Septober 2022 Sesshin, Day 3: Zen Master Bassui from The Three Pillars of Zen
2:21PM Oct 12, 2022
Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede
This is the third day of this October 2022, seven day sesshin. We're going to leave behind Chinese Zen Master Foyan and the move up about 300 years to Japanese Zen Master Bassui. We have two texts to use with this, two books. In the past I've usually used one called "Mud and Water" but today I'm going to turn back to a book many of you have heard of "The Three Pillars of Zen" and start with the biography of Bassui.
You know, one of the hardest things about speaking Japanese for Westerners I've heard is that every syllable gets the same emphasis. There's no one that's accented over the other. So we tend to say "BAS-su-i", "BAS-sui". But, I remember Roshi Kapleau as saying "BAS-SU-I", "BAS-SU-I". And I'm probably not even getting it right there. It's so hard not to accent a syllable. I'll start off here with his introduction where it is mostly the biographical material about Bassui. He says that in the year 1327...
Yeah, that was when Bassui was born, 1327 to 1387. So he lived to be 60. Well, during his lifetime, the Aztecs established Mexico City; Meister Eckhart died; and 75 million people in Europe died of the Black Death.
So this was toward the end of the Kamakura Era, which was a time of great strife, tremendous national anxiety. But which also, Roshi writes here, produced many notable religious figures and one of them was Rinzai Zen master Bassui.
As the story goes, Bassui's mother had a vision that the child she was carrying would one day become a fiend who would slay both his parents. His mother abandoned him at birth in a field where a family servant secretly rescued and reared him. I think I heard somewhere that the mother, no doubt, arranged for the servant to be down there to to rescue the baby. When he was seven years old, at a memorial service for his father, he asked suddenly the officiating monk, for whom are these offerings of rice and cakes and fruit? This is, by the way, not an uncommon question in introductory workshops. People will say, "Wait, those flowers and fruit or vegetable on the altar, what's with that? And what I say if I sometimes will give an explanation, sometimes not, I'll say, "They're just concrete ways, physical concrete ways of expressing respect and gratitude to the Buddha which means our own Buddha nature, honoring our own Buddha nature." It's one thing to just say it, honoring our Buddha nature in words or thoughts. It's another thing to actually arrange these offerings on the altar. It's very Zen, maybe it's very Asian, to concretize one's feelings that way. So this kid Bassui says, who are those offerings of rice and cakes and fruit for? And the priest said, well for your father, of course. And then young Bassui said, but father has no shape or body now. So how can you eat them? And the priest said though he has no visible body, his soul will receive these offerings. And never mind that there's no soul in Buddhism. But let's let that go. If there is such a thing as a soul, the child pressed on, I must have one in my body. What is it like? To be sure, Roshi Kapleau writes, to be sure these are not unusual questions from a thoughtful sensitive child of seven. For Bassui, however, they were only the beginning of an intense, unremitting self inquiry, which was to continue well into manhood. Until, in fact, he had achieved full enlightenment. Even he says, even during his play with other children, he was never free of these uncertainties, these doubts as to the existence of a soul. And this concern of his with soul led him to think about hell. In an agony of fear, he would exclaim, how awful to be consumed by the flames of hell. Tears would well up. When he was 10, he was often awakened by brilliant flashes of light which filled his room, followed by an all enveloping darkness. Anxiously he sought for some explanation of these weird occurrences. But the replies that came didn't help. Leave it to others to diagnose that, those flashes of light filled by darkness. He kept questioning himself. If after death, the soul suffers the agonies of hell or enjoys the delights of paradise, what is the nature of his soul? But if there is no soul, what is it within me, which this very moment is seeing and hearing? There we go. Now we get squarely into Zen's wheelhouse, no soul, but then what is it? That is seen right now, hearing these words, hearing the sound of the geese?
towards what is it? Who am I?
His biographer who was one of his disciples wrote that Bassui would often sit for hours stewing over this question. In such a state of self forgetfulness that he no longer knew he had a body or a mind. Call that a kind of samadhi. And one such occasion Bassui suddenly directly realize that the substratum of all things is a viable emptiness. And that there is in essence nothing which can be called a soul, a body or a mind,
there we go.
This realization caused him to break into a deep laugh, and he no longer felt himself oppressed by his body and mind. So still, he had the good sense to know that this may or may not be true awakening. So he questioned a number of well known monks, but didn't get a satisfying answer for any of them. But he told himself at any rate, I no longer have doubts about the truth of the Dharma. I can hear Roshi Kapleau saying, kensho doesn't remove our problems, it just removes uncertainty.
establishes a new basis of faith, faith confirmed, where we can work more effectively with our issues. So, having seen them as empty, having no roots.
He goes on, but his basic perplexity as to the one who sees and hears had not been dispelled. Okay, so it had been a light awakening, if any at all. And when he saw in a popular book one day, mind is host and body guest every one of his quiescent doubts was suddenly resurrected. This is a well known way of framing this distinction between mind and body, mind being the host and body being the guest that comes and goes. Not Buddhist, really. So, again, he was gripped with a question I've seen that the foundation of the universe is voidness. Still, what is this something within me which can see and hear?
Good question. What could it be?
What is hearing these words right now?
In spite of every effort, he couldn't rid himself of this perplexity. Nominally, Bassui was a samurai having been born into a samurai family. I guess that made you a samurai. His biographer didn't reveal whether he actually pursued the duties of a samurai. But it seems safe to conclude the Bassui's continuous search for Zen masters would have given him little opportunity and presumably as little taste for the life of a samurai. He had his head shaved at the age of 29. became a monk. But he didn't have a use for the ceremonial rites of a monk or a priest, believing that a monk should live a simple life dedicated to attaining the highest truth, so as to lead others to liberation and not engage in ceremony and luxurious living, not to mention political intrigue. That was something the monkhood of his day was was prone to do, getting involved in politics.
On his many pilgrimages he stubbornly refused to remain even overnight in a temple, but insisted on staying in some isolated hut, high up on a hill or mountain, where he would sit hour after hour doing zozen away from the distractions of the temple. To stay awake, he would often climb a tree, perch among the branches, and deeply work on his koan, his natural koan "Who is the master?" far into the night, oblivious to wind and rain. Think about that. Just picture that climbing a tree and even sometimes in wind, rain, hanging in there questioning, questioning.
Obviously, someone with an extraordinary need to go beyond that initial awakening. Have a deeper experience. Need to resolve this question, really. He wouldn't have had the thought of enlightenment in his mind. There's no room for it. So, consumed was he by the questioning, who is the master? Who am I? What is this?
In the morning with almost no sleep or food, he would go to the temple or monastery for dokusan with a master.
In the course of his spiritual journeys Bassui eventually met the master who would help him bring his mind's eye completely open. It was Koho Zenji. Zenji is as honorific title meaning great master Koho. The other masters from whom Bassui had been training had all sanctioned his enlightenment. But Koho didn't give him a stamp of approval. He sensed Bassui's keen, sensitive mind and the strength and purity of his yearning for truth. But Koho did invite him to remain.
Still though Bassui declined to stay in the temple and took a solitary hunt in the nearby hills. And for the next month, came every day to see Koho. One day Koho sensing the readiness of Bassui's mind asked him, tell me what is Joshu's Mu?
Bassui started to reply, mountains and rivers, grass and trees are equally Mu. Koho stopped him with don't use your mind. All at once, Bassui felt as though he had "lost his life root, like a barrel whose bottom had been smashed open". Sweat poured from every pore of his body. And when he left Koho's room he was in such a daze that he bumped his head several times along the walls, trying to find the outer gate of the temple. When he got to his hut in the hills, he wept for hours. The tears overflowed "pouring down his face like rain".
The following evening Bassui came to tell Koho what had happened. Hardly had he opened his mouth when Koho who had ever despaired, who had despaired of ever finding a true successor among his monks declared my dharma will not vanish, all may not be happy, my dharma will not disappear. Well, Koho also would have known that how can a Dharma disappear? This is the Dharma. This.
So Koho gave him Dharma transmission, gave him the name Bassui. That's I guess where he got his name. It means high above average. Bassui stayed with him for another couple months, receiving his guidance. But he wished to mature his realization through Dharma combat with other masters. So he left Koho and continued to live an isolated life in forests, hills and mountains, not far from the temples of famous masters. When he wasn't engaging them in Dharma combat, he would carry on his zazen for hours at a time. Again, the extraordinary faith! You have to say it is faith, after such a profound realization, to want - need, to want - need to go on doing zazen for hours at a time.
The clearer the realization, the more intolerable it is to be complacent, to stop short of even deeper realization.
Wherever he stayed, whatever hut outside of temple he stayed, the monks would discover his whereabouts and seek out his guidance. But he still felt himself deficient in the spiritual strength necessary to lead others to liberation. So he resisted their efforts to make him their teacher. When their entreaties became too much, he would pick up his meager belongings and vanish in the night.
But aside from the pressure from the monks, he deliberately curtailed his stay in any one place, so as not to become attached to it. That's to me, the early Buddhist, the early Buddhist tradition of monks never staying, being prohibited, from staying in any one place two nights in a row to avoid attachments. So now Bassui was 50 years old, he built himself a hut deep in a mountain. Word spread through the nearby village of the presence, and in the mountain, of a bodhisattva. And seekers begin again, literally to beat a path to his hut. But now his enlightenment had ripened and he felt himself capable of leading others to emancipation. And he no longer turned away these monks but willingly accepted all who came. Soon their numbers grew and the governor of the province offered to donate land for a monastery and for his followers to build it. Bassui agreed to become its Roshi.
The temple grew to more than 1000 monks and not just monks and lay practitioners. Bassui was a rigid disciplinarian. He announced 33 rules for the behavior of the monks. And the first one, this is always this is quite remarkable, the very first one prohibited alcohol, drinking alcohol in any form. In that too, he really distinguished himself from the tendencies among Japanese monks and even Roshis of drinking. Just to be honest about this, when I put up at a temple in Japan, I was just there for three or four days. Just wanted to check the place out. I realized a little late, like a day into it that I hadn't brought a gift for the Roshi. This is not either of these outstanding teachers, many of you have heard about, it wasn't Tangen-roshi, wasn't how did a Shodo Roshi at so Genji. And I went to the head monk, and I said, Oh, I forgot to bring a gift. And, and he said, Well, it's too late now. In a sour way. And I said, well, okay, better late than never maybe. And he said, Sure. And I said, can you suggest something? And he said, Well, do you want to give him something he really wants? Sure. Give them a fifth of whiskey. I said ah-ah! He said well give him a six pack of beer
then, which I did. I never met him and
I spent all my time there with the head monk. It is a very small monastery, had been once had glory days in the Middle Ages, but they were only oh, they were like four or five monks there. There is a sorry lot of monks.
Back to our text. Just before he passed away at the age of 60 Bassui sat up in the lotus posture, and to those gathered around him said, Don't be misled. Look directly, what is this? He repeated this loudly and then calmly died.
So Bassui was one of these very fortunate Zen practitioners who had a natural koan that bit into him to the bones. Few people these days have that. Few people ever had that. Some of the great masters, yes, but few of the rest of us ever had that. So then we take a koan if we should want to. We take koan, and we work with it until it bites us, bites deeply into us, which can take years. But they're all essentially lead to the same place. What is Mu? What is this? Who am I? In Japan and China, and another one would be, what was my Original Face? So we just have to make some allowances here with Bassui using this term, who is the master? It's kind of weird to Western ears. It was very much a product of medieval culture and Japanese medieval culture, a master and servant. We know what he's talking about when he suggests that question. So first is his Dharma talk here in "The Three Pillars of Zen". If you would free yourself of the sufferings of samsara...By the way, I just learned yesterday in my teisho prep, that birth and death is samsara. I mean samsara is a translation, that is the Indian translation of birth and death or vice versa. So many references in Zen text to birth and death, make it samsara, the wheel of life and death, suffering. You will free yourself of the sufferings of samsara, you must learn the direct way to become a Buddha. Alright, become a Buddha means become enlightened. This way is no other than the realization of your own mind. Now, what is this mind? It is the true nature. This is mind in the capital M, by the way. It is the true nature of all sentient beings, that which existed before our parents were born and before our own birth, and which presently exists, unchangeable, and eternal. So it is called one's face before one's parents were born. One's original face we could say. This mind, our true nature, our essential nature, our essential mind is intrinsically pure. When we are born, it is not newly created; when we die, it does not perish. It has no distinction of male or female, nor has it any coloration of good or bad. It can't be compared with anything. So it is called Buddha nature. Yet countless thoughts issue from this self nature, as waves arise in the ocean, or as images are reflected in a mirror.
Let me just comment on Buddha nature as Yasutani points out elsewhere in this book. Buddha nature just means that everything has the nature to become Buddha, become enlightened. We are all endowed with this potential, this nature to awaken to this, our original enlightenment. Buddha nature is really no nature, no fixed nature. As Hakuin says, our true self is no self. That's what gives us our freedom to change. We're not stuck with a self. We can become free.
He goes on, to realize your own mind you must first of all, look into the source from which thoughts flow. This is not something that I've heard in contemporary times doing but let's just give him his say here. Sleeping and working, standing and sitting, profoundly ask yourself, what is my own mind with an intense yearning to resolve this question? Or what is Mu? What is this? What am I? Who am I? It's all the same. This is called training, or practice, or desire for truth or thirst for realization. What is termed as zazen is no more than looking into one's own mind. Of course, zazen is much more than sitting, even though Zaha means sitting, sitting Zen. But more broadly, anytime we are not dwelling in our thoughts, and especially if we're questioning. It is better to search your own mind devotedly, than to read and recite innumerable sutras and Dharani every day for countless years. So that was a very common practice. I don't know how common but that was a common enough practice in Bassui's time and not sitting, but reciting sutras, Derani chanting. Such endeavors, he says, which are but formalities produce some merit, but this merit expires. And again, you must experience the suffering of the three evil paths. These are the three lowest of the six realms of unenlightened existence, the realm starting from the bottom of the realm of hell, and then moving up the realm of hungry ghosts and thirsty spirits. And then the third lowest one is the realm of animals.
searching one's own mind leads ultimately to enlightenment, this practice is a prerequisite to becoming a Buddha, becoming enlightened. No matter whether you have committed either the 10 evil deeds or violated the five precepts, if you turn back your mind and enlightened yourself, you are a Buddha instantly. But do not commit transgressions and expect to be saved by enlightenment from the effects of your own actions. Neither enlightenment nor a Buddha, nor a patriarch can save a person who deluding himself goes down evil ways.
Imagine a child sleeping next to its parents, and dreaming is being beaten or is painfully sick. The parents can't help the child no matter how much it suffers, for no one can enter the dreaming mind of another. If the child could awaken itself, it could be freed of this suffering automatically. In the same way, one who realizes that her own mind is Buddha frees herself instantly from the sufferings arising from ignorance of the law of ceaseless change of birth and death. If a Buddha could prevent it, would he allow even one sentient being to fall into hell? Without Self Realization, one cannot understand such things as these.
What kind of Master is it? That this very moment sees colors with the eyes and hears voices with the ears? That now raises the hands and moves the feet. We know these are functions of our own mind. But no one knows precisely how they are performed. It may be asserted that behind these actions, there is no entity, yet it is obvious they are being performed spontaneously. Conversely, it may be maintained that these are the acts of some entity. Still, the entity is invisible. If one regards this question as unfathomable, all attempts to reason out an answer will cease. And one will be at a loss to know what to do. In this promising state, deepen and deepen the yearning tirelessly to the extreme. When the profound questioning penetrates to the very bottom, and that bottom is broken open, not the slightest doubt will remain that your own mind is itself Buddha, the void universe there will be no anxiety about life or death and no truth to search for.
Not the slightest doubt will remain that your own mind is itself Buddha.
Not the slightest that will remain about your own enlightened nature.
This is one of the few ways I've ever found to answer someone who asked what is awakening. It's awakening to the fact that we are all equally endowed with this self nature this Buddha Nature. No one less than anyone else.
faith. People sometimes thank me. People who've been we will work together a long time and they haven't gotten to where they want to and they thank me for my patience. It's not a patience. I know who you are. I know that you lack nothing. And it's only a matter of time, doesn't really take patience. Just maybe just you know patient waiting. But not a matter of putting up with a student for many years, because they haven't gotten through their koan. You don't need to, for me to be convinced of your true nature.
In a dream, you may stray and lose your way home. You ask someone to show you how to return or you pray to God or Buddhas to help you, but still you can't get home. But once you rouse yourself from your dream state, you find that you are in your own bed and realize that the only way you could have gotten home was to awaken yourself. It's kind of spiritual awakening is called returning to the origin, or rebirth in paradise. It is the kind of inner realization that can be achieved with some training. Virtually all who likes zazen and make an effort and practice whether laymen or monks can experience this experience to this degree. But even such limited awakening cannot be attained except through the practice of zazen. Well, it's not true. Strictly, it's virtually necessary to do zazen but every once in a while, in rare cases, people have spontaneous awakenings. But don't count on that. You will be making a serious error however, were you to assume that this was true enlightenment in which there is no doubt about the nature of reality. You would be like someone who having found copper gives up the desire for gold. It's a stern warning to anyone who has had a glimpse gotten through his koan. Don't settle for copper.
Upon such realization question yourself even more intensely, in this way. So he's of course speaking from his own experience. My body is like a phantom, like bubbles on a stream, in other words in evanescent, in flux. My mind looking into itself is as formless as empty space, yet somewhere within sounds are perceived, who is hearing? Should you question yourself in this way with profound absorption never slackening the intensity of your effort, your rational mind eventually will exhaust itself and only questioning at the deepest level will remain. Finally, you will lose awareness of your own body. See how different that is from this much broad vaunted mindfulness is, mind body awareness body scanning. You will lose awareness of your own body. Your long held conceptions and notions will perish after absolute questioning. In the same way that every drop of water vanishes from a tub broken open at the bottom and perfect enlightenment will follow like flowers suddenly blooming on withered trees.
We'll pick up from here tomorrow and stop now and recite the Four Vows.