We collect kusen from our teacher John Fraser. Kusen 口宣 means a teaching spoken from the mouth, some kusen are Koan commentary, or about Poetry or Sitting Instructions, the rest are numbered as general Kusen. This page is for all of these types of kusen. These are spoken towards the end of a zazen sitting. Several kusen have references and further information, as well as related videos, on the Latest page.
The Tendai school say that there are three distinct approaches to spiritual practice: the gradual, the variable, and the sudden.
The gradual, as the name suggests, proceeds through stages. First, you accept the Buddhist life—the precepts and so on. Second, you cultivate equanimity — calming and steadiness in meditation. Thirdly, having cultivated that steadiness, you practise insight into the way how things are—the way that you are. Having done all of that you cultivate compassion—the bodhisattva path. You proceed in that way in the direction of the Buddha.
The metaphor – metaphors are very important – used is the ladder. It’s an unusual metaphor because you’d expect the familiar metaphor of the path to be used.
The path is an obvious conceptualization of practice as the idea that you’re going somewhere. You start from one position and through effort, you get to another position. Obviously that is the case with the ladder too, but in an oddly vertical way. In one way, you change position. In another, you don’t.
The metaphor which is used for the sudden approach is another unusual metaphor. It is the metaphor of a magician being able to suspend himself in mid air. That metaphor obviously takes advantage of the very close relationship in Chinese between the words for space, sky and emptiness.
The idea is that entering into somewhere is completely entering that place. Having a slight experience of emptiness is simultaneously having that experience – which can have its own life of growth and development – but which is also entering into the whole space.
That sudden idea of practice is, for better or worse, one that was taken up by the subsequent Zen tradition.
It pays to carefully consider the ways in which these two metaphors are a complement and contrast to each other. They exemplify the point that it really is impossible to understand Buddhism without taking the metaphors seriously.
And taking them seriously means taking them on their own terms.
In traditional Buddhism there’s an idea of the various Ages that the world goes through.
In the time of the historical Buddha, we’re in the first Age, which lasts for about 500 years.In that time, it’s easy for people to be liberated. Following that there’s an Age that’s not quite so good.Liberation is much more difficult. Following that is an age that’s distinctly degenerate. Liberation is impossible. And following that agre, Buddhism disappears. We simply have to wait for the next Buddha to come along
But I wonder if there’s a different way of regarding these Ages.
You could say that all the ages are all there, all at the same time. But one has more prominence than the others. If you look at China, for instance, Chinese Buddhism doesn’t really acquire any of these distinctive characteristics until about 500 years or so after Buddhism first arrives in China.
At that point there is an incredible flowering of Chinese Buddhist culture, evidenced in, amongst others, the ‘Awakening the Faith in Mahayana’ and the writings the T’ien Tai school, the Huayan school, the Zen school, and the Pure Land school.
Similarly, in Japan, it takes about 500 years or so between the arrival of Buddhism and the flowering that it had in the 13th century of distinctively Japanese forms of Buddhism; specifically for us the Buddhism of Dogen but also Nichiren, Shinran and others that all appeared much about the same time.
It seems to me that when Buddhism first goes to a different culture, that’s its degenerate phase. It’s degenerate because the characteristic way that civilizations will deal with something new is that they’ll either imitate it or they’ll attempt to assimilate it to existing ideas.
We can see this very clearly in the West. In terms of imitation, we’ve all these people dressing themselves up as Asian monks and constructing dojos that purport to replicate medieval Japanese dojos and so on.
And we have assimilationists. Much [but not all] of the Mindfulness Movement would be in that category. They say well, this is Buddhism, but we can fit it within our ideas of wellness and individual development. We can get rid of all the historical barnacles that disguise that.
I think that we are not, at least on the surface, in a great stage of Buddhism. The degenerate stage occurs first and a long time into our future —hundreds of years perhaps, at that point, there’s the potential for us; both to take Buddhism seriously and to understand it; but also to have digested it.
So then what comes out of us is something valuable—something genuinely new.
Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2 Case 91:
One day Master Tenno Dogo asked Master Sekito Kisen, ” What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?”
Master Sekito said, “It isn’t graspable. It isn’t knowable.”
Master Dogo said, “Can you say anything else?”
Master Sekito said, “The wide sky does not hinder the flying white clouds.”
In one way we can take Sekito’s answer as being a statement of the non-obstruction of form and emptiness and the mutual dependence of form and emptiness—their interpenetration.
In another way we can focus on the innovative use of clouds in the answer that Sekito gives. This is helpful because it clarifies the difference between a living language and a dead one, or in traditional parlance — living words and dead words. Clouds are used famously, and in a contrary way, in a metaphor for Buddha Nature.
Buddha Nature is like the sun. It’s always there but we can’t always see it because sometimes it’s obscured by clouds. That’s why we require faith. So clouds, in this metaphor, are symbolic of mental obstruction— confusion, doubt and so on.
Here’s the danger: because we have such a poor, superficial understanding of symbolic language, we think that the different elements within these various Buddhist metaphors have a fixed meaning. So there’s clouds, that means mental afflictions; there’s the sun, that means Buddha Nature and so on.
All these pictures then can yield up a particular meaning based on a fixed symbolic vocabulary.
Thinking this way is plainly fatal to any kind of living Buddhism and it’s absolutely not what Buddhism historically has engaged in. Rather than having a fixed meaning, these various pictorial elements: the wind, the clouds, the sun, the moon, the water, the pearl, and so on, are more like people. They can gather together and separate and express themselves in unusual and new ways. Those people can have within them the Buddha—concealed and then revealing himself in an unusual way.
In this sense, Buddhism, once we can see it as a history and play of metaphor, is very alive.
It’s as if Light is all the time forming and reforming itself.
Mahayana Buddhism, in all its fantastical detail and complexity, is an attempt to answer two questions.
The first: “Isn’t the wish to be free from desire a sort of desire?”
The second: “If we accept the radical interdependence of all being, isn’t the wish to be liberated from that interdependence a kind of ignorance?”
In the attempt to answer these questions we can see the central place of compassion.
But we need to understand what compassion means.
Primarily, we need to understand that compassion is not a personal quality. It’s not something which you cultivate or accumulate. It’s not kindness or pity or generosity.
It’s feeling with, the self, as it were, is unfolded and recorded into this feeling with.
It’s from that starting point that we can understand some of the more fantastical, or apparently fantastical aspects of Mahayana.
We can start to understand both how practitioners can be viewed as bodhisattvas and how the world as a whole and the beings in that world can likewise be seen as bodhisattvas—as having a liberative capacity. Because compassion is a universal quality that transiently locates itself within particular beings, like the air in our lungs, then it is continually being expressed everywhere.
The Sanskrit word for ignorance, avidya, literally means darkness.’Vidya’ is seeing, and the prefix is the direct negative.
Understanding that makes it clear that darkness is a metaphor about seeing. In the darkness, we can’t see anything. Apart from the darkness. So darkness is not a metaphor for seeing nothing, it’s seeing just one thing and assuming it is everything.
We think that to become familiar with Buddhism we’re required to become familiar with the whole edifice of doctrines, ideas and controversies, but that’s not true. What we need to do is to become intimate with the metaphors which are used. Not metaphors understood as a kind of encrypted meaning but metaphors as liberative ways of seeing. Not seeing them like a text but seeing them as like a person, capable of infinite engagement and expression.
Because language always fossilises, it is our responsibility as practitioners to attempt, as sincerely as we can, to generate our own ways of expression.
The metaphor of the mirror is a good illustration. We can see that metaphor in doctrinal terms, pointing to the illusoriness of separate phenomena. We can see it as a metaphor for the interpenetration of all things. We can see it as a metaphor for the mind—calm and meditative—able to experience all phenomena as they are, with equanimity.
All these formulations are not wrong but they’re incomplete. They’re incomplete because they do not move our hearts. They stay within a conceptual framework. Like seeing ignorance as a disguised metaphor of sight, we can see the mirror as a metaphor for liberating seeing: the mirror of the Buddha, the mirror of another person, the mirror of a bodhisattva, and the mirror of you, but at some past or future time. All different ways of seeing, not one displacing the other, but all of them within a liberative kaleidoscope of seeing.
It’s not as it were, the person that is liberated into correct seeing, but the seeing is liberated.
It’s that shift, essentially a shift from our conceptual world to an alive experience world, which is the shift that we’re looking for.
That’s why Buddhist truth is often called ‘the inconceivable’. Not because it’s very difficult to understand, but because its purpose is to knock us out with that constructed realm. Until then, it’s as if we’re deaf beings in a world of deaf beings. We cannot hear the voices of the other. And in this world, all movement and vitality has evaporated: we are seeing all beings, but as objects. We see them in the mirror of our mind and we see them in the mirror of our language.
Then suddenly, we start to sing. We can’t hear ourselves sing but we know that something is different within our experience. Something is different. When the world sings back at us, even although we cannot hear this with the mind or with language, we know that something has changed.
Even though we cannot describe it, because we cannot describe it—something has changed.
In the Yogacara perspective there are said to be three natures: the conditioned nature, the dependent nature, and the perfected nature.
The conditioned nature is the way that the ordinary person sees the world; as constructed of familiar objects, as seen conceptually.
The dependent nature, is seeing everything as impermanent, as interdependent.
The perfected nature is seeing everything as suchness.
The metaphor which is used to explain the distinction between these three natures is the metaphor of a person with cataracts seeing flowers in the sky. Flowers which obviously aren’t there. In the conditioned nature, a person seeing these flowers in the sky, unaware he has cataracts, will think of the sky flowers as real.
For the dependent nature the person seeing these sky flowers realises that he has cataracts and so he understands that the phenomena of sky flowers, is simply generated by a matrix of causes and conditions. The fact that he has cataracts, the pattern of light playing on his cataracts and so on.
In the perfected nature the person with cataracts understands that the sky flowers are neither real or unreal. They’re not real because they’ve no self nature yet they’re not unreal because all experience is real. That position, where there is plainly experience but where one cannot assert a self behind that experience, or behind phenomena, is suchness.
The problem with schemas such as this is that they can be quite bloodless. It seems that they’re inviting us to understand the world in a conceptual way. That’s very unfortunate because what these apparent concepts are designed to do is to take us into an emotional, feeling position, because that’s where we change.
You could say that in the dependent nature it’s as if I’m travelling through the landscape of my life—like in a train or like a car. I’m seeing my life—but I’m seeing it in a disconnected way. It has a slightly unreal quality to it and I’m not intimately part of it.
For the dependent nature it’s as if in a dream. I’m always running towards something, yet just as I’m approaching it, it vanishes into nothingness.
In the perfected nature I understand – at a visceral level – that all experience is a miracle.
The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana is a treatise that was written in China around about 550 a.d. It’s attributed to Aśvaghoṣa who certainly didn’t write it and the translation is attributed to Paramartha, an important Indian buddhist monk who relocated himself to China. He may have written it. He may also have written the Buddha Nature treatise.
It’s a really important treatise. It comes at a point when the Chinese appear to have assimilated the Mahayana sutras which, following on from and balancing Narajuna, give a positive language and a positive view of emptiness.
Using terms such as ‘thusness’ or ‘suchness’ or ‘the tathagatagarbha’, the Treatise uses that positive language more comprehensively, and it immediately precedes, and plays a part in forming, the distinctively Chinese schools: the T’ien–t’ai–the Tendai school, the Huayan school, the Zen school and the Pure Land school.
The most famous commentary on the treatise was by Fazang, the third patriarch of the Huayan school.
The Treatise sets out, in a very systematic and terse way, the nature of reality. It takes as its starting point a position of imminence rather than duality or transcendence. The nature of that imminance it calls ‘Suchness’ . When Suchness manifests itself in the phenomenal realm, (which is not separate from the absolute realm) , it’s called ‘Mind’.
This is an extremely important point because it helps clarify what people like Mazu/Baso meant when they were talking about Ordinary Mind.
It continues, in a clearer and more methodical way, the innovation in the Lankavatara Sutra of combining two separate Mahayanan threads. The first, originally in the Tathagatagarbha sutra and later in the Nirvana sutra, is of all beings having – in some sense – Buddha Nature. The second is the Yogacara concept of the eight consciousnesses, but specifically the alaya -storehouse- consciousness. Putting these two together was natural, as the Chinese chose to use the word ‘zong’, treasure house/storehouse for both the alaya consciousness, and also the tathagatagarbha.
The basic idea is that our underlying reality is thusness or suchness but that is overlayed by ignorance. That ignorance doesn’t have a beginning ( because it has never truly existed), but it does have an end.
When there’s a turn to enlightenment, the eighth consciousness, the storehouse consciousness, ( which is anyway fused – in a not entirely clear way – with the Tathagatagarbha Buddha Nature) purifies itself, and the tathagatagarbha emerges.
That is one really helpful aspect of the treatise because that perspective is the one which generally attains dominance within Chinese Buddhism subsequently, but is often assumed rather than stated, which can make understanding what people of that time were trying to say difficult.
The overarching metaphor which is used in the Treatise is the ocean and the waves. The ocean ( in a departure from the more negative use of the ocean as a metaphor for samsara) represents suchness or mind and the waves represent phenomenal reality. The waves are created by the wind of ignorance or externality. The point is that the waves -ignorance- are conditional, but the ocean isn’t, yet even in that conditionality, the waves are always part of the ocean. Just as the waves are always wet, Suchness is always here, whatever our confusion.
We can also see the importance of Faith, standing in stark contrast to our ideas of attainment and self improvement.
When the wind dies down through practice and through faith, the ocean becomes like a mirror, clearly reflecting whatever is there. Reflecting the moon above. Rendering visible the pearl of wisdom at the bottom of the ocean.
And that also ties in with Yogacara, where it’s said that the eighth consciousness, when purified, becomes like a great mirror. And the mirror metaphor is very frequently used by the Zen teachers, although not exclusively in this way.
There’s a dance between different but related metaphors: the ocean and the waves and the mirror. And we must add space, which in the Treatise is used as a synonym for suchness, thusness and emptiness. It’s used in that way because space is indivisible.You wouldn’t say there’s 10 square metres of space in my room and outside there’s another 50 square metres of space and the two are different. Space is the same space whether it’s here or a billion miles away, and the space holds all beings within it.
In that sense, space is a metaphor ( and in meditation, the reality) for the unitary nature of being expressed in the Dharmakaya. Which is why it’s said that the Buddha’s true body, the Dharmakaya, is just like space.
In the treatise the word mahayana isn’t a reference to the Mahayana school. It’s a reference to suchness. So it’s faith in suchness, not in the tenets of the Mahayana.
The Treatise is in effect saying that faith in the reality of suchness manifests suchness. So what is primarily required from us is faith,because everything follows from that. And, the first classic of Zen literature is Verses of Faith Mind.
Buddha Nature is said to exist in two forms. When it’s covered over by kleshas, the defilements, it’s called tathagatagarbha—Buddha embryo or womb.
When those defilements don’t exist anymore, it’s called Dharmakaya. Dharmakaya is the universal body of the Buddha, the Body which encompasses all of existence. The Dharmakaya is said (in the Nirvana sutra for instance) to have four qualities: self, bliss, eternity and purity.
When we hear that, it doesnt sound like Buddhism. In fact, it sounds like the complete opposite of. everything that we’ve been taught about no self, impermanence and suffering. Indeed those four qualities are the opposite of the four qualities which we’re told characterises samsara: suffering, the belief in a personal, continuing self, impermanence and the kleshas,-—the mental impurities.
In her book ‘Buddha Nature’, Sallie King says that the Dharmakaya isn’t about establishing a new self. Rather, it’s a creative and appropriate response to Nagarjuna. Her argument is that Nagarjuna’s method of subjecting all concepts to destructive analysis leaves us with a conception of emptiness which is negative.
In his time – and now too – Nagarjuna is often criticised (unfairly and incorrectly) as a nihilist, because the positive side of his teaching is ignored, because it’s not explicit in his principal writings. It’s there by inference.
In that way, it’s quite similar to the Buddha, who doesn’t describe the state that the meditator is in when they leave their misconceived conceptual world—when they leave their adherence to a fixed sense of self—it’s simply left for the practitioner to discover, because explication would leave the practitioner still mired in a conceptual position.
Likewise, when Nagarjuna clears away all the erroneous, conceptual structures he doesn’t tell us what the ground, which is left, looks like. The suggestion Sallie King makes is that after Nagarjuna, the emerging Mahayana tradition took a turn towards talking about emptiness in positive terms to remedy this misunderstanding which led to nihilism. Compassion was further emphasised, for the same reason.
The various sutras that we associate with that were turbocharged in impact because of the fortunate coincidence (for them) of their appearance in the early centuries of the common era. This coincided with the reception of Buddhism in China. Because the positive language of those sutras was much more in keeping with the positive view the Chinese had of the world (rather than a quite pervasive view in the Indian spiritual traditions that the world was something that we require to be liberated from), these sutras thrived in their new environment.
Careful analysis of the texts has made it clear that people no one thought that the Dharmakaya or the Tathagatagarba was a ‘something’, contravening emptiness. Rather, it was a positive interpretation of emptiness, so for instance, in the Buddha Nature Treatise, there’s the following passage,”Buddha Nature is the thusness revealed by the dual emptiness of person and things. If one does not speak of Buddha Nature then one does not understand emptiness.” The author is clear that you need to see these concepts through the lens of Emptiness.
And if we also see these concepts through the lens of Practice then it seems to me that Dharmakaya, the universal body of the Buddha, is an experientially accurate way of describing our experience sometimes in Zazen—of non-separation, of the the split between ourselves and the world and the internal splits that we have dropping away, which Isso Fujita calls one piece Zen.
The term ‘Buddha Nature’ first appears in the Tathagatagarbha Sutra and in a number of subsequent sutras, most famously the Nirvana Sutra and thence, via the Lankavatara Sutra, into Zen, hence the most famous koan about whether or not a dog has Buddha Nature
The Tathagata Sutra is a really interesting sutra. It’s very short and it’s not discursive. It has an instruction, then eight similies for Buddha Nature.
The introduction was apparently added later. In it, the Buddha is giving a talk to a large number of named bodhisattvas. He performs a kind of conjuring trick, miraculously creating the appearance of a multitude of beautiful lotus flowers in the sky. Within each lotus flower, there’s a Buddha.
After the initial vision, the lotus flowers suddenly wither, giving off a foul stench.
The similes used are interesting too:
The first is honey in a cave or a tree surrounded by a swarm of bees;
The second is a kernel of wheat that has not had the husk removed;
The third is gold in a pit of waste;
The fourth is an unknown treasure underneath a poor person’s house;
The fifth is the core of a fruit which can then develop into a magnificent tree;
The sixth is a gold statue wrapped in filthy rags;
The seventh, which probably gives the sutra its name, is (and I’m quoting) ” an impoverished, vile and ugly woman, hated by others, who bears a king in her womb”;
The last one is a golden statue which has been in a foundry, so has a dark casing.
All of these similes refer to the kleshas. ‘Klesha’ literally means poison and in this context means a mental state that clouds the mind. There’s lots of them: ignorance,
self-centeredness, attachment, avoidance, and fear, and many others.
Klesha is often translated as ‘adventitious defilements’. This is typical of an elevated way of translating which, focusing on apparent accuracy of meaning, distances us from the emotional sense of the term translated. In a similar way, is-ness is often rendered as thusness, and we lose the sense of “well, it doesn’t (independently and separately) exist but it doesn’t not exist either, so what do we call it?”; a human sense, that you can imagine real people actually saying. This does seem to happen in translation quite a lot. For example, when Ernest Jones translated Freud he rendered ‘Ich’ (‘I’) as ‘Ego’, with predictable consequences.
Given the ubiquity of euphemism, my guess is that the pit of waste is really a pit of shit. The dirty robes/rags are probably something similar. Despite that, the emotion in these similes remains clear:
the angry swarm of bees protecting the honey is anger;
the kernel of wheat inside the husk that is unknown is ignorance,
the the pit of shit is disgust;
the treasure beneath the poor person’s house is ignorance again,
the core of the fruit, ignorance again;
the gold statue wrapped in filthy rags, disgust again;
the impoverished vile woman, disgust;
a golden statue wrapped within a dark casing, ignorance;
and the initial image that we have about these flowers giving off a foul stench is obviously disgust as well.
These are emotions that we generally don’t want to go anywhere near—just like we wouldn’t want to go near a pit of shit, we don’t want to go near our disgust, our anger and so on.
If we pay attention to the emotions which are invoked by these similes then I think we can understand how the Tathagata, far from being some quaint Chinese medieval device, is actually a very good description of Zazen.
When we’re sitting we’re aware of this kind of dynamic emptiness – this treasure – at our centre.We’re also aware of all our surrounding nonsense: our fluctuating thought babble, emotions, images and all the rest. All of which are just coming and going and which we can see doesn’t really exist. That’s where the introduction is helpful, because it is saying that these stinking lotus flowers, these kleshas don’t exist either, because they’re all taking place within the Buddha’s conjuring trick.
If you understand all of that, then it seems to me that the Tathagatagarbha is a very helpful and practical way of looking at our practice and our experience in Zazen.
A central idea within Mahayana Buddhism is the Dharmakaya, the universal body of the Buddha — the whole universe is the body of the Buddha.
Although this is quite difficult for us, it’s a perspective which is fairly constant within Chinese Buddhism. It appears in various forms.
For example,in the Huayan school, the foundational idea is derived from the proposition that everything’s empty. And because, like space, emptiness is one, there’s not a billion, billion pieces of emptiness.
And because that is so, each thing is all things and each thing is identical with each other thing. Identical, because different.
There is a striking resemblance with Spinoza’s idea that there is nothing which is not God.
What this supports – and this is the real point – is the insight that our liberation is not transcendent. There is not some other special place that we need to go to—it’s not attainment.
It is understanding that our true nature and the nature of this world is not separate. The perspective is immanent rather than transcendent. That changes everything.
The dharmakaya is ‘virtual’ in the Deleuzian sense: it only appears through individual things. These individual things are both in their particular dharma position, but also, in their emptiness, they escape from that particularity.
We’re not confined within the boundaries either of our own skin or of the feeble stories we tell ourselves.
The dharmakaya, erroneously thought of as a proposition about the nature of reality, is quite abstract. Huayan makes it brilliantly real. The whole universe, like a body, is whole, integrated, diverse and alive—each part is its own part and is also whole.
We need to understand that the door is always open.