Shinji Shobogenzo Book 1, Case 100.

Koan Commentaries

One day a monk asked Master Unmon: What is the Ascending Dharma Body?

The Master said: To explain Ascending to you would not be difficult, but what do you think of meaning of Dharma Body is?

The monk said: Please, Master, find the meaning yourself.

The Master said: Setting aside the meaning for a while, what do you think the Dharma Body means?

The monk said: It means that everything is just as it is.

The Master said: That answer is simply what you learned on the long floor of the Zazen Hall. I ask you, does the Dharma Body eat meals?

The monk could not reply.

Commentary by Nishijima

The Dharma Body, or Universal Body (Hosshin) refers to one of three bodies of a buddha. It describes the body when it is one with the Universe in the present moment. The Master wanted the monk to express his understanding of Dharma Body, and after some prodding the monk replied that it meant everything being just as it is here and now.

The Master felt that the monk was expressing something of the state that he had learned through his long hours in the Zazen Hall, but it was still an intellectual answer. He wanted to see if the monk could apply what he knew in a more concrete way. So he asked if the Dharma Body ate meals.

The Dharma Body is a body of a real person who practices a Buddhist life. So, of course, it must consume meals everyday. The monk was unable to say anything because his understanding was still a little too abstract.

Commentary by John Fraser

The Dharmakaya is one of the three bodies of the Buddha. It is identified with all of existence, and so we can say that the whole world is the body of the Buddha.

It is a way of using language which is unfamiliar to us. Something similar happens in the Lotus Sutra, and in the Heart Sutra. The Numinous is asserted and proclaimed. Language and Reality give birth to each other.

We are used to language being superimposed on reality, giving birth only to itself. But if we can see how it might be different, we can see our own problem, which is the start of a solution.


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 1, Case 89.

Koan Commentaries

One day Master Sekiso asked his Jisha (assistant): Master Dogo once said to a monk, “You should not throw away that place and become attached to this place.” What is your opinion?

The Jisha said: I rely completely on your understanding, Master.

The Master said: What is my understanding?

The Jisha walked from the west to the east and stood there.

The Master said: You just threw away that place and became attached to this place.

Commentary by Nishijima

Master Sekiso said “You should not throw away that place and become attached to this place.” Buddhism teaches the middle way. The middle way is the way between the attachment and detachment. Usually we leave one place with intention of getting to another place. We throw away the place we are at to get to the place we want to be. Buddhism teaches as that reality is where we are now.

The monk said that his understanding was the same as his Master’s. However, the Master asked him to demonstrate his understanding. When the Master saw his assistant simply walking from that place to this place, he realised that the assistant simply walked here to there, not showing oneness of being in his action.

Commentary by John Fraser

The monk laboured under a misconception about language. He imagined that language is ‘conceptual’ and action is non conceptual, and so thought he could only express Sekiso’s teachings by doing something, rather than saying something. As if, somehow, to read the book is conceptual but to burn the book isn’t.

Wholehearted expression – and its opposite – sometimes uses words, sometimes uses actions, sometimes uses silence.

If your words are superficial, why should your silence be profound?


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 1, Case 66.

Koan Commentaries

One night master Yakusan Igen of Reishu had no light. He preached his disciples: I have something to say. When an excellent ox is about to bear a calf, then I will say it to you.

At this a monk walked forward and said: An excellent ox has borne a calf, so Master, why don’t you speak?

The Master said: Bring me a light.

The monk returned to the group of disciples.

Commentary by Nishijima

Master Dogen called the order of Master Yakusan Igen a “Dai Sorin” (great Buddhist temple), although the member of the order numbered no more than ten, and apparently there was sometimes not even enough money to buy oil for the lamps.

Master Yakusan Igen was a buddha. He lived in reality, and he wished to communicate the simple nature of reality of his disciples. He said that he would not tell them what he had to say until “an excellent ox is about to bear a calf.” The ox was frequently used as a symbol of Buddhist practitioners. The birth of a calf symbolises a person who has grasped the truth. So the Master was saying that he would wait until the one of the monks could grasp the truth before he spoke.

The monk stepped forward said that the calf had already been born, or in other words that the monk had already grasped the truth, and he asked the Master to say what he wanted to say.

The Master’s reply, “Fetch me a light,” is a natural enough thing to say in a dark room, except for the fact that there were no light to be had in a whole temple. In asking them impossible, the Master was pointing out the fact; there was no light.

The truth of the situation was simple and obvious; it didn’t really need expressing. The truth is not something mystical or abstract; it is the real situation, just in this place, just at the moment.

In the darkness of the old temple the monk took his place among his fellow disciples. He had grasped the truth in his Master’s wordless teaching.

Commentary by John Fraser

In the literal sense, Yakusan is puncturing the religiosity of the exchange by pointing out a concrete fact : the absence of light.

But also, he is recalling Buddha’s admonition to his disciples “be your own light”; he has to be his own light, and his own darkness, because there is no light which the monk can bring to him.

And additionally, there are similarities with the exchange between Ungan and Dogo [Book 2, Case 5] : the darkness suggests non discrimination, and so the suggestion is that ‘light’ [duality, discrimination] occurs within the wider embracing ‘darkness’ of non discrimination.

And with regard to the excellent ox ; does the teacher give birth to the student, or does the student give birth to the teacher, or both, or neither, or something else?



Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 47

[Commentary on Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 47]

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 often 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 our 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.


Commentary on Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 5

[Commentary on Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 5]

In this story, Kanzeon’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 existence. The whole world is one of the functions of Kanzeon. 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.


Commentary on Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 62

[Commentary on Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 62]

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 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 reconstitute 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.