Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 82.

Koan Commentaries

One day Master Hyakujo went with Master Baso Do-itsu for a walk. As they walked along they saw a group of wild ducks flying in the sky.

Master Baso said: What are they?

Master Hyakujo said: Wild ducks.

Master Baso said: Where are they going?

Master Hyakujo said: They have flown away.

Master Baso grasped Mater Hyakujo’s nose and twisted it. Master Hyakujo could not tolerate the pain and cried out: Aagh! Aagh!

Master Baso said: Although you said they have flown away, you are always at this place.

Master Hyakujo immediately broke out in a sweat, and just then he experienced a reflection of the truth.

The next day Master Hyakujo attended an informal teaching given by Master Baso, where a few monks had gathered. Master Hyakujo stepped forward, rolled up Master Baso’s prostration mat and put it away.

Master Baso got down from the lecture seat and went back to his personal room, followed by Master Hyakujo. He then asked Master Hyakujo: I went to the Lecture Hall, but why did you put away the prostration mat before I had preached anything?

Master Hyakujo said: Yesterday I was caught by the tip of my nose by the Master and it was very painful.

Master Baso said: Yesterday, where did you concentrate your mind?

Master Hyakujo said: Today the tip of my nose is not painful any more.

Master Baso said: Now you know the profound matter of this very moment.

Then Master Hyakujo prostrated himself and went out.

Commentary by Nishijima

Master Hyakujo Ekai was walking out with his Master, Baso Do-itsu, when a flock of wild ducks flew overhead. Master Baso asked what they were, and Master Hyakujo answered that they were wild ducks. Master Baso asked where they were going, and Master Hyakujo replied that they had already flown away. Although this was the fact, his answer sounded somewhat arrogant, so Master Baso twisted the tip of his student’s nose, causing him to cry out in pain. Master Baso pointed out that although the ducks had flown away, Master Hyakujo was just at this place. Hearing those words, Master Hyakujo realized the true situation.

Next day, Master Hyakujo went to Master Baso’s informal preaching but before the lecture began, he put away the Master’s prostration mat so that Master Baso couldn’t prostrate himself in front of the Buddha image – the usual custom before a lecture. Master Baso returned to his private room where he asked Master Hyakujo why he had behaved like that. Master Hyakujo did not answer his Master’s question, because his mind was still focused upon the previous day, when his nose had been tweaked. Remembering the event, he said that it had been very painful. Master Baso wanted to point out that Master Hyakujo’s mind was concentrated on a past event today, just as it had been yesterday.

Master Hyakujo noticed the meaning in his Master’s words, and replied rom his present state, that the tip of his nose no longer hurt. Hearing these words, Master Baso recognized that Master Hyakujo had grasped the truth, that his consciousness was always in the present, and he affirmed this to Master Hyakujo.

The story shows how these two masters studied the concrete situation here and now. And this attitude – to focus on the concrete reality in front of us – is the Buddhist attitude.

Commentary by John Fraser

Where have the birds flown? Where has your life flown?

The ‘you’ in Baso’s answer is not Hyakujo’s ego consciousness alone. ‘This place’ is not just the part of the great earth on which they were standing at that moment.

Jiko [Self] is both the small self and the self that is connected to all things. That is, dependent origination. Every place is this place.


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 62.

Koan Commentaries

Master Unmon said to the assembly; Say a true word based on the hundreds of miscellaneous things in the world.

No-one in the assembly had an answer.

Then Master Unmon himelf spoke up for the assembly: Both!

Commentary by Nishijima

Mater Unmon’s question can be divided into two parts: one is to demonstrate a word that represents the truth. The other is the matter of things and phenomena – literally, “hundreds of grasses on the head.” However, the monks he was preaching to could not answer. Master Unmon answered for the assembly.

Both” here suggests a word that represents the truth and the multitudinous phenomena often mentioned in Buddhism. The word and miscellaneous things are combined into one reality. Master Unmon simply said, “Both” to demonstrate this understanding.

Commentary by John Fraser

Some people say that everything is one, but if that is so, how do we explain the obvious differentiation that we see? If we say that everything is one, the temptation is to think that there is a true world standing behind this world, which we need to get to. And so we recreate the Ego, this time as a battering ram. Or, we take the familiar metaphor of clouds and sky, and imagine that the sky is somehow behind the clouds, that the clouds are an obstruction. But where does the sky begin, or end?

Our practice is not the eradication of anything. It is not breaking down the door of an empty house. It is the actualisation of space.

In vast space, each thing can have its own place.


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 51.

Koan Commentaries

Master Keisho of Mount Sekiso preached to Master So-ho Ko: So-ho Ko, when we doubt, there is something different. When we affirm, there is a gap. Also our understanding should not be based on non-doubt or non-affirmation. There is no way to know reality except by throwing away our knowledge of existence.

Commentary by Nishijima

Master Sekiso Keisho explained to Master So-ho Ko about doubt and affirmation. Master Keisho stated that neither doubting nor affirming are perfect. Then he insisted that our understanding cannot be relied upon even when we feel we have no doubts or no confidence.

Master Keisho denied the ultimate value of intellectual thinking. Of course, intellectual thought and scientific knowledge have their value and place, but they are only part of our picture of the world. Only by throwing away our attachment to thoughts and ideas can we really ‘know’ reality. In one sense, the most important function of the brain is to help us recognize the existence of reality.

Commentary by John Fraser

What does it mean to throw away, to cast off the self? It doesn’t mean to make it disappear, but rather, to decentre it, to no longer see the great matter through the prism of the self, but rather to see ‘self’ and ‘prism’ as part of the great matter, the full dynamic functioning, only one aspect of which is the universe.


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 50.

Koan Commentaries

Master Baso Do-itsu of the Kosei district preached to Master Yakusan Igen saying: Sometimes I make him move his eyebrows and wink his eyes. Sometimes I do not make him move his eyebrows and wink his eyes. Sometimes it is good for me to make him move his eyebrows and wink his eyes. Sometimes it is not good for me to make him move his eyebrows and wink his eyes.

Suddenly Master Yakusan attained the great truth.

Commentary by Nishijima

Master Baso Do-itsu described real situations in his Buddhist life, referring to his physical self in the third person. Sometimes he behaved actively. Sometimes he behaved himself passively. Sometimes it was good for him to behave actively. Sometimes it was bad for him to behave actively. Buddhist life is like this. Buddhist life is always at the moment of the present.

Sometimes Buddhist behavior is active, sometimes Buddhist behavior is passive. Sometimes active behavior is good. Sometimes active behavior is not good. Master Baso’s teachings were very concrete. Hearing those teachings Master Yakusan saw clearly what reality is.

Commentary by John Fraser

Master Baso was one of the greatest Masters, and in this story he gives a very realistic description of himself. The story occurs in Uji [BeingTime] where Dogen tells us that each moment is all moments, each thing is all things. And this being so, there is room for our stupidity as well as our brilliance, our falsenesses as well as our truth. We don’t need to sever everything, to watch it drop down to the depths, so we can rise upwards.

We don’t need to remain in light, because everything is illuminated


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 48.

Koan Commentaries

Master Tozan Ryokai became a disciple of Master Ungan Donjo, and asked; Who can hear the non-emotional preaching the Dharma?

Master Ungan said: The non-emotional can hear the non-emotional preaching the Dharma.

Master Tozan said: Do you hear this preaching?

Master Ungan said: If I listened to it, you could not hear my preaching of the Dharma.

Master Tozan said: If that is true, then I will not listen to the Master’s preaching.

Master Ungan said: You do not listen to even my preaching of the Dharma; how can you listen to the preaching by the non-emotional?

Then Master Tozan made a poem and presented it to Master Ungan.

The poem said:

How great and wonderful it is. How great and wonderful!

The Dharma preaching of the non-emotional is a mystery

If we listen to it with ears, we cannot hear it.

If we listen to it through the eyes, then we can understand.

Commentary by Nishijima

Master Tozan Ryokai asked about the preaching of the Dharma by non-emotional beings. Non-emotional is originally “mujo,” which means inanimate or insentient, and often refers to nature. So the preaching by non-emotional beings means the preaching of nature, which was discussed by many Buddhist monks.

However, in Shobogenzo Mujo-seppo (The Non-Emotional Preaches the Dharma). Master Dogen’s understanding of this phrase was wider and included the whole of nature – human beings as well as mountains and rivers and so on. His view was that inanimate things could preach the Dharma, and so could human beings, when they are not emotional.

Commentary by John Fraser

A marked feature of Chinese Buddhism is a positive view of the environment, of this world. Grasses, trees, snow falling; all are said to preach the dharma. The eruption of the suchness of things, their vivid being/doing interrupts our delusive patterns of thinking. You could say that the world in its feeling suchness is a miracle.

In the story, Tozan falsely imagines that there is a difference between – say – the cedar trees, just as they are, and Ungan, just as he is; in his preaching, in his silence, in his doing, in his being.

But at the same time, Ungan’s preaching is different from the preaching of the cedar trees. But if we chanced upon Ungan in zazen, among the cedar trees, his preaching and that of the cedar trees would be from the same voice


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 47.

Koan Commentaries

Master Rinzai Gigen preached to an assembly; There is a true person who has no rank. He is always going in and out through your face. A beginner who has not experienced this should look carefully. Look!

Commentary by Nishijima

Master Rinzai’s expression, “There is a true person who has no rank,” is widely known in Buddhism. It points in the same direction as the concept of sunyata or emptiness. Reality exists, empty of, or beyond, the various concepts and discriminations which we impose on it. So this expression represents a person without any social attributes, and it also suggests a person who has grasped the truth. How can we see this true person? In Buddhism we are training ourselves to be true persons, to recognise “the true person,” and we should not confuse the person with their social attributes.

Master Dogen accepted the expression “true person who has no rank” as an expression of reality, but he said there is also the “true person with rank.” This means that discrimination and concepts are also an aspect of reality. They have a place in the Universe as well. Difficulties arise if we become confused about their real nature.

Commentary by John Fraser

Master Rinzai said that there was a true human being without rank who went in and out through our face.

When we hear ‘face’, we may think of Original Face, the face you had before your parents were born.

If we pay attention, we can be aware of the musculature of the face; the fixed patterns we hold, the tensions, the habitual moving contours. And if we have this awareness, we can experience our face as a kind of mask. Indeed, we might identify our sense of self with this social face. If we didn’t have a face to present to the world, could we have a self to present to ourself?

Rinzai’s person without rank is something in us which is true and alive, and which can never be entirely suppressed by our social face. And so, he emerges. And sometimes, we suppress him. And so, he goes back in. This person without rank is our original face. There is not a true face behind our social face. There is not another self behind the self. There is just life channelled by us, like light falling through windows.


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 36.

Koan Commentaries

Master Joshu asked Master Tosu Daido: What is the situation of a man who has experienced the great death and lives again?

Master Tosu said: I will not allow such a person to walk around at night. When it has become light in the morning, he can come here.

Commentary by Nishijima

The words “to experience the great death and live again,” which can be found certain Buddhist literature, sound very dramatic. Master Tosu said that the situation of a person who has had such an experience is just a common everyday fact. It is as common and natural as the fact that the monks don’t wander around at night and when it becomes light they visit the master in his room.

To experience the great death means to enter reality. What is it that dies at such a time? We can say that our attachment to, or identification with, the intellect and the emotions dies during such an experience. After the great death we live in reality – not in the world of thinking or the world of emotions. However, it is also true that we are living in reality all the time, so to die the great death does not mean that we enter some extra-ordinary state, but just that we experience and fully participate in the reality that is always present in ordinary life.

Commentary by John Fraser

Our task as practitioners is to see the emptiness of all things. But in itself, that isn’t sufficient. It is a kind of sickness, because it has no heart.

If we look at the world with our mind, we only see shadows of the self. But the world is always there, concealed in your heart. When the heart opens, the world appears.


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 11.

Koan Commentaries

One day Master Hogen was clearing the ground around a spring that had become filled with sand. He said to a monk who was with him: The eye of the spring was closed because it was blocked up. When eyes for seeing the truth are closed, what blocks them?

The monk had no answer.

Master Hogen answered for the student: They are blocked by eyes.

Commentary by Nishijima

The eyes that look for the truth cannot see it because of those eyes. The mind that searches for the truth cannot find it because of that mind.

The eyes that search for the truth are themselves the truth. They have their truth as eyes. The mind that searches for reality is living in reality at every moment of its search.

Commentary by John Fraser

We make a mistake when we think the spiritual life is about getting something and then seeing what we get, rather than action itself, seeing itself.

It repeats a familiar error. We can see it in contemporary discussions about consciousness, trying to find neural correlates. But consciousness isn’t something the brain has, it’s something it does.

If we are looking for something, we will see only blackness. And thus the eye will block itself.


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 5.

Koan Commentaries

Master Ungan asked Master Dogo: What does Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva do with so many hands and eyes?

Master Dogo said: It is like someone stretching out a hand behind their head at night, looking for the pillow.

Master Ungan said: I understand. I understand.

Master Dogo said: What do you understand?

Master Ungan said: Hands and eyes exist throughout the body.

Master Dogo said: Your words describe the situations nicely, but only about eighty or ninety percent.

Master Ungan asked: What would you say?

Master Dogo said: The whole body is just hands and eyes.

Commentary by Nishijima

Avalokitesvara is traditionally the Bodhisattva of Compassion. It is said that he has thousands of eyes and thousands of hands with which to save all beings.

Master Dogo said that Avalokitesvara was like a person stretching out a hand at night to locate a pillow behind the head. He thus saw Avalokitesvara as a very natural basic life force.

Master Ungan expressed his view as hands and eyes existing throughout the body, but Master Dogo thought this implied some separation between the hands and body, so he tried to express it more accurately with “The whole body is just hands and eyes.” We can see our life itself as the natural functioning of Avalokitesvara’s many hands and eyes.

Commentary by John Fraser

In this story, Alalokitesvara’s hands and eyes are manifold. She does not have 84,000 hands and eyes. She does not have inexhaustibly many hands and eyes. They are manifold. And so, we can equate them with all of existence. The whole world is one of the functions of Avalokitesvara. And these ‘hands and eyes’ suggest an interfolding of doing, being, perceiving and intuitively knowing, within the one vivid whole.

It is as if what has been on the butcher’s slab of western rationalism has abruptly risen up, illuminating everything.

The import of Dogo’s simile is that Avalokitesvara, the expression of compassion, is not intentional, and is [the reference to ‘darkness’] non discriminatory. The implication is clear: Compassion is one facet of Nonduality.

And likewise, compassion is one facet of zazen. It is not that zazen is the cultivation of gratitude or compassion, it is the expression. That is why we practice from the perspective of the Buddha, not from the perspective of a human being.

The topmost branch of a tree broke off in a storm. The lower branches held it up. They will not let it fall.


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 2.

Koan Commentaries

Whenever Master Hyakujo Ekai gave his informal preaching, there was an old man who would always listen to the preaching along with the rest of the assembly. When the assembly retired, the old man would also retire. However, one day he did not leave. Eventually, the Master asked him: Who is this person that stands before me?

The old man answered: I am not a person. Long ago, in the time of Kasyapa Buddha, I was master of this temple. One day, a Buddhist student asked me whether even a great Buddhist practitioner falls into cause and effect. In reply, I said to him, “He does not fall into cause and effect.” Since then I have fallen into the body of a wild fox for five hundred lives. So I beg you, Master, to say some words that will change me. I would like to get rid of the wild fox’s body. Then he asked: Does someone of great Buddhist practice also fall into cause and effect, or not?

The Master said: Do not be unclear about cause and effect.

At these words the old man realised the truth, and after prostrating himself, he said: I am already free of the body of a wild fox. Now I would like to remain on the mountain behind this temple. Dare I ask you, Master, to perform the funeral ceremony of a Buddhist monk for me?

The Master ordered the Supervising Monk to strike the wooden block to summon the monks. Then he told them: After the meal, we will hold the funeral ceremony for a deceased monk.

All the monks discussed this among themselves, saying: The monks are all in good health and no-one is sick in the infirmary. What is the reason for this funeral ceremony?

After their meal, the Master led the monks to the foot of a big rock behind the temple, and pick out a dead fox with stick. Then they cremated it following the formal method. In the evening, the Master gave his formal preaching in the Lecture Hall, in which he told the above story.

Then Master Obaku asked: The words with which the man in the past taught the student were a wrong answer, and so he fell into the body of a wild fox for five hundred lives. If he had gone on without mistakes, what would have become of him?

Master Hyakujo said: Step up here. I will tell you.

Master Obaku went up, and gave the Master a slap. Master Hyakujo clapped his hands, laughed, and said: Your attitude is like the fact that a foreigner’s beard is red, but there is also the viewpoint that a man with a red beard must be a foreigner.

Commentary by Nishijima

A monk asked the old Master if a person who is in the state of great Buddhist practice is subject to the laws of cause and effect or not. The Master replied that such a person does not fall into cause and effect. For this mistake the Master was reborn for hundreds of years as a fox. Everyone and everything is subject to cause and effect. Even the Buddha was subject to cause and effect.

Is there then no freedom? Is our whole life completely determined? If we look back on the past, it seems that our whole life is bound by cause and effect. However, our human freedom does exist – it exists in the present moment. It exists in our real action here and now. Buddhist Masters – indeed all who practice Zazen – can avoid getting lost in memories of past or dreams of future, so we are able to use our freedom.

When we consider time in the usual way, looking at the past or ahead to the future, then we must say that the Buddhist Masters are also bound by cause and effect. When we act in the present moment we can find our freedom. Thus a person of great Buddhist practice is both bound by cause and effect and free of cause and effect.

In the second part of the koan, Master Obaku asked what would have become of the old Master if he had never made such a mistake. He then answered his own question by giving Master Ekai a slap. This slap was not a abstraction, it was a concrete fact. The Master laughed and said: “Your attitude is like the fact that a foreigner’s beard is red.” This was a Chinese expression about inductive reasoning, i.e., going from concrete fact to general principals. (A is a foreigner with red beard. B is a foreigner with red beard. Therefore, all foreigners have red beards.)

The Master then said there is also the fact that the red beard indicates a foreigner. This expression represents deductive reasoning – going from general principals to more specific conclusions. (Foreigners have red beards. A has a red beard. Therefore A is a foreigner.) The Master agreed that Obaku understood concrete fact but warned him that other perspectives and viewpoints also existed.

Although this story mentions the idea of “five hundred lives” we should not think of it as suggesting that Buddhism holds the view of reincarnation. This koan illustrates one aspect of the fundamental Buddhist view of cause and effect – it is not a description of historical fact. Master Dogen discusses cause and effect in detail in Shobogenzo Sanji-no-go (Karma in Three Times) and Shinjin-inga (Deep Belief in Cause and Effect).

Commentary by John Fraser

This story doesn’t make much sense unless you are aware that in East Asian folklore the fox is a shapeshifter, capable of many guises, including a human being.

Is an enlightened person free of karma, or not? Several errors are quietly embedded in this question. First, there is a dualistic assumption that there is an ‘I’ separate from ‘karma’, separate from ‘the world’. Second, there is the notion that karma is an unchanging burden, like taking up a bag of black stones, which can only be added to, or removed. But your karma is exactly your feeling state at this moment and is completely dynamic; the momentary expression of all conceivable causes. If we can simply feel what we feel, then our karma is liberated from us, and stones become worlds.