Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 94.

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.