Part 3 Zazenshin: Acupuncture Needle of Zazen, by Shohaku Okumura

This is the third part of a commentary on the Shobogenzo: Zazenshin by Reverend Okumura. In Part I he explained that `zazen is an acupuncture needle to heal the sickness caused by the three poisonous states of mind.’ The second instalment went into his experiences in relationship to that teaching, and this instalment is the story of Nangaku polishing the tile. Click here to read part one and two of Zazenshin.

Nangaku’s Polishing a Tile

Baso Tile[Dogen Zenji comments on the story about Nangaku (Nanyue Huairang 677-744) and Baso (Mazu Dao-I 709-88). Nangaku Ejo was a disciple of the Sixth Ancestor, Daikan Eno (Dajian Huineng 638-713).]

Baso Doitsu was a great Zen master in Tang Dynasty China. It is said that he had more than eighty Dharma heirs.

This story about Nangaku is interesting and important. Dogen Zenji did not initially introduced it in its entirety in the Shobogenzo Zazenshin. He presented the sayings from the koan story and then added his comments. When we read the Zazenshin, therefore, this story is not particularly clear. Dogen’s comments are especially difficult to understand. This is typical of Dogen. Unless we have a clear understanding of the original story, therefore, we really don’t understand what he is talking about, not even one sentence of it.

I would like to consider the original story. What is the point of it? And what is the point of the alterations Dogen made to the meaning of expressions. Unless we understand the original story, we cannot understand why he did that. This is why I would like to consider the original story of this interesting koan before giving Dogen’s comments.

The original story appeared in the Keitoku Dentoroku, or the Record of the Transmission of the Lamp, which is a collection of 1700 biographies of Chinese Zen masters. It was compiled by the Chinese master Eian Dogen (Yongan Daoyuan) in 1004. Keitoku (Jingde) is the name of the era during the Northern Song Dynasty in which this text was compiled and published. Traditionally this is considered to be a collection of 1700 koans. This story appears in the Nangaku section of the fifth volume.

Although Dogen quoted only half of the story, I would like to talk about it in its entirety. I think that will help understand the point of it. We also have to go back to a teaching in the Mahayana Sutras, particularly in the Diamond Sutra.

Photo © @KyotoDailyPhotoIn this story, Nangaku Ejo is a teacher and Baso Doitsu is his student. According to Baso’s biography, Baso was born in Shichuan province in the western part of China. He became a novice monk while he was young and practised in his native province. On receiving the full vinaya precepts when he was about thirty years of age, he became a fully ordained monk. Subsequently, he moved to the centre of China and met Nangaku. The story is about Baso receiving Nangaku’s instruction for the first time, but this is something Dogen changed.

During the Kaigen Era (Chinese: Kaiyuan Era) between 713-741 there was a monk named Doitsu — Doitsu is Baso’s personal name. He lived at a hermitage named Denbo-in (Chuanfa-yuan) and practised zazen every day. The name of the temple is also important because I think someone made up this story and everything will have meaning — `Denbo-in’ means the `Temple of Dharma Transmission’. This seems to be the theme of the story — dharma transmission. Anyway, Baso was about thirty years old and he practised at this temple; he really focused on zazen, sitting every day.

– – – – – – – – – –

`The Master, Nangaku, knew that the monk was a vessel of dharma and visited him.’

Nangaku heard of this young monk sitting by himself every day and somehow found that he was an excellent person. Nangaku visited him.

Nangaku asked, `Virtuous worthy, what do you aim at in doing zazen?’

What do you want from zazen? Why do you practise?

Baso said, `I am aiming at becoming a buddha.’

I am practising to become a buddha.

At that moment, Nangaku picked up a tile.

This was an old roof tile. Chinese buildings were made of wood and when temples burned down from the many fires and earthquakes they had throughout their history, roof tiles were left scattered around. Nangaku picked up one of these broken pieces of tile from the temple grounds; it also signifies something made of mud and of no value. It refers to our deluded karmic body and mind.

Nangaku picked up a tile and began to polish it against a rock in front of the hermitage.

Nangaku started to polish a tile.

Baso asked, `Master, what are you doing?’

What are you doing? I think this is a very natural question.

Nangaku said, `I am polishing a tile to make it into a mirror.’

Nangaku said that he was polishing a tile in order to make it into a mirror. The mirror is a symbol of Buddha’s enlightenment. The Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom refers to Buddha’s wisdom which reflects all things as they are, without any distortion. The broken tile is this person’s body and mind — a collection of five skandhas that is karmic retribution. That is ourselves as a result of causes and conditions. This is like a broken tile, good for nothing, full of three poisonous minds, deeply deluded and ego-centred.

In our common understanding, practising zazen is like polishing this broken tile of karmic-self with deep delusion, in order to make it into a buddha with enlightened wisdom. A common Buddhist teaching in almost all traditions is that one practises in order to become an enlightened person free from being ego-centred. We are deluded human beings and we want to become a buddhas. Our practise is a path leading from samsara, or delusion, to nirvana, enlightenment or buddhahood. But somehow it sounds ludicrous here.

What Nangaku is pointing at is that no matter how hard we polish a tile, it cannot become a mirror. That is the point of the story. Nangaku’s saying, `I am polishing a tile to make it into a mirror,’ means that I am practising zazen in order to become a buddha. This was exactly Baso’s answer to Nangaku’s first question.

Baso said, `How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?’

I think this is a very natural question. If we really practise, we should have this question ourselves. How can we make a mirror by polishing a tile?

Kannon. Photo © @KyotoDailyPhotoNangaku said, `How can you become a buddha by doing zazen?’

This means our zazen doesn’t make us into buddhas therefore our zazen is nonsense and good for nothing. Nangaku is giving an admonition to Baso who was practising just sitting.

Then Baso asked, `What is the right thing to do?’

If zazen is not a right method or path through which we can reach buddhahood, what else should we do?

Nangaku said, `Suppose that a person is riding in a cart . . .’

A cart pulled by an ox.

`When the cart does not move, which is right—to hit the cart or to hit the ox?’

While we are riding in a cart pulled by an ox and the cart doesn’t move, in such a situation, what is the right thing to do—hit the ox or hit the cart? Of course, hitting the cart doesn’t make sense. In this analogy given by Nangaku, the ox refers to our mind and the cart refers to our body. Sitting in this posture or form using our body, according to Nangaku, is like hitting the cart. We need to hit the ox that is a symbol of our mind. Nangaku is saying we need to hit the mind not the body because our problem of suffering in samsara is caused by the three poisonous minds, not by the body.

 Baso did not reply.

He couldn’t say anything, and Nangaku continued,

`Do you study sitting meditation or sitting buddha?’

Do you study or do you practise sitting meditation? Is zazen, sitting Zen or sitting-buddha, za-butsu?

`If you study sitting Zen, Zen is neither sitting nor lying down.’

Zen, or meditation, has nothing to do with the form of sitting or lying down. This is the expression Dogen Zenji quoted in Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendation of Zazen).

`If you study sitting buddha, buddha has not a fixed form.’

Buddha has no fixed form. Buddha is formless. To study buddha with this sitting form is nonsense because buddha has no fixed form.

`Within the nonabiding dharma . . .’

This expression, `nonabiding dharma’, came out of the Diamond Sutra. Later I am going to talk about this expression from the Diamond Sutra. `Within nonabiding dharma’ simply means that we cannot choose one from another within impermanent dharmas (beings) that are always changing and never stay as one fixed condition. There is no fixed form and we can neither accept nor reject.

`If you do sitting-buddha, you kill the buddha.’

This means if we practise zazen as a form in order to attain buddha, we kill the buddha that is formless. If we think that we are practising sitting-buddha, then we cling to this form of sitting or we search for something formless within this fixed form. This doesn’t make sense at all. It is like trying to get water by squeezing dry sand.

`If you cling to the sitting form, you will never reach the principle.’

Nangaku is teaching that we should not cling to the form of sitting.

Upon hearing this instruction, Baso felt like drinking daigo.

Daigo is fermented milk. Here it is used as an analogy of the sweet dew of Buddha’s teachings.

– – – – –

Dogen quoted up to this part in the text of the Shobogenzo Zazenshin, but the original story continues. I think it is helpful to understand the basic point of Nangaku’s admonition to Baso, the young and very devoted zazen practitioner. Baso prostrated and asked, `How can I enter the formless samadhi?’ (samadhi of formlessness, Jp. Muso-zanmai). Zazen has a certain fixed form in which we sit cross legged (keeping the upper part of the body upright, keeping the eyes open, breathing through the nose abdominally, etc). Nangaku admonished Baso for searching for Buddha or Zen that is formless within the form of zazen. Then Baso asked how he could enter the samadhi of formlessness if zazen is not the right thing to do. I think this is a very natural question. This formless samadhi is the essential teaching in the Diamond Sutra.

– – – – –

Nangaku said, `Your studying the dharma-gate of mind-ground is like planting seed.’

Baso’s practise or study is like planting seed.

`My expounding the dharma-essence . . .’

That is Nangaku’s teaching,

‘ . . is like the rain from heaven. Since your necessary conditions get together . . .’

That means Baso’s practise and Nangaku’s teaching getting together as cause and condition that helps the seed to grow.

` . . you will see the Way.’

Baso asked again, ‘The Way has neither colour nor form. How can I see it?’

Now Baso started to understand Nangaku’s point.

Nangaku said, `The Dharma Eye of the mind-ground can see the Way.’

Our fleshly eyes cannot see formless reality. We can see only things called rupa (the first of the five skandhas often translated as form) which have colour and form. Rupa is the object of our eyes. But we cannot see the Way that is formless with our eyes. Then how can we see the formless Way? Nangaku said, `the Dharma Eye of the mind-ground can see it.’ This ‘dharma-eye of mind-ground’ is the most important expressions in this story. What is mind-ground in `the Dharma Eye of mind-ground’ which can see the Way, the reality, the dharma, or the buddha that is formless? How can we see something formless?

Baso asked, `Is there arising and perishing?’

Ryoan-ji Photo © @KyotoDailyPhotoHe asked if there is arising and perishing within the formless Way. Does the Way arise? Does the Way perish? Is the Way impermanent? Is the Way within the causes and conditions, something that appears and disappears? The things we experience are always arising and perishing. Things arise, stay for a while, change their shape, and vanish. That is cause and conditions within impermanence. The formless Way, formless dharma or formless buddha must be beyond this arising and perishing. What is this mind-ground of Dharma Eye, and what is this Dharma which has no form and beyond arising and perishing? This is the point of this story.

Nangaku said, `Trying to see the Way on the basis of arising and perishing, gathering and scattering is not the Way.’

We should find the Way which is beyond arising and perishing, gathering and scattering. Is there such a thing which doesn’t arise and doesn’t perish? In the Heart Sutra it is said, `Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by emptiness; they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease.’ What is this? It is said that all dharmas neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease. `All dharmas’ refers to all existing things without any exception. So, actually, according to the Heart Sutra, not only the Way but all things are formless and empty.

Finally, Nangaku composed a poem. He said, `Listen to my verse!’

`The Mind-ground has various seeds.’

Seeds of Buddhahood.

`And when they have rain, all seeds sprout.’

Within the mind-ground the seeds of prajna is already planted, `and when they have rain’ refers to Buddha’s teaching or our teacher’s teaching, then all seeds sprout.

`The flower of samadhi has no form.’

This samadhi has no form. And this samadhi without form is the flower that came from the seeds planted within the mind-ground.

`How can it perish or arise?’

This seed, stem, flowers and fruit, have no perishing and no arising. What is this?

Baso came to a realisation and his mind was transcendent. After this encounter, he became Nangaku’s student and practised with him for ten years. Day by day Baso deepened his understanding of the profound secret.

 – – – – –

This is the end of the story in the Nangaku section of The Record of the Dharma Lamp.

In the very beginning of Baso’s section of the same text, it is said, `During the Kaigen era of Tang Dynasty, Baso learned meditation at Denbo-in on Mt. Ko or Heng and met Master Nangaku Ejo. Though there were nine co-practitioners, only this teacher, Baso, intimately received the mind-seal.’

Baso practised with Nangaku for ten years, and only he intimately received the mind-seal. In the original story, Nangaku cautioned Baso who was sitting every day. This was the admonishment of a young practitioner who was focusing on sitting practice. From the story it is clear what Nangaku wanted to teach Baso formless samadhi which has nothing to do with the form of zazen. `Formless’ in this case is muso in Japanese—‘mu’ is `no’, ‘so’ is `form’.


[This is the third part in a series of lectures on Dogen Zenji’s Zazenshin by Reverend Shohaku Okumura which were given during sesshin at the Chapel Hill Zen Centre in Spring 2001. Shohaku Okumura is a translator and the founder of the Sanshin Zen Community, Bloomington, USA. In the next instalment he will investigate formless samadhi as expounded in the Diamond Sutra.]

Read the rest of, Zazenshin: Acupuncture Needle of Zazen here.

Part 3 from the February 2005 Buddhism Now

Read some more Zen teachings from Dogen.

Categories: Buddhism, Buddhism Now, Chan / Seon / Zen, Shohaku Okumura

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