mirokus. The patriarch Dogen explains: “When it is said the mind is the Buddha, it implies the quest, practice, realization, and Nirvana of all the Buddhas. Without that quest, practice, realization, and Nirvana, it is not true that the mind is the Buddha ”

The practice he speaks of is zazen. Its merits are well known, but in the Zen :>ect zazen is itself the Buddha state. It is not that zazen is practised because we are unenlightened and that after satori zazen is not necessary. It is zazen when unenlightened and zazen also after enlightenment. Zazen is never in the expectation of satori; it is not a means with something else as an end.

If zazen is considered a means, the student may suppose that realization is somewhere else. The patriarch Dogen says on this: “Practice and realization are not different. Practice is a matter of realization. In the practice of even a novice, the original realization is fully present. It is taught that practice is to be done with care, but we are never to look for some realization apart from the practice, for practice is merely directing attention to the original realization.”

Zazen itself is Buddhahood and Buddha action, and there is no point in thinking about seeking for anything else. One who is always healthy never thinks about health as such. Zazen transcends illusion and enlightenment. The patriarch says in the Zazen-gi meditation classic: “Do not try to make a Buddha.” Real zazen transcends Buddha-making, and so it is said that the perfection of zazen is to manifest the light of the Buddhas and patriarchs. Simple people fancy this to be a light like that of the sun or moon, but he explains: “The light of sun and moon is merely an appearance in Sansara, caused by karma. The Buddha light is nothing like that. The Buddha light means receiving a text through the sense of hearing, and holding that truth by the traditional zazen. Without the Buddha light there is no holding or receiving/ * A phrase or a poem which contains the light of the Buddha wisdom is heard and received, and zazen means holding that Buddha light.

It is an elevating theory, yet without practice it remains only a theory. “What we must know is not the dialectics of Buddhism; instead of making distinctions in the truth, we should simply know whether our practice is real or an imitation.” The real practice, namely Zen meditation, is the great life of the Buddha. Experience does not come from theorizing. When often and often we labour to polish, so that the dust does not collect, in other words when we are practising zazen, the Buddha light is seen shining.

The Hekiganroku and the Shoyoroku are two Chinese koan anthologies, the first favoured by the Rinzai sect and the second by the Soto. The Hekiganroku was compiled by Setcho (979-1032) of the Ummon Zen sect, who put his own comments and poems to the hundred (tcases}) which he selected, and later Engo (1063-1133) of the Rinzai sect added commentaries and short ejaculatory interpolations, giving the book its present form. Similarly Wanshi (1090-1137) of the Soto sect selected and presented a hundred cases, and Bansho (1163-1246), also of the Soto, added his own comments to make the Shoyoroku. The Rinzai sect makes koan discipline the centre of its training, whereas in Soto Zen it is only one element, and that not indispensable.

The case of Bodhidharma and the emperor occurs in both anthologies, and here the two presentations are put side by side so that their different flavour can be appreciated.

Emperor Bu of the Ryo dynasty was one of the great spiritual lights of Chinese Buddhism. During his long reign he built monasteries, supported their monks, and performed many other acts of Buddhist piety. When Bodhidharma came to his capital in 327, the emperor asked what merit he had gained from these actions. None, replied the patriarch. Then what, asked the bewildered emperor, is the first principle of holiness? Bodhidharma made the famous reply: “ Vastness, no holiness/” When the emperor still did not understand, the teacher crossed the Yangtze River and went to Shorinji temple in the kingdom of Gi. There he sat in meditation facing a wall for nine years. After this the man appeared who became his disciple, and to whom he finally passed on the Buddha’s robe and bowl, the insignia of the patriarchal succession.

The original classical Chinese prose and verse of Setcho and Wanshi is laconic and sometimes cryptic. (The remarks of the two later commentators, Engo and Bansho, tend to be too fragmentary and allusive for readable translation, but their introductions have been included.) Japanese Zen masters read these texts in the light of oral tradition and practical Zen experience. The translations which follow are based on those of an authoritative Japanese master; the rendering is not always an obvious or even likely reading of the bare Chinese original.


From the Hekiganroku

the introduction: To see smoke beyond the mountain is to know there is fire; to see a horn over the wall is to know there is an ox. From one comer displayed to know clearly the other three is only skill in inference, and to a monk an everyday affair. But when he can cut off all the streams of thought, he is free to spring up in the east or sink down in the west, to go against or with, along or across, to give or take. At that time say, of whom is this the action? Let us look at Setqho’s riddle.

the case: The Ryo Emperor Bu asked the teacher Bod- hidharma:

What is the first principle of the holy truth?’* Bodhidharma said: “Vastness, no holiness!”

Quoth the emperor: “Who is it that confronts Us?” Bodhidharma said: “Know not.”

The emperor did not understand, and Bodhidharma crossed the river and went to Gi. Later the emperor asked Abbot Shiko, who said:

Nine years facing the wall. Vastness, no holiness!”

Does Your Majesty yet know who is this man, or not?” The emperor said: “(I) know not.”

Shiko said: “It is the Bodhisattva Kannon, who is transmitting the seal of the Buddha heart.”

The emperor in regret would have sent an envoy to ask him to return, but Shiko said:

Though an emperor send an envoy for him, nay, though the whole people go after him, never never will he turn back”

THE hymn:

The holy truth is vastness—
How to speak and hit the mark?
Who is it that confronts Us?”
And he replied: “Know not.”
So in the night he crossed the river.
How could he prevent the thorn-hushes growing after him?
Though all the people pursue, he will not come again;
For a thousand, ten thousand ages we are thinking after him.
Cease from thinking. The pure breeze,
Circling the earth, has no bounds.

Setcho looks to the left and right, and says: “Is the Patriarch here?” He replies: “He is.”

Then call him, that he may wash my feet.”


From the Shoyoroku

the introduction: In olden days Benka offered an unpolished jewel to kings, but they thought it a pebble and punished him cruelly. At night a rare gem is thrown to a man, but in alarm he clutches for his sword. An unexpected guest, but none to play the host; the borrowed virtue is not the real virtue. A priceless treasure, but he knows not what to do with it; the head of a dead cat—try him with that!


the case: The Kyo emperor asked the great teacher: “What is the first principle of the holy truth?” Bodhidharma said: “Vastness, no holiness!”

Quoth the emperor: “Who is it that confronts Us?” Bodhidharma said: “Know not.”

When the emperor did not understand, the teacher crossed the river and went to Shorinji temple: nine years facing the wall. (Plate 12) the hymn:

Vastness, no holiness!
The moment came, hut there was a gap between.
Like a master axeman, he would have cut the mud from the face but never harmed the flesh—Oh, profit!
Instead—Oh, loss! The pot smashed to the ground, but he never turned his head.
Alone, alone, he sits at Shorinji in the cold;
Silent, silent, he upholds the great tradition.
In the clear autumn sky the moon’s frosty disc is wheeling;
The Milky Way pales, the stars of the Dipper hang low.
When the heir comes, he in turn will receive Robe and Bowl;
From this arises medicine but also illness for men and gods.

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