Koan Commentary
Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 94. PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 30 July 2013 17:11


Koan Commentaries


One day a monk asked Master Sozan Honjaku:  I heard that you said in your teachings that the Great Sea has no place for lifeless bodies.  What is this sea?


The Master said:  It is something that includes the whole of existence.


The monk said:  Then why does is have no place for lifeless bodies?


The Master said:  Because things that are lifeless do not belong there.


The monk said:  But if it includes the whole of existence, why don’t lifeless things belong there?


The Master said:  The whole of existence is beyond that sort of function;  it is beyond [the concept] “life.”


Commentary by Nishijima

The Great Sea is a metaphor for reality, the whole of existence.  In Master Sozan’s teaching, he said that just as the sea does not accept dead bodies (they are usually washed up on the shore), so reality does not accept anything without value or significance.  In other words, there is nothing in the Universe that is without value.


However, the monk was caught by the Master’s metaphor and wanted to know why reality as the sea doesn’t accept dead bodies.   The Master told him that it is because dead bodies do not belong in the sea; things without value do not belong in reality.  However, the monk was still caught by the words of the master’s metaphorical teaching.  He wanted to know why reality doesn’t contain everything including dead bodies.  The Master replied that reality does not function like the monk’s image of the sea;  it is beyond that sort of categorization.  It is beyond concepts like “dead” or “alive.”  It is something inclusive and ineffable that exists here and now.


Commentary by John Fraser

In this story, Master Sozan uses the metaphor of the ocean for the whole of existence. The monk asking the question takes the metaphor slightly too concretely. Just as the real ocean yields up lifeless bodies, yields up debris, he imagines that Sozan’s statement that “the Great Sea has no place for lifeless bodies” means that there are ‘lifeless bodies’ and that somehow they are excluded. But Sozan’s meaning was that in the whole of existence there are no lifeless bodies. In other words, everything has absolute value, but also, if we perceive’ lifeless bodies’ then we can’t see ‘the Great Sea’. That is, the total dynamic functioning of the whole universe. We are perceiving instead the world of samsara, where isolated things continue provisionally for a while in empty space, falling toward the ground of death.



Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 July 2013 17:15
Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 82. PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 30 July 2013 17:02

Koan Commentaries


One day Master Hyakujo went with Master Baso Do-itsu for a walk.  As they walked along they saw a group of wild ducks flying in the sky.


Master Baso said: What are they?


Master Hyakujo said: Wild ducks.


Master Baso said: Where are they going?


Master Hyakujo said: They have flown away.


Master Baso grasped Mater Hyakujo’s nose and twisted it.  Master Hyakujo could not tolerate the pain and cried out: Aagh! Aagh!


Master Baso said: Although you said they have flown away, you are always at this place.


Master Hyakujo immediately broke out in a sweat, and just then he experienced a reflection of the truth.


The next day Master Hyakujo attended an informal teaching given by Master Baso,  where a few monks had gathered.  Master Hyakujo stepped forward, rolled up Master Baso’s prostration mat and put it away.


Master Baso got down from the lecture seat and went back to his personal room, followed by Master Hyakujo.  He then asked Master Hyakujo: I went to the Lecture Hall, but why did you put away the prostration mat before I had preached anything?


Master Hyakujo said: Yesterday I was caught by the tip of my nose by the Master and it was very painful.


Master Baso said: Yesterday, where did you concentrate your mind?


Master Hyakujo said: Today the tip of my nose is not painful any more.


Master Baso said: Now you know the profound matter of this very moment.


Then Master Hyakujo prostrated himself and went out.


Commentary by Nishijima

Master Hyakujo Ekai was walking out with his Master, Baso Do-itsu, when a flock of wild ducks flew overhead.  Master Baso asked what they were, and Master Hyakujo answered that they were wild ducks. Master Baso asked where they were going, and Master Hyakujo replied that they had already flown away. Although this was the fact, his answer sounded somewhat arrogant, so Master Baso twisted the tip of his student’s nose, causing him to cry out in pain. Master Baso pointed out that although the ducks had flown away, Master Hyakujo was just at this place. Hearing those words, Master Hyakujo realized the true situation.


Next day, Master Hyakujo went to Master Baso’s informal preaching but before the lecture began, he put away the Master’s prostration mat so that Master Baso couldn’t prostrate himself in front of the Buddha image – the usual custom before a lecture. Master Baso returned to his private room where he asked Master Hyakujo why he had behaved like that. Master Hyakujo did not answer his Master’s question, because his mind was still focused upon the previous day, when his nose had been tweaked. Remembering the event, he said that it had been very painful. Master Baso wanted to point out that Master Hyakujo’s mind was concentrated on a past event today, just as it had been yesterday.


Master Hyakujo noticed the meaning in his Master’s words, and replied rom his present state, that the tip of his nose no longer hurt. Hearing these words, Master Baso recognized that Master Hyakujo had grasped the truth, that his consciousness was always in the present, and he affirmed this to Master Hyakujo.


The story shows how these two masters studied the concrete situation here and now. And this attitude – to focus on the concrete reality in front of us – is the Buddhist attitude.


Commentary by John Fraser


Where have the birds flown? Where has your life flown?


The ‘you’ in Baso’s answer is not Hyakujo’s ego consciousness alone. ‘This place’ is not just the part of the great earth on which they were standing at that moment.


Jiko [Self] is both the small self and the self that is connected to all things. That is, dependent origination. Every place is this place.


Last Updated on Thursday, 01 August 2013 16:25
Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 62. PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 30 July 2013 16:57


Koan Commentaries

Master Unmon said to the assembly; Say a true word based on the hundreds of miscellaneous things in the world.


No-one in the assembly had an answer.


Then Master Unmon himelf spoke up for the assembly:  Both!


Commentary by Nishijima


Mater Unmon’s question can be divided into two parts:  one is to demonstrate a word that represents the truth.  The other is the matter of things and phenomena – literally,  “hundreds of grasses on the head.”  However, the monks he was preaching to could not answer.  Master Unmon answered for the assembly.


Both” here suggests a word that represents the truth and the multitudinous phenomena  often mentioned in Buddhism.  The word and miscellaneous things are combined into one reality.  Master Unmon simply said, “Both” to demonstrate this understanding.



Commentary by John Fraser

Some people say that everything is one, but if that is so, how do we explain the obvious differentiation that we see?  If we say that everything is one, the temptation is to think that there is a true world standing behind this world, which we need to get to. And so we recreate the Ego, this time as a battering ram.  Or, we take the familiar metaphor of clouds and sky, and imagine that the sky is somehow behind the clouds, that the clouds are an obstruction.  But where does the sky begin, or end?

Our practice is not the eradication of anything. It is not breaking down the door of an empty house. It is the actualisation of space.

In vast space, each thing can have its own place.



Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 July 2013 17:11
Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 51. PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 30 July 2013 16:44

Koan Commentaries

Master Keisho of Mount Sekiso preached to Master So-ho Ko: So-ho Ko, when we doubt, there is something different.  When we affirm, there is a gap.  Also our understanding should not be based on non-doubt or non-affirmation.  There is no way to know reality except by throwing away our knowledge of existence.

Commentary by Nishijima

Master Sekiso Keisho explained to Master So-ho Ko about doubt and affirmation. Master Keisho stated that neither doubting nor affirming are perfect. Then he insisted that our understanding cannot be relied upon even when we feel we have no doubts or no confidence.


Master Keisho denied the ultimate value of intellectual thinking. Of course, intellectual thought and scientific knowledge have their value and place, but they are only part of our picture of the world. Only by throwing away our attachment to thoughts and ideas can we really ‘know’ reality. In one sense, the most important function of the brain is to help us recognize the existence of reality.



Commentary by John Fraser

What does it mean to throw away, to cast off the self? It doesn’t mean to make it disappear, but rather, to decentre it, to no longer see the great matter through the prism of the self, but rather to see ‘self’ and ‘prism’ as part of the great matter, the full dynamic functioning, only one aspect of which is the universe.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 July 2013 16:57
Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 50. PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 30 July 2013 16:40

Koan Commentaries


Master Baso Do-itsu of the Kosei district preached to Master Yakusan Igen saying:  Sometimes I make him move his eyebrows and wink his eyes.  Sometimes I do not make him move his eyebrows and wink his eyes.  Sometimes it is good for me to make him move his eyebrows and wink his eyes. Sometimes it is not good for me to make him move his eyebrows and wink his eyes.


Suddenly Master Yakusan attained the great truth.


Commentary by Nishijima

Master Baso Do-itsu described real situations in his Buddhist life, referring to his physical self in the third person.  Sometimes he behaved actively.   Sometimes he behaved himself passively.  Sometimes it was good for him to behave actively.  Sometimes it was bad for him to behave actively.  Buddhist life is like this.  Buddhist life is always at the moment of the present.


Sometimes Buddhist behavior is active, sometimes Buddhist behavior is passive.  Sometimes active behavior is good. Sometimes active behavior is not good.  Master Baso’s teachings were very concrete.  Hearing those teachings Master Yakusan saw clearly what reality is.


Commentary by John Fraser

Master Baso was one of the greatest Masters, and in this story he gives a very realistic description of himself. The story occurs in Uji [BeingTime] where Dogen tells us that each moment is all moments, each thing is all things. And this being so, there is room for our stupidity as well as our brilliance, our falsenesses as well as our truth. We don’t need to sever everything, to watch it drop down to the depths, so we can rise upwards.


We don’t need to remain in light, because everything is illuminated


Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 July 2013 16:54
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