Part 5 Zazenshin: Acupuncture Needle of Zazen, by Shohaku Okumura

Reading what Dogen said with a fresh mind:

Buddhist Sage. Wang Zhen (Chinese, 1867–1938) © The Metropolitan Museum of ArtI have talked about the original story ‘Nangaku polishing a tile’. I have also referred to the Diamond Sutra as a way of helping to understand what Nangaku was trying to teach Baso. Now we will look at Dogen’s commentary on the same story.

First, however, I would like to introduce Dogen’s interpretation of this story in writings other than in the Zazenshin. I will quote four examples.

The ‘Polishing-tile’ story in Shinji Shobogenzo:

This first quote is from the so-called Shinji-Shobogenzo or Three Hundred Koan. Dogen collected these koan at Koshoji when he was thirty-five or thirty-six years old. He gathered them without adding any comments, though he made minor changes to some stories. From this we can see that his interpretations have a slightly different flavour from the originals.

Writing in Chinese, Dogen added twelve characters into his version of the ‘polishing a tile’ story which allowed him to interpret it in a fresh way:

‘Koshu (or Hongzhou) Kosei Baso Daijaku Zenji who received transmission from Nangaku, and whose dharma name is Doitsu. He had practised under Nangaku and intimately received the mind-seal. He was superior to all his co-practitioners.

Dogen added two sentences to a section of the Transmission of Dharma Lamp on Baso, shown in italics above. This minor change made a big change in the meaning of their conversation. This is magic! The rest of Dogen’s version of the story is the same as the original.

In the original story, this conversation between Nangaku and Baso occurred during their first encounter. Nangaku heard of this young monk Baso sitting alone all day and visited him at the temple, and this was their first meeting. According to Dogen’s version of the story, however, Nangaku transmitted the mind-seal intimately before this meeting. This is almost like dharma transmission. The name of the temple was Denpo-in, which translates as ‘the dharma transmission temple’. The name alone indicates the main theme of this story. The story was created in order to certify that Baso received the dharma of the Sixth Ancestor, Hui Neng, through Nangaku. Some scholars question whether Baso was really the dharma heir of Nangaku because he practised with several masters before him, assuming their encounter ever took place at all.

The point Dogen is making is that Nangaku’s instruction was not to admonish Baso as though Baso’s practice was not on the right track. The minor change Dogen made, I think, was in preparation of his writing the Zazenshin.

Dogen’s comment on this story in the Zuimonki

About the time he made this collection of koan, Dogen also commented on this story in the Shobogenzo Zuimonki. Zuimonki is a record of Dogen’s informal dharma talks to his disciples at Koshoji recorded by his dharma successor, Koun Ejo [Shobogenzo Zuimonki, translation by Shohaku Okumura, Sotoshu Shumucho, 2004, p.101.]

‘How do you feel about the following view? Upon hearing that one’s own self is buddha-dharma and that it is futile to seek anything outside of one’s self . . .’

This kind of statement is often made in Zen. Even Dogen said, ‘To study buddha way is to study the self.’

‘ . . what if a student were to believe this deeply, give up practice and study, and spend his whole life doing good and bad according to his personality?’

If buddha-dharma is the self, why do we have to study from others? Why do we have to practise in order to change the self? Why do we have to practise? We already have buddha-nature. We can do whatever we want. What is wrong with this kind of view? That is the question. Dogen’s reply is as follows:

‘In this view, the person’s words and reality are contradictory. Giving up practice and abandoning study because of the futility of seeking anything outwardly, sounds as though something is being sought after by the act of giving up. This is not non-seeking.’

Dogen is pointing out that through the action of giving up practice and study, the person is still seeking something. He continued,

‘Just realise that practice and study themselves are the buddha-dharma.’

If the buddha-dharma is the self, practice and study is the self. The self that wants to do ‘anything I want to do’ is not the self according to Dogen. The self is practice and study.

‘Without seeking anything, refrain from engaging in worldly affairs or evil things even if you have the mind to do so. Do not think of or hate the boredom of the practice of the way. Just practise wholeheartedly. Practise without even seeking after the completion of the Way or the attainment of the result. This attitude is in accordance with the principle of non-seeking.’

The true meaning of non-seeking is just study, just practise, just follow the Way without expecting anything in return. That is his answer to the student’s question. Then Dogen mentions the story of Nangaku’s polishing a tile.

‘Through Nangaku’s polishing a tile to make a mirror, he was admonishing Baso’s seeking to become a buddha.’

Seated Buddha : Anuradhapura period, ca. 9th century, Sri Lanka. © Metropolitan Museum of ArtNangaku’s point is we should not seek to become buddha.

 ‘Still he did not restrain Baso from sitting in zazen.’

Nangaku does not tell Baso not to practise zazen, but just to practise without expecting anything in return.

The next few sentences are very important in Dogen’s teaching. He said,

 ‘Sitting itself is non-doing. It is nothing but the true form of the Self. Apart from sitting, there is nothing to seek as the buddha-dharma.’

According to Dogen in the Zuimonki, the point of Nangaku’s instruction to Baso was Baso’s expectation to become a Buddha through zazen. Sitting is not an easy practice, and it takes a lot of time. As I said, it might be boring, painful, making one to sometimes feel sleepy, sometimes feel cold, sometimes feel hot. When we make the effort to do something that is not easy, usually there is something we want from that endeavour.

A Rinzai Zen master, Soko Morinaga Roshi who died several years ago said that the usual actions of people’s daily lives and samadhi are very different. Samadhi is like a child playing in a sandbox shovelling sand into a bucket. Someone asks the child, ‘Do you want to trade in your sand for something?’ The child’s answer must be ‘No!’ because the child is enjoying it; the child is just shovelling sand without seeking anything else. But when adults do the same thing — shovel sand into a bucket — they do it as a job to get a wage; the action itself is not the purpose. What we really want is the money, not to shovel sand for its own sake. We do the shovelling because we think this is the way to get the money we need; we do it even though it is hard or uninteresting. When we do the work with this attitude we don’t really enjoy it.

This, according to Morinaga Roshi, is the difference between our usual activities and samadhi. In the case of samadhi, since there is no divergent purpose except the doing itself, we enjoy it. Often, when we sit we don’t enjoy it — we seek something else, we try to be patient in order to get some desirable result. Even though we don’t enjoy the sitting therefore we practise it for some expected result.

In our usual activities we have a starting point which is regarded as not so good, and a goal which we desire to reach. We consider where we are and where we want to be and try to find the means to move from here to there. What we do isn’t really what we want to be doing in the moment but only a way of getting something we want. We do things from necessity.

According to Dogen, zazen should not be like that. Zazen is not a job; it is itself samadhi. We just enjoy zazen. There is nowhere to go. There is just being here. That is our practise of ‘just sitting’. This sitting practice is itself buddha’s practice; it is not a human practice in order to become buddha.

This sitting is really non-doing. We do nothing but sit. By sitting in this posture, we just sit and really do nothing. We don’t control anything. We just sit. That is the meaning of non-doing. This is not a human action of getting something we want — usually we’re like hunters; we hunt for something we want. It is very difficult for us to find a motivation to do anything without the idea of getting a reward, especially if our endeavour is difficult. According to Dogen, on the other hand, we need to disport ourselves in zazen like a child playing in a sandbox. We need to play in the zendo by just sitting.

The ‘Polishing-tile’ story in the Shobogenzo Kokyo (Ancient Mirror)

The next quotation is from the Shobogenzo Kokyo (Ancient Mirror). In this chapter of the Shobogenzo Dogen Zenji rewrote the story in Japanese and therefore makes it clear how he read it:

 ‘A long time ago while Kosei Baso studied under Nangaku, Nangaku intimately transmitted the mind-seal to Baso.’

Again, he says Nangaku already had intimately transmitted the mind-seal to Baso. This conversation in the story was therefore after this transmission.

‘This was the beginning of the beginning of polishing a tile. Baso always practised zazen at Denpo-in for ten or so years.’

This means that after Baso received intimate transmission of mind-seal from Nangaku he started to practise zazen at Denpo-in and he continued for more than ten years. When this conversation was taking place, Baso had already received the true dharma. Therefore this cannot be the story of a teacher admonishing his disciple. They both understood the true nature of zazen and of true dharma.

 ‘Imagine what it was like sitting alone in a thatched hermitage on a rainy night! He never stopped sitting even when his cold seat was covered in snow.’

Case (Inrō) with Portrait of Daruma (obverse); Large Lotus Leaf and Stalk with Seed Pod (reverse) C19th, Japan © The Metropolitan Museum of ArtThere is nothing like this in the original story. It is Dogen’s addition. According to this, Dogen thinks that after Baso received dharma transmission, he practised zazen by himself for ten or more years.

Nangaku once visited Baso’s hermitage. Baso stood waiting. Nangaku asked, “What are you doing these days?”’  

Nangaku knew Baso very well and so he asks him what he is doing these days.

‘Baso said, “Lately, I am just sitting.”’

This `just sitting’ is a translation of Dogen’s word `shikantaza’. Baso said, `I’m just doing shikantaza.’

Nangaku said, “What is the aim of zazen?”

Baso said, “The aim of Zazen is to become buddha.”

Nangaku immediately picked up a tile and polished it on a rock near to Baso’s hermitage.

Baso saw it and asked, “Master, what are you doing?”

Nangaku said, “Polishing a tile.”

Baso said, “What is the use of polishing a tile?”

Nangaku said, “I am making a mirror.”

Baso said, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?”

Nangaku said, “How can you become a buddha by sitting in zazen?”’

Up to this point the conversation is the same as the original story in the Dentoroku. Dogen quoted only this much of the story in the Kokyo and then he made his own comments:

`Since ancient times, for several hundred years, many people thought that Nangaku was admonishing Baso. This is not necessarily true. The great sages actions were far removed from the realms of the commoners.’

Dogen interpreted this story from a very different angle.

‘If the great sages did not have the dharma of polishing a tile, how could they have the skilful means for others? The power to teach others is the bones and marrow of the buddha-ancestors.’

Dogen said that Nangaku’s polishing a tile is a skilful means to express the dharma. Nangaku didn’t mean that polishing a tile is nonsense. In the original story it sounds as though that is what is being said, but Dogen said that polishing a tile is itself practice.

‘Even if that is a fabrication, still it is furniture in Buddha’s house. Only the everyday furniture and common utensils have been transmitted in the house of Buddha. Furthermore, Nangaku taught Baso straightforwardly. We can see that the virtue that has been correctly transmitted by buddha-ancestors is direct pointing. We should truly know that when polishing a tile becomes a mirror, Baso becomes buddha.”

Dogen thinks it is possible that by polishing a tile it will become a mirror. When polishing a tile becomes a mirror, Baso becomes buddha. Baso is a tile and buddha is a mirror.

 ‘When Baso becomes buddha, Baso immediately becomes Baso.’

To be buddha means that Baso truly become Baso himself. To be buddha means to be truly the self.

‘When Baso becomes Baso, zazen immediately becomes zazen.’

The Sixth Patriarch of Zen at the Moment of Enlightenment Photo © Metropolitan Museum of ArtThat is how Baso becomes buddha. And that is how a tile becomes a mirror. Within this sitting, Baso becomes a buddha. And within this sitting, a tile becomes a mirror. But still, Baso is Baso, a tile is a tile, a mirror is a mirror, a buddha is a buddha; still Baso becomes buddha and a tile becomes a mirror.

 ‘Therefore, making a mirror by polishing a tile has been maintained within the bones and marrow of the ancient buddhas. Because of this, there is an ancient mirror made of a tile. When we polish this mirror, from the beginning, there is no defilement.’

When the Fifth Ancestor asked his disciples to write a verse to show their understanding the head monk, Jinshu (Shenxiu), wrote a poem:

This body is the bodhi tree.

The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand.

At all times we must strive to polish it

and must not let dust collect.

[Translation by John McRae, Seeing Through Zen, University of California Press, 2003, p.61]


Jinshu said that we should always polish the mirror to keep the dust away, but the Sixth Ancestor, Hui Neng, wrote:

Bodhi originally has no tree.

The bright mirror also has no stand.

Fundamentally there is not a single thing.

Where could dust arise?

There is no bodhi tree, no bright mirror and no dust at all from the beginning, and this is what Dogen is saying:

‘We don’t polish a tile because there is dust on it.’

The mirror itself is a tile and there is no dust on it. A tile is completely a piece of dust.

‘We just polish a tile which is nothing other than a tile.’

This human body and mind is a bright mirror made of a tile. There is no dust on it, yet still we polish it.

‘Hereby, the virtue of making-mirror is actualised. This is the practice of the buddha-ancestors.’

We simply polish a tile, our body and mind, which is a collection of different causes and conditions. We are almost always deluded or self-centred, but still we polish a tile, and this polishing is itself making a mirror. Our practise of polishing a tile is not to make ‘this person’ into something else but this polishing a tile itself is making a mirror. So, polishing this body and mind by sitting and letting go and being free from our ego-centred self is itself making a mirror. This polishing a tile is the practice of the buddhas and ancestors.

 ‘If it is not possible to make a mirror by polishing a tile, it must not be possible to make a mirror by polishing a mirror. Who can see that within this “making”, there is becoming-buddha and becoming-mirror.’

Within this practice of polishing a tile, buddha appears. Within polishing a tile, a mirror is already there. That is what Dogen meant by ‘practice and enlightenment are one’. Within this practice, we use this body and mind which is very self-centred. Still, this practice of letting go of self-centredness is making a mirror. There is no other mirror besides this.

‘Someone may question, “When polishing the old mirror could we, by mistake, make the mirror into a tile?”’

This may be possible. We may by mistake make a mirror into a tile by polishing it. If we polish the mirror with the three poisonous minds of greed, hatred and delusion hidden within our activity the mirror will become a tile.

‘The condition at the time of polishing cannot be measured by any other time. And yet, since Nangaku’s saying is the expression of what should be expressed, ultimately, this is nothing but polishing a tile and making a mirror.

 Polishing a tile and making a mirror is the same thing.

‘People today also should hold the present tile and try to make a mirror by polishing it. Certainly it will become a mirror.’

He encourages us to polish a tile. The meaning of polishing a tile is completely different from the meaning of polishing a tile in the original story where it was put forward as nonsense and not the thing to do.

‘If a tile does not become a mirror, a human being cannot become a buddha. If we disparage a tile as a lump of mud, human beings must be also disparaged as lumps of mud. If human beings have a mind, a tile has a mind. Who knows that there is a mirror that reflects a tile when a tile comes? Also, who knows that there is a mirror that reflects mirror when a mirror comes?’

[Dogen’s Extensive Record: a translation of the Eihei Koroku, translated by
Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumura, Wisdom Publications, p.562]

This is another comment by Dogen on the beginning of this story. It is very clear that he interprets the meaning of polishing a tile in a completely different way from the original story.

Dogen’s praising verse on this koan story from Eihei-koroku

Dogen also wrote about this story in volume 9 of the Eihei-koroku, Dogen’s Extensive Record. In this volume, Dogen composed verses on ninety koan. The 38th is ‘Nangaku’s polishing a tile’. Dogen composed two verses here. The first is:

Polishing a tile to make a mirror is effort in practice.

How can people plan to take a mirror and make it a tile?

The point of deceiving each other is completed within clarity.

Square and circle mould their forms using themselves as models.

Our practise is nothing other than polishing a tile to make a mirror. Here Dogen says that in our practise of zazen, we polish a mirror in order to make it into a tile. I think this means that in our practise of zazen, we polish the mirror that is Buddha-nature and make it into an actual human body as a tile. Both a mirror (Buddha-nature) and a tile (body and mind as our karmic nature) are in our practise of zazen and they are deceiving each other. This means that from the one side our zazen is a hundred percent polishing a mirror — the function of Buddha-nature (not-thinking) — and from the other side our zazen is a hundred percent polishing a tile — our endeavour using our own body and mind (thinking). This is done in the complete clarity of beyond thinking. Both a mirror and a tile are completely there in our zazen.

Even when called the iron man, how can you be a tile or a mirror?

Even before killing Buddha is born, the sitting Buddha descends.

Sitting, lying, and walking meditation are all just right.

Clouds arise south of the mountains; rain falls on the western river.

‘Iron man’ refers to a determined practitioner of zazen. When a determined practitioner practises zazen, the zazen-person is neither a tile nor a mirror, or both a tile and a mirror. Here ‘killing Buddha’ and ‘sitting Buddha’ are the names of Buddhas. Within zazen in which we keep letting go of our thoughts, a Buddha whose name is Killing Buddha and also a Buddha whose name is Sitting Buddha both manifest. Or Killing Buddha and Sitting Buddha are the two names of one and the same Buddha. ‘South of the mountains’ refers to Nangaku, and ‘western river’ refers to Baso. Nangaku raises the clouds and Baso causes the rain of the dharma to fall. These two verses indicate that Dogen Zenji interprets this story in the way that both Nangaku and Baso express the nature of zazen that is Killing Buddha (freedom even from buddhahood), and Sitting Buddha (continuous practice of zazen).

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

Published in the August 2005 Buddhism Now.

[This is the fifth in a series of lectures on Dogen Zenji’s Zazenshin given by Reverend Shohaku Okumura during sesshin at Chapel Hill Zen Centre in Spring 2001. Shohaku Okumura is a translator and the founder of the Sanshin Zen Community, Bloomington, USA.]


Read some more Zen teachings from Dogen.

Categories: Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, Chan / Seon / Zen, History, Mahayana, Shohaku Okumura

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3 replies

  1. Dogen always blows me away. He takes a simple story and opens it up to an incredible description of zazen and the way to becoming a Buddha or not.

  2. The SELF is best understood when their are NO THOUGHTS.


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