What is the Buddha?”


This is by Tozan, one of the earliest masters. He’s the one who, when reading the Heart Sutra where it says, ‘There’s no ears, no eyes, no nose, no mouth’ having read that, along with all the other boys, learning it by heart, he went to the teacher and said, “Why does the Sutra say we have no ears and no eyes and no nose, when we have them?” And the teacher said, “You’re the first who’s asked this question. You’re going to get on, but you’ll have to go to a really good Zen teacher.”

All the others had simply read it and it’s-  it’s true in some sort of way, but we perhaps are somehow too coarse to see quite what that is. Tozan, later on, he was asked about, “What is the Buddha?” And he said, “Three pounds of linen,” roughly. Then, very much later, it’s been discovered that in those times they used to take a, sort of, two or three foot image of the Buddha and then they soaked a cloth in a particular kind of clay, rather like starch it must have been, and then they pressed it onto the head and into all the- the ear, the eyes and so on, for the Buddha you see and left it on until it dried. And when it dried it stiffened, then they’d open it at the back and then you’ve got a sort of shell of cloth. A perfect representation of the Buddha. The cloth, you see, was holding the shape and you’ll never guess what that cloth weighed. Exactly three pounds.

So we know now what Tozan meant when he said, or when he answered, “What is the Buddha?” by saying, “Three pounds of cloth.” It was just this. The cloth- but they accept, that it turned out, it was nothing to do with it at all.

Well, later on when he was a famous master, he was asked by a monk, “If I see a hungry snake chasing a frog or about to catch a frog and eat it, should I interfere or not?” Tozan said – it’s not very easy to translate these things, but anyway – “If you interfere, you’re not seeing with both your eyes.” Like all these things, you think, how is that again? If you interfere, you’re not seeing with both your eyes.

Well, these things appear in a series, Temple magazine, which I did. So I went straight onto the comment, which explained that if you interfere, you snatch up the frog or you threaten the snake with a stick, then you’re only seeing with one eye; you see the frog but you don’t see the hunger of the snake. So you’re only seeing. You’re not seeing with both of your eyes.

So that means we shouldn’t interfere. The great rhythm of nature goes on, said the commentator.

Yes, snakes eat frogs – they’re hungry. And one thing, “Oh, yes, that’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Great rhythm of nature, so long as I’m not involved in it So you don’t interfere and simply when I’m drowning, of course, I don’t expect you to interfere with the great rhythm of nature.

Then he said, “So I shouldn’t interfere then?” And Tozan said, “If you don’t interfere then neither shadow nor substance appears clearly.” Well, the commentator on the first one explains about the snake and the frog. He says, he quotes a Chinese poem, where… not having to go on far, I don’t know if this is true, but it seems that on this farm in China, the hens eat the ants running on the ground. They pick them up and eat them.

And the housewife, a compassionate lady, she felt sorry for the ants. So she said to the servant, “Catch the hens, tie them together and take them to market and sell them.” So he caught the hens and ties them together and took them to the market. And when their legs were tied, of course, they made a terrific squawking.

So when they passed out of the house, the owner – the master of the house, the writer of the poem – heard this terrible squawking you see. He came out and saw these hens. He said, “Oh, good Heavens, what are you doing?” He said, “Well, I’ve tied them up as the mistress said and I’m taking them to the market to sell them.”

The master said, “They’ll be killed and boiled. Take them back and set them free at once.” He was sorry for the hens. And the poem finishes, ‘Ants, hens, human beings, what is good and what is bad? It’s like standing watching the course of a rushing river, trying to follow the course of the water as it rushes between the cold mountains.’ You’ll never come to an end of it. Do good to the hens, poor ants get eaten. Do good to the ants, hens get eaten.

Well, the commentator goes on about this. There’s this problem came up, of course, as it must do that we had an effect and a cause. Those things are not separated out. Again, we’ve made a little plot of ice, so to speak. We the frog, and the hunger of the snake, we don’t see. We save the frog or we deliberately stand back?

Now, he says, “Neither shadow nor substance appear.” Well, I won’t go on to what the commentator said about that because my left and right hand are fighting for the pen. Pull. And then the left hand does something rather clever. Now it’s pushing upward. Now, we can only pull down with our own weight, never more than that. But we can lift much more than our own weight. So the left hand has been rather clever. Technique and, finally, the left hand wins. Triumph. Victory.

Poor right hand is left with nothing. Nothing to write with at all. Defeat. Humiliation. As I’m right-handed, I want to write this way, so the left hand passes across the right hand and I write here. And the purpose of that fight was, in fact, because this stuck and I was trying to pull it apart. Well, this is one concrete example that’s given, the application of it to the snakes and the frogs, you can find for yourselves.

The ice, one of the teachers says, is convenient for transport. If you want to carry water, it’s much easier. Carry water about, it’s much easier in blocks of ice. You can transport them with a number of things, but to transport water, to carry water – pure water, especially – you’ve got to have a special container and so on. But the ice state is not, what they used to call them in India, the natural state of water.

In as much as we freeze things, we lose potentialities and the freezing, it doesn’t mean that it can never take place, but we must be able to freeze and then to melt again. To be able to give up and melt, all these patterns. And then if necessary, take up another one or the same one. And melt again.

© Trevor Legget

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: Melting the Ice and Fists

Part 2: What is the Buddha?

Part 3: A yard of teaching, one foot of practice

Part4: We deny it’s a thing