Rinzai Roku, Anroku - Book of Pilgrimages, Chapter VI

The Master was dozing in the monks' hall. Obaku (Huangbo) came in. Seeing this, he struck the platform with his staff. The Master raised his head. Noticing it was Obaku, he resumed dozing. Obaku again struck the platform. He then proceeded to the upper part of the hall. Seeing the head monk in zazen, he said, “The youngster in the lower part of the hall is doing zazen. What kind of delusions are you indulging in here?” The head monk said, “This old fellow, what are you doing?” Obaku struck the platform once more and left.

Later, Isan (Weishan) asked Kyozan (Yangshan), “What was the intention of Obaku's coming to the monks’ hall?” Kyozan said, “One contest, two victories.”

Teisho by Eido Shimano Roshi

In the past, I had a different appreciation of this quite interesting happening in the zendo of Master Obaku’s monastery. Today, I see it slightly differently, and a few years from now, maybe again it will seem different. Truly, this Dharma has no end.

Master Obaku, his student Rinzai, and the head monk are all equally Dharma students and are all equally provided for by the Dharma food, Dharma residence, Dharma robe and Dharma air. As long as we have unshakable faith, unshakable dedication and unshakable commitment to the Dharma, which is normally translated as “truth” or “universal law,” there is, without exception, the reaction of the Dharma according to our action - in other words, karma.

This story from the Book of Rinzai does not mean to imply that the head monk was not as good as the young, dozing Rinzai. Each of these three figures - Rinzai, Obaku , and the head monk - are teaching us how to cultivate our state of mind, each in their own way.

In this turbulent era, things are drastically changing around us, and it is far more important than ever before that we have some faith and courage.

In the Diamond Sutra, Buddha says to Subhuti, “This Dharma is like a raft. The Buddha-teaching must be relinquished. How much more so mis-teaching!”

Upon hearing the term “relinquished,” one may mistakenly get the impression that if the Buddha-teaching must be relinquished, what else is left? But this is an erroneous interpretation.

The Tao Te Ching says, “Throw away holiness and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier. Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing. Throw away industry and profit, and there won’t be any thieves. If these three aren’t enough, just stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their course.” The first three statements tell us to “throw away, throw away, throw away.” This advice is so important! Unless we let things go, unless we throw things away, unless we forsake, we will never realize the Absolute. “If these three aren’t enough, JUST stay at the center of the circle.” I believe this “staying at the center” is what we strive to achieve through our dedicated, enthusiastic zazen practice. And we need to relinquish even that, as soon as we realize that we are too attached to it, too dependent on it. Once we notice this attachment and dependence, we are able to reevaluate and renew our sitting practice.

"The Master was dozing in the monks’ hall. Obaku (Huangbo) came in. Seeing this, he struck the platform with his staff. The Master raised his head. Noticing it was Obaku, he resumed dozing."

This account opens with the young Rinzai sleeping during zazen. When we look at the appearance of a monk dozing in the zendo, it is certainly not as good as someone sitting like a big tree with deep roots. In this case, the head monk was jikijitsu and was sitting very strongly, while Rinzai had nodded off. As we compare the zazen of these two monks, we cannot help but make the evaluative distinction that one is good and one is bad. We may say that there is a phenomenal, relative level of reality, and Rinzai’s dozing gives us the impression, relatively speaking, that his zazen is not as strong as the head monk’s. In fact, each one represents fundamental reality - whether we sit or doze, we cannot be otherwise than Dharma-as-it-is. In essence, the three men are Dharma itself.

In support of this perspective, I have a story I would like to share. One Rohatsu sesshin, while sitting zazen, I thought I heard the invocation of Buddha’s name. I heard a voice repeating “Namu Amida, Namu Amida,” slowly, softly. That was a rather unusual thing. Consequently, however, I started to think about Amida Buddha, who is said to have taken 48 vows to save us; to clarify our confusion. And I started to repeat to myself those 48 vows. As that Rohatsu sesshin was to conclude with the ordination ceremony of one of my students, the subject of vows adhered to my mind for the remainder of the week.

As soon as I thought, “what is our vow supposed to be?” it came to me immediately, without a moment’s thought: our vow is what we chant so many times each day: Shujo muhen seigan do - “However innumerable all beings are, we vow to save them all.” Yet something about this was nagging at me: Is this really the vow of Dharma Students? Isn’t this vow a bit arrogant? Isn’t it impossible?

Yet somehow this invocation of Amida Buddha and his vow, Shujo muhen seigan do, became linked. And for the first time, after fifty years of chanting Shujo muhen seigan do, I thought, “My goodness, this first line must be the vow of the Buddha, not of Dharma Students.” And then, somehow it happened, holding my cushion, doing zazen, it came to me: “However heavy my body is, I vow to lift it.” This is exactly what Shujo muhen seigan do literally means! It is a vow to save us, to lift, emancipate, liberate us.

When the first line became clear to me as the vow of the Buddha, the second, third and fourth lines likewise fell into place: However inexhaustible delusions are, I vow to extinguish them all. However immeasurable Dharma teachings are, I vow to master them all. However endless the Buddha’s way is, I - a student of Dharma - vow to follow it. These second, third and fourth lines are our vows, and the first line is the Buddha’s vow, which miraculously came as a sort of gift to my mind during Rohatsu sesshin.

We can be confident that Master Rinzai and the head monk and of course their teacher Obaku knew these vows very well. Rinzai happened to be dozing in the zendo, not intentionally - just naturally, which we often experience ourselves. But he had deep intentions as a Buddhist monk. He had a vow, and a strong faith in the Dharma, and he relinquished himself to these, and renewed these continually. This relinquishment and renewal ensures that his vow was a real vow, not a frozen vow or a dried vow. Every day relinquished, and everyday renewed, his was a vital vow.

This is really what appeals to us in our practice. Though our zazen postures look the same everyday, this only appears to be the case. Our state of mind and our emotional condition - these change continuously; not for a single day are they ever identical. The same principle applies regarding our vows: relinquish, renew, relinquish, renew. Unless this activity is going on, our vows become stale, moldy, spoiled.

Even so, our bodies sometimes want to doze during zazen - we may not necessarily want to, but often we can’t help nodding off from time to time. This is exactly what had happened to Rinzai. Master Obaku approached him, and seeing young Rinzai asleep, loudly struck the platform in front of his seat with his stick. Rinzai lifted his head and, seeing that it was Obaku, promptly and perhaps a bit defiantly, fell back asleep. Or perhaps Rinzai couldn’t help but fall asleep again, purely out of physiological necessity.

Obaku again struck the platform. He then proceeded to the upper part of the hall.

Obaku again struck. He did not say anything, did not strike Rinzai’s shoulder. There is an expression, Yui butsu, yo butsu: “Only Buddha knows Buddha, Truth knows Truth.” So this particular interaction between Master Obaku and the young Rinzai is an example of “yui butsu, yo butsu” - only Buddha, who renews his vows and relinquishes himself to his vows every day, can recognize a student of Dharma who renews his own vows everyday, and by doing so, makes them stronger, deeper and clearer. Thus, “Only Buddha knows Buddha.”

Seeing the head monk in zazen, he said, “The youngster in the lower part of the hall is doing zazen. What kind of delusions are you indulging in here?”

Master Obaku then continued to walk slowly throughout the zendo, observing attentively, seeing many different Dharma students’ sitting postures, and perhaps sensing some kind of vibration, he went to the upper part of the hall and watched the head monk as he sat in zazen. On that particular day, the head monk happened to be in good form. Physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, his sitting was very strong, which we also experience from time to time. The head monk’s tailbone was stuck into the good earth, with each breath coming naturally and without effort. He too was renewing his vow, relinquishing himself to his vow, breath after breath. His exhalation was his relinquishment, his inhalation, his rededication. When we exhale, our breath pushes itself out of our bodies. In this way, our breath does not stay trapped with us to grow stale, but we relinquish ourselves to it, we let ourselves go . . . then, when we exhale fully, just as naturally, we need to inhale once more. Not only are we inhaling oxygen, but we are inhaling a newly dedicated vow. Never repeating the same thing, each time, our vows are fresh.

Another Zen saying: Hibi ni Arata nari - “Every day is new.” Every moment is new! Every breath is new! In order to have “new,” we need to relinquish, to forsake the old.

Back to the head monk: he was having a strong sit, and happened to be in so-called “good” form. Upon seeing this, Master Obaku said to him, “That youngster, that shinto (“novice”) in the lower part of the hall is doing zazen. What kind of delusions are you indulging in here?”

Rationally speaking, this doesn’t make any sense - it should be the other way around! But Master Obaku was testing his most senior monk.

The head monk said, “This old fellow, what are you doing?” Obaku struck the platform once more and left. I think the most simple Japanese translation is “Urusai!” or “Shut up!”

I envy Master Obaku! One of his students had incredible bravado - to doze, to look up, recognize his Master, and go right back to sleep again. That’s really great! Another of his students said “Shut up! Get out of here!” These monks can do so, and they can say so, because this relinquishment and renewal is taking place with every single breath, and this is what we must do. Without a true understanding and embodiment of this principle, our zazen deteriorates into mere meditation.

Of course I’m not encouraging you to doze, and I certainly don’t like to be told to shut up! But I want you to cultivate energetic, vigorous, totally alive vows - not dead vows or frozen vows.

Later Isan (Weishan) asked Kyozan (Yangshan), “What was the intention of Obaku's coming to the monks’ hall?” Kyozan said, “One contest, two victories.” This is a really good answer. I would say “One contest, three victories.” Obaku won, Rinzai won, the head monk also won - one contest! Everybody became a winner, and all three victories happened almost instantaneously, within minutes.

So, brothers and sisters in the West, think about how rare this opportunity is, how precious and wonderful this practice is, how lucky we are. As the Diamond Sutra says, “This Dharma is like a raft. Buddha-teaching must be relinquished; how much more so misteaching?” Every day, every moment, with every exhalation, relinquishment, renunciation, and forsaking all have to take place. And with each inhalation, we inhale a new, stronger, clearer dedication, and are thus renewed.

With this understanding, let us continue into the future together; not necessarily hand-in-hand, but hara-to-hara, gut-to-gut. As long as this point is clearly understood, we discover that all our worries - a place to live, retirement plan, social security, health insurance, life insurance, etc. - are trivial, not essential.

Because of our upside-down views, we look at trivial matters and believe they are essential, and we look at essential matters and think they are trivial. This is completely upside-down. So we must try to make that upside-down view right-side-up. Only then, as the Heart Sutra says, will we discover Nirvana. And Nirvana is nowhere else but in this inhalation, in this exhalation.

Then, we can fully understand, with much gratitude, the Buddha’s Great Vow: Shujo muhen seigan do. And thus we vow in return: Bono mujin seigan dan, homon muryo seigan gaku, butsudo mujo seigan jo.

rinzai zen