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.
A monk asked Tonzan, “What is Buddha?”
Tozan replied, “ three pounds of flax.”
Three pounds of flax is the amount of material required to make a monk’s robe. But Tozan didn’t say the Buddha was a monk’s robe, he said, ‘3lbs of flax’.
Three pounds of flax is limitless in its expression and application; it could be a garment for a monk, but equally a garment for a warrior or for a merchant, a shroud for a dead person, and so on.The fourth of the five skandas is translated – usually badly – as ‘will’ or ‘mental fabrication’ but it’s a very important element of the human being; it’s that aspect of us which takes this experience here and now and makes something out of it. We literally fabricate something. We do this because what we always want to do is to grasp each aspect of the world as it appears and make it something specific. ‘Buddha’ is prior to this fabrication. We can grasp a monk’s robe, but we can’t grasp the fabric of emptiness.
In all his voluminous writings, so far as I’m aware, Master Dogen only makes a statement about Enlightenment once. And significantly he makes that not to his monks but to a lay follower. In the Genjokoan he says:
To carry the self forward to experience the myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is Awakening.Genjōkōan, Dogen
To understand this we need to understand the word for self, “jiko’’, has two distinct meanings. One is self in the ordinary sense – the ego self. And the other is the big self of everything – of which the little self is a part – the whole universe. So if we paraphrase this statement it would be something like:
To carry my self forward to experience things is delusion. To allow each thing to manifest itself is Enlightenment.
Quintessentially of course, Dogen is always talking about our experience in zazen. And in zazen, this person of practice is the Cave of the whole world, illuminated.
A monk asked, ‘ I wonder if a man of true practice can be perceived by gods and demons, or not?’ The master said, ‘they can perceive him.’ The monk said, ;where’s his fault?’ The master said, `Faults are wherever they are looked for.’ The monk said, ‘in that case it is not practice.’ The master said, ‘It is practice.’
When we start sitting it may well be from the perspective of the Sravaka or Pratyekabuddha. In other words, we are drawn to practice in the belief that it will lessen my suffering, or practice will bring me benefit, ideally enlightenment, but after a while we realise that we have completely misunderstood the nature of practice, and that the misunderstanding was necessary.
It is as if, within experience, there are multitudes. Our way of practice is not to skewer these dharmas on the needle of our definition, but to allow them to be, in all their multifacetedness and thus, quiescent, whether they vex us or not. It may not be Nirvana as we imagine it, but it is.
The Case: One day, Master Ma’s personal attendant asked him, “How is the master these days?”
Master Ma answered, “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.”
This case is also Case 3 in the Blue Cliff Record.
Master Ma is Mazu or Baso, who along with Sekito, is one of the great masters of 8th Century Chinese Zen. The reference to “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha” comes from the Buddha Names Sutra, where Sun Face Buddha is said to have a lifespan of 1800 years, and Moon Face Buddha has a lifespan of only one day and one night. Baso would die shortly after this exchange.
On the face of it, Baso is talking about two aspects of his experience, and of all our experience, namely that from one perspective we experience our lives as particular and karmic, limited in place and time. And from the other, we experience ourselves as part of the great body of all being, unlimited, universal. Rather like we may see a particular stitch on cloth as being, on the one hand, just that particular stitch, and on the other hand, part of the fabric of great being, so we can see our lives in the same way.
It seems to me that we can also look at the answer in another way, which is pointing out two aspects of experiencing non-duality.
When we experience things in sunlight, everything in this vast world is illuminated, except for the sunlight, which is invisible. We see the manifold vibrant things of the world, but the light of the Self is invisible.
In moonlight, by contrast, we see all the things on which moonlight shines as being somehow part of the moonlight. They lose their distinctiveness and their separateness and they all become part of the moonlight.
Similarly, I think when we are in Zazen, sometimes the Self drops away and we’re aware of this vast dynamic world, this vast body of all-being. And other times, our experience is quite different. It’s quite soft and intimate, particular in both place and time. It’s as if the whole of existence is taken within the soft light of the non-egoic Self and the world, as it were, disappears.
In Case 47 of the Book of Serenity, Master Joshu is asked, “What is the true meaning of Zen?” And he replies, “The cypress tree in the courtyard.”
This is a variant of a question he was frequently asked: “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?” Joshu, famously, is often asked questions about Buddha nature. The best known koan of all is probably the question to him: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”
And not just a dog. In his recorded sayings (no. 305), a monk asked Joshu, “Does the cypress tree have Buddha nature or not?”
Joshu said, “It does.”
The monk said, “When will it become Buddha?”
Joshu said, “When the sky falls to the ground.”
The monk said, “When will the sky fall to the ground?”
The Master said, “When the cypress tree becomes Buddha.”
What are we to take from that?
What do we understand the cypress tree to be? It seems easy enough for us to see how the roots of the cypress tree extend into the deep ground underneath our constructed world.
But it’s harder for us to see how the branches of the tree vigorously extend into space, into ‘emptiness’.
Yet when we talk of the empty sky or space falling to the ground, isn’t that the real experience of the cypress tree?
The cypress tree, in its wholehearted, undivided activity, is both fully engaged with this ground of all being, and equally is fully engaged with emptiness, and makes both intimate within its undivided activity. Likewise the practitioner.
For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.
Is it helpful if we label our thoughts during Zazen?
I first came across this with the great Charlotte Joko Beck, who encouraged people doing Zazen who were vexed with a thought to label it as, say, anxiety, or dissatisfaction, or excitement. She seemed to think that if a thought was labelled, it was easier to put it to one side.
There’s obviously a number of separate issues arising here.
One issue is that the risk of labelling a thought is that you’re then caught up in a narrative. So if you label a thought as anxiety, then you’re tempted to ask, “Well, why am I anxious?” and then, before you know it, you’re making up a big story, and becoming disconnected from your actual, embodied experience.
But the other thing is, you might be wrong. Very often people label an emotion in an obviously mistaken way. Very often, people who are angry say that they’re sad, for example. I wonder about the origin of this. Perhaps, as little children, we were upset or angry or whatever, and our mother came to us and comforted us explaining what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it. Once we’ve got that explanation, then, in a way, it’s contained–it’s comfortable.
As adults we can do something similar, but of course our mothers’ effort is an effort of translation. And that translation could be mistaken, and our own translation of what we’re experiencing might be mistaken also. In fact it might be impossible to translate our actual experience without making mistakes.
This issue of translation has been very familiar in Buddhism from the outset. In the original enlightenment story of the Buddha, the Buddha originally thought that what he’d understood was too difficult to explain to people. It was only after a lot of reflection that he thought that he should share it.
It’s an issue in Buddhist history how he decided to share that. So, whether he expressed the truth as he experienced it, or whether he expressed the truth by what’s called “expedient means”–expressing the truth in a way that makes sense to the person that you’re talking to.
Although it might seem weird to put it in this way, as it were, we’re all clairvoyant, but clairvoyant with ourselves. We’re always experiencing this flood of “something,” which we then require to make intelligible–first to ourselves and then to someone else.
In Chapter 1 of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha, whilst meditating, shoots out a beam of light from his Third Eye in the direction of the Eastern Lands, illuminating 18,000 worlds. Within all those worlds there are people going through the Six Realms of Transmigration together with the sravakas, the pratyekabuddhas, the bodhisattvas and the Buddhas teaching those people in those lands.
It appears to be a fantastical image, but I think it’s an accurate description of our experience in Zazen. There’s the scale and range and diversity of experience, and expression, and emotion and thought, and all the rest of it. But it’s all contained within this all-encompassing light, emanating from the Buddha. So this incredible, vast and diverse experience is all held within the illuminating space of this awareness.
And that seems to me to be a crucial clue for how we should regard everything, which arises within zazen. So we’re not, obviously, labelling a thought in the sense of labelling a piece of luggage or labelling an inert thing. But generally I can’t recommend it, because it seems to retain the categories of our ordinary, dualistic life. In Zazen, we are always seeing or feeling a momentary ‘something’/no-thing, which has its own life and capacity for transformation, so we leave it be. And if we do so, each thing is everything and so, quiescent.
This case also appears as Case 8 in the Book of Serenity, which was compiled about 100 years before The Gateless Gate. But the interesting thing is that the case in the Book of Serenity is truncated, so it doesn’t have the section about the deceased Monk/Fox being given a Buddhist burial. And it doesn’t, crucially, have this final exchange between Hyakujō and Ōbaku.
But before getting to that, I think it’s helpful to clarify a couple of things that make this story a little bit more comprehensible. Firstly, in East Asian folklore, the Fox is a shapeshifter. So a fox can assume, among other things, the form of a human being and successfully pass himself off as a human being.
Secondly, the abbot of a monastery will be named after the mountain on which the monastery is. So both the Fox/Monk, who was the abbot in a previous life, and the present Hyakujō, are called Hyakujō. Which obviously leads one to question how many people are appearing in this initial part of the story.
The other funny thing is that the Fox appears to have knowledge of the 500 lifetimes in which he was incarnated in the body of a Fox. But this is curious, as traditionally only the Buddha, or arguably an enlightened person – a great person – has knowledge of their past lives. And of course the 500 lives that the Fox says that he’s been within a Fox body mirrors the 500 lives which the Buddha is said to have had before attaining Buddhahood.
It’s also helpful to know that in Zen parlance, somebody falsely claiming enlightenment, falsely claiming to be a great person, or who is enlightened or wise but is unbalanced by that, for reasons that we’ll come to, is referred to as a Wild Fox.
The general commentary in this story focuses on the two answers given by the earlier Hyakujō and the later Hyakujō. That commentary doesn’t say that the first answer is wrong, but somehow that it’s incomplete. So the two answers are often referred to as two sides of the one coin.
If we take the first Hyakujō’s answer literally, that a great person doesn’t fall into cause and effect, then an enlightened person could do whatever they liked without consequence. That’s plainly wrong, but that’s not generally the meaning that’s ascribed to the answer. The suggestion is that a great person cannot fall into cause and effect is because a great person is never separate from cause and effect. There is no illusion of Self separate from cause and effect.
But of course that answer is vulnerable to misinterpretation, because a naive person could think that an enlightened person is capable of acting without consequence. So the second Hyakujō’s balancing answer is necessary because it makes clear, not that cause and effect doesn’t exist for the enlightened person, but rather that for the enlightened person there is no enlightened person.
With that in mind, here is my take on what I think is the hidden message within the story, which is clarified by the addition of these two sections of the Gateless Gate. And that message, which I think is hiding in plain sight, concerns the difference in the relationship between the first Hyakujō and the Monk who asks the original question, and the relationship between the second Hyakujō, our Hyakujō, and Ōbaku, in the exchange at the end.
In the earlier exchange between the Monk and first Hyakujō, so far as we can see, the Monk simply respectfully asks a question and accepts the answer. There’s a kind of hierarchical relationship between the Teacher and the Monk. The Teacher is the guy that knows, and he’s giving the benefit of his wisdom to the Monk, the guy that doesn’t know. Teachers are very vulnerable to falling into the body of a Wild Fox if the relationship they have with their students is one of unquestioning acceptance.
Moving on from that, there’s a homonym in Mandarin; the word for “beard” and the word for “fox” have the same sound. And of course, a Fox is red-cloured. So there’s a suggestion in the final exchange between Hyakujō and Ōbaku that both the Great Teacher (Bodhidharma being a red bearded barbarian) and the Wild Fox exist within the one person. And existing within the one person, yet being able to recognise that, stops the emergence of the Wild Fox usurping the Teacher. Your teacher is a fox if they are operating under the illusion that the Teacher is the Great Person, because the Great Person is the whole body of the Sangha, which is carrying the Buddhist teaching forward.
And I think that this is the symbolic function of the funeral, that it’s a collective effort that Hyakujō and the monks are all making, to recognise the body of the Fox. And in accepting it, giving it Buddhist funerary rites, is also to cast it out. For now.
For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.
At the end of our sitting periods, we usually chant the Heart Sutra. Some of us must have chanted it thousands of times, yet its meaning is very difficult for us to understand.
It’s called The Heart Sutra because it’s the compressed version of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, an enormous body of sutras on the theme of emptiness. And the heart of the Heart Sutra is really in the first line, which goes as follows:
The Bodhisattva of Compassion
Sees clearly that the five skandhas are empty
And accordingly relieves all suffering.
So what do we make of this? Firstly, the reference to Prajñāpāramitā is one of the six Pāramitās, or Perfections, of the Bodhisattva. And, certainly in the Zen context, practising Prajñāpāramitā means practising Zazen.
So, in this first sentence we have the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is obviously not a real person, we have Prajñā, we have Emptiness, and we have the Five Skandhas, namely the five constituents of the human being. So just in this sentence, we have Compassion, Wisdom and Emptiness, all next to each other–which is really emblematic of the whole Mahāyāna school.
Emptiness does not mean nothingness. Emptiness means that all phenomena are empty of a Self. That the world is empty of you, not that the universe is a fiction.
For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.
In his Fukanzuzengi, his Universal Recommendation for the Practice of Zazen, Master Dogen has this to say about Zazen: it is not learning meditation, it’s simply the Dharma Gate of Ease and Joy.
The Dharma Gate of Ease and Joy
Dogen is a famously difficult writer and this seems a surprisingly straightforward passage. But although it’s straightforward, it’s hard for us to get. At a pinch, I think, we can understand how Zazen connects with Ease, in the sense that we’re putting aside our ideas, our conditioning.
If we think of Zazen in terms of the Virtues, we’re probably thinking of Equanimity. Compassion too, at a push. But Joy? That seems much more problematic.
It’s difficult. It’s physically challenging. It’s psychologically very challenging. Surely the point of it is to enduringly go towards some state that we might term Enlightenment. Which might, of course, entail Joy. And I think that would be most people’s understanding of what Zazen is, and indeed what meditation is.
But Dogen doesn’t say that “at some point in the future, Zazen will be joyful”. He says that Joy is one of its principle characteristics, together with Ease. And I think to have any chance of understanding what he’s talking about, we have to go back to basics, and the basics for us mean the basics of the Posture.
It’s one of the peculiarities of Buddhism that the central feature of it is this very physical practice of meditation. But yet we’re not given huge amounts of instruction about how we’re supposed to sit.
So for example, when I was first introduced to Zazen I was told only two things.
The first is that if you’re sitting in some variant of the cross-legged position, then your knees need to be on the ground. And that’s eminently practical, because if your knees are off the ground, propped up by a cushion, your back’s going to bow out and you’re going to be uncomfortable. And the second instruction, which is more ubiquitous I think, was that we should push up with the top of the head and tuck the chin in.
And that was it.
The instruction about the knees obviously makes sense. The instruction about pushing up with the top of the head is a terrible instruction, and it’s terrible because it’s introducing tension – more tension–into the head and neck. And it’s directing our attention to the wrong place. It’s like trying to improve the decor of the attic whilst the basement is collapsing from dry rot.
So the foundation of our practice requires us to start lower down. What I say to my students, repetitively – but never enough – is that the absolute foundation of sitting is the correct position of your pelvis. That’s absolutely essential. And specifically you require to tilt your pelvis forward in such a way that your bum is sticking out a bit, so there’s a curve in your lower spine. And your weight is going down directly through your sit bones, and specifically the middle and front sections of your set bones.
And if you have that as your foundation, then everything above that stands a chance of being right. If your pelvis is in the right position, you’re not having to make an effort to keep your trunk straight. Your trunk is naturally straight. And you could sit upright for an indefinite period of time.
And likewise, because your pelvis is in the right position, your head can be in the right position as well. It can be nice and balanced, and not heavy on the trunk. And that produces tremendous benefits. Conversely, if we’re following some idiotic instruction like pushing up our head, whilst our pelvis is out of position, then we’re going to be uncomfortable and our attention is going to be disproportionately fixed on our head.
Which means even more disproportionately on our thoughts, and we’ll state that the purpose of Zazen is to empty the mind. Then fruitlessly try to get rid of those ridiculous repetitive thoughts, and replace them with something wise, or empty. Or both.
However, if the body is in the right position, then our attention isn’t so much on our head and trying to do something with the head and neck. Our attention is much more on our torso. If we’re sitting in the right position, the musculature of our body is right, so those nice postural muscles are doing their proper job. And our breathing is naturally in our lower belly and our pelvis, primarily. It’s obviously not fixed there – because that creates more tension–but it’s primarily located there, naturally.
And here’s the point: if our body is balanced we’re released from the tyranny of the mind. If our body is balanced then our awareness can be embodied. And if awareness is embodied, then we have a lot more attention that we can give to our pelvis, to our belly, to our torso, to our throat. And the effect of all of that is that the stretching that we’re trying to do through our will if we’re trying to consciously push up with the top of our head seems to effortlessly occur, lower down.
There is a sense of expansion and elongation in the torso but it’s not willed. It’s not something that we’re intentionally doing with our muscles. It’s something that happens naturally.
Then we’re experiencing the body, the whole body, when we’re sitting. Not as some vehicle of the mind, but as something pleasurable and dynamically alive.
One of Dogen’s best known texts is the Fukanzazengi , his universal recommendation of zazen; his instructions about how to do Zazen.
What many people don’t know is that his text is an almost exact copy of a text which was written about a hundred years before, Chang-Lu Tsung-Tse’s Manual of Zen Meditation. What Dogen does is add a chunky section at the beginning and end. What is interesting and innovative is what he’s added and what he’s omitted. Specifically he doesn’t incorporate a passage in the early work which reads “when the water of meditation is clear, the pearl of the mind will appear of itself”.
The idea of the mind in meditation being comparable to water has got quite a vintage. So in the Surangama Sutra for example we are told that in still water the moon will reflect itself clearly – the moon being a symbol for enlightenment – and we can also see how this still water clearly and accurately reflecting everything without becoming caught up is of a piece with another metaphor which is very popular in Zen, the Mirror.
This image of the pearl that Tsung-Tse is using in his text is similar in function, but instead of the clear water enabling a perfect reflection of above to be made, the clear water enables us to look down clearly and see the pearl of our practice.
It’s noteworthy in Dogen’s writings – particularly his poetry – that he really radicalises and changes fundamentally this image that our mind should be like still water.
So for example in his poem Shobogenzo, he writes, “The Dharma, like an oyster, washed atop a high cliff, even waves crashing against it, like words, may reach but cannot wash it away”.
In that poem, he takes the hackneyed image of water and radicalises it’s turbulence to the extent that it actually throws the pearl clear out of the water and onto a high cliff.
Zazen is often referred to as the mountain still state. And what is a cliff, other than a sundered mountain. And for the cliff, the surging universal life touches its heart rather than swirls around its form.
Our white cliff of bone, practicing Zazen, is sometimes touched by emptiness and sometimes touched by the whole surging weight of this ocean of everything.
We can see that the metaphor of the water and the waves has taken on a fundamentally different meaning, so specifically it’s gone from the personal to the universal. The original meaning of the metaphor is – my mind quietens down, the waves abate, so I am able to see the pearl. I can clearly and dispassionately reflect the moon up in the sky.
Because Dogen radicalises the image, the water is no longer seen in those personal terms but rather is seen in as the whole activity of everything.
And practice is seen to be not my practice but our practice; the activity and expression of all beings.
For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.