A Verse From Hakuin’s `Song of Meditation

A Verse From Hakuin’s `Song of Meditation with A Commentary a Modern Zen Master, Amakuki Sessan (Translated from the Japanese by T. L. )

How much more he who turns within
And confirms directly his own nature,
That his own nature is no-nature,
Such has transcended vain words.

These four phrases make clear the confirmatory experience of one’s own nature which is the aim of Zen meditation.
The phrase ” turn within ” means turning the light so that it shines back.
If the light of self-consciousness is turned and shone back on to the nature of one’s own mind, then can be perceived one’s absolute nature; the self-nature suddenly becomes something absolute-it is in fact no-nature.

Even the word no-nature is not really right. The distinction of nature and no-nature is at an end; discussion of self-nature and othernature is extinguished. This is the stage of actual experience, truth transcending the stage of discussion and absolutely beyond vain words. All words have become mere prattling and nonsense-talk. Hearing about the great truth of the meditation of the Mahayana, praising it and rejoicing in it, even that brings wide and great merit.

How much more to turn within and confirm directly one’s own nature, namely, to turn the light and shine it back, back into one’s very self, to experience directly what one’s own nature is. This is not mere listening but tasting directly; nay, not mere tasting but grasping it oneself, not explanation that all beings are from the very beginning Buddhas but knowing from direct experience how they are from the very beginning Buddhas. It is entering the realm of experience, knowing for oneself that self-nature is no-nature.

When we understand that there is no ice apart from water, or in other words that water and ice are not two things but one thing, then we do not need to make the distinction that this is water and that is ice. It is as if it has all become water. Similarly, while we stick to distinctions and cannot see their sameness and non-duality, there are Buddhas and there are demons, but once we confirm by experience what our self-nature is, there is no hell and there is no paradise.

It has all become absolutely the same. This is called the real awakening. When we awaken to this state of absolute sameness, we see the distinctions between mountains and rivers, grass and trees, the earth and men and beasts, but seeing the distinctions for the first time, we do not stick to them. We have for ourselves the great experience of infinite freedom, that the distinctions themselves are Sameness, and the Sameness is the distinctions.

We can understand the method of turning within with the help of a passage from Zen master Daikaku:
Turning round his light which lights all the outer things, he focuses it within on the inner self.
Mind is bright like the sun and moon; their light is unlimited and infinite, and illumines all regions within and without. A place where light does not reach is dark, and
such is the demon-cave of the Black Mountain. There live all devils. The devils harm man greatly. It is like this with mind also. The wisdom-light of mind, unlimited and infinite, illumines all states within and without. The place where it does not reach is dark. We call it the shadow-world of ignorance. There live all passions.

The passions harm man greatly.

Wisdom is bright; the illusory ideas are shadow. Light illumines things. Turning the light so that it shines back means not letting the light of our thought wander here and there, but directing it at our own original nature. This is also called universal illumination, which means the state where error and enlightenment are still unmanifested.

People today think that the illusory ideas are their essential mind, and want to reach happiness through their passions. When should they ever get free from the cycle of ‘birth and death ? These wise words are worthy of our special attention. As to the state attained by turning the light back, once reached it is not a question of analogies about ice and water or other explanations, but like knowing for oneself whether a thing is hot or cold. It is the gate of real experience, transcending the gate of discussion, and quite beyond vain words. Academic study is only talk; religion is real experience. One who understands religion theoretically is merely a sort of professor of theology.
Now just as a professor of economics is not necessarily able to become rich, so the man who by taking his stand on intellect alone hopes to have the religious experience is like one hoping to get water by digging in sand.

Religion must aim at actual experience for oneself. If not, then like the blind men who investigated the elephant, we shall learn no more than a single surface or corner of the outer skin of life and the universe.
Long ago there was a king named Mirror-bright. He invited a number of blind men to examine an elephant. They were afterwards to tell him about the form of the elephant. The blind men stretched out their hands and felt the elephant to ascertain its shape.
The one who touched its foot reported
that it was like a bucket.
Then the one who felt the tip of its tail said that the elephant was like a bamboo broom.
The one who touched the tail itself said it was like a stick.
He who touched the belly said: “ The elephant is like a great drum,” while another who touched the spine said it was like a great stake.
He who handled the ear said it was like a winnowingbasket, while the man who felt its side said, “ Like a wall “, and the one who touched the tusk said, ” Like a great horn “.
Each being sure it was as he said wrangled endlessly with the others. “ Blind, are they not blind ? ” marvelled the great
king, ” yet they stick to their views as if they had sight.”

The story is told in the Classic of the Six Perfections.
In this way all they said was just a kind of vain talk. It is no more than an illustration, but the man who has not found what his own nature is, who has no light of knowledge, is the same as a blind man.

Those today who judge religion by everyday experience, or discuss faith under the light of science and philosophy, are in a way blind men examining an elephant. They get some idea of one surface or one edge, but it cannot be said they are close to the real truth. And their world is not the reality of confirming directly their own nature, that their own nature is no-nature, transcending vain words.
We have to enter the region of the absolute Sameness, where one’s own nature is no-nature, and confirm the meaning of becoming Buddha in this very body.

We are always opening our mouths and howling for the realization of some ideal. But when that ideal is realized, then what ? To put it in religious terms, we trudge along one of the traditional paths and make progress by our practices, some of us dreaming of Heaven and others praying to be re-born in some Paradise. Neither of these things is bad.

But the question is: having got up to Heaven or arrived in Paradise, what after all do we do then ?

There is a story about an old lady who every day used to take her little grandson to pray at a Buddhist altar. One day the boy noticed the candlesticks on the altar, which were in the form of a crane and a tortoise. He opened his eyes very wide and asked: ” Granny, why are the crane and the tortoise there? ” The grandmother replied: ” Well, you know, the crane is supposed to live for a thousand years and the tortoise for ten thousand, and they’re very lucky creatures, and here they are on the beautiful Buddha altar, like the Pure Land paradise.

The little boy asked: 

When the crane’s thousand years are over, what happens to him then? And the tortoise, when his ten thousand years are gone, what happens to him then?
She said: ” What big questions for such a little boy! Surely you know that. After a thousand years, the crane dies, and the tortoise after ten thousand years dies.”

The grandson opened his eyes wide again and asked: ” After they die, where do they go?”

The old lady was getting out of her depth, but she couldn’t say she didn’t know, so she said: ” I’ll tell you. The crane and the tortoise are lucky creatures, and the moment they die they go to the Pure Land.

Her grandson’s eyes were like saucers as he asked: ” Granny, when the crane and the tortoise go to the Pure Land, what happens then? “

The old grandmother was now in deeper than ever, but she said firmly: ” This little boy doesn’t know anything, it seems. Why, when they go to the Pure Land, they turn into candlesticks! “

The boy innocently swallowed it and subsided. Nevertheless, his question was a penetrating one, and how is it to be answered? The question remains for us.

Certainly it seems all right to say that when the crane and tortoise go to the Pure Land they become candlesticks, but after they become candlesticks, then what? . . . and then what ?

It is not just the problem of the crane and tortoise. When we ourselves go to the Pure Land, then what ? Are we to stand in rows there for ever, like dolls ranged on the shelves of the Pure Land? Do we just sit on the flowers of the lotus-lake there, rocked by the breeze? In short-then what? There is an old popular song:

Your foolish ” then what ? and then what?” The more you ask the stupider you get. But the fact is that we have got to penetrate to the ultimate, beyond all words.

The Chinese verse says

By travelling, at last you will come to the end of the stream,
By sitting patiently, finally you can see the formation of the clouds.

What happens in the end! Unless we inquire ” what then, what then? ” in our coming and going, and finally rest in the ultimate, lasting peace will be hard to find. Our hopes are always like wanting to climb up a hundred-foot pole. When we have climbed it we have the problem, then what?

Masashige Kusunoki, after his last great battle at Minatogawa when all his resources were spent, was going to turn his sword on himself, but on an impulse rushed with his sword still bloody to Zen master Soshun at the nearby Kogonji temple where he used to attend in times of peace, and asked:

” At the meeting of life and death, what then?
Now the last moment has come.

This instant when life and death meet, how am I to meet it?”

To which Master Soshun replied: “Cut off both the heads; the one sword gleams cold against the sky ! O Masashige, you are a monster with two heads, living and dying, sprouting from your shoulders. With that sword you bear, quickly cut off both the heads of living and dying. Then that single brilliant sword will be glittering in the heavens.” Masashige could not grasp the meaning, and asked again ” What is the end of it all? ” and the Zen master gave a shout:
” Katsu! ”

The hero broke into a sweat from head to toe as the realization came to him, and galloped back to the battlefield. The story is well-known how after the last furious fight he and his younger brother, vowing to return to serve the loyalist cause for seven more lives, serenely ended their lives here and entered life eternal.

This great cry of ” Katsu ! ” in answer to the “and then what? ” is from the state transcending words.
It is from the realm of realizing one’s own nature.
Sho-ichi in one of his Zen sermons speaks of the living communication beyond words and phrases.

” The sacred syllables of the scriptures are not mere letters, but the true mind of all living beings. For the sake of the one who has lost his true mind they present various similes and words so that the true mind may be realized and the delusion of birth-and-death may cease. But the one who awakens to the true mind, who returns to the source of his being, is able to read the real scripture. The words are not the real sutra. If we maintain that mere verbal recitation is all, well, are we able to keep warm in the cold weather by saying’ fire ! ‘, or to keep cool in the heat by saying `breeze ! ‘ ? By shouting the word ‘food’ can we satisfy our hunger and be filled ? In fact we do not get warm by calling ` fire ‘ or find whining self-pity will avail. What matters is the present: what are we to do? Many people these days, however urgent a question may be, put it aside and think, ” Well, let’s get on with earning our living.”

There is a verse by someone

When hunger and cold are set against love,
I blush to say it, but hunger comes first.

True, one cannot set aside the stomach; its cry is keen and worthy of our sympathy. We must practise material benevolence, and mutual help. But the great mistake is to think that by providing bread and jobs all our problems can be cleared up. The basic problem is that our present culture, concentrating solely on the conventional and material side and ignoring the mental and spiritual side, ends in tying ourselves in knots, and even in suicide. As a first step in the matter, let me ask: When you get your food and jobs, what then?

A normal man, when his character and intelligence are rightly and naturally developed, can never get satisfaction unless he attains spiritual conviction. Take as an example, the control of our actions. When small children stand naked, we tell them: ” If you stand naked like that, the Thunderman will come down and steal away your little tummy-button.” Then they snatch up their clothes and put them on. If they want to run out at night, we tell them about the goblins and they get frightened and don’t go out. Though this sort of thing is of course only superstition, it does control the actions of little children.

When they go to their first school, such things will not work. There aren’t such things as goblins, and they do not believe in a Thunderman. But when they are scolded by the schoolmaster for something, that has a big effect on them. Then they come to Middle school and lose their fear of the teacher. He is only an employee of the school, and if the students go on strike they could perhaps get rid of him, they feel Still, though they are no longer afraid of the teacher, they know that a wrong action is against morality. They know that man’s duty is to act righteously, and they are guided by morality and ethics.

Going on, they become high-school or university students, and are dissatisfied until they have examined what we mean by the words good and bad, and the scientific and philosophic reasons why we should follow ethics and be controlled by morality. One more step and they question whether there is any scientific and philosophic
whining self-pity will avail. What matters is the present: what are we to do? Many people these days, however urgent a question may be, put it aside and think, ” Well, let’s get on with earning our living.”

There is a verse by someone
When hunger and cold are set against love, I blush to say it, but hunger comes first. True, one cannot set aside the stomach; its cry is keen and worthy of our sympathy. We must practise material benevolence, and mutual help. But the great mistake is to think that by providing bread and jobs all our problems can be cleared up. The basic problem is that our present culture, concentrating solely on the conventional and material side and ignoring the mental and spiritual side, ends in tying ourselves in knots, and even in suicide. As a first step in the matter, let me ask: When you get your food and jobs, what then?

A normal man, when his character and intelligence are rightly and naturally developed, can never get satisfaction unless he attains spiritual conviction. Take as an example, the control of our actions. When small children stand naked, we tell them: ” If you stand naked like that, the Thunderman will come down and steal away your little tummy-button.

Then they snatch up their clothes and put them on. If they want to run out at night, we tell them about the goblins and they get frightened and don’t go out. Though this sort of thing is of course only superstition, it does control the actions of little children. When they go to their first school, such things will not work. There aren’t such things as goblins, and they do not believe in a Thunderman. But when they are scolded by the schoolmaster for something, that has a big effect on them.

Then they come to Middle school and lose their fear of the teacher. He is only an employee of the school, and if the students go on strike they could perhaps get rid of him, they feel Still, though they are no longer afraid of the teacher, they know that a wrong action is against morality. They know that man’s duty is to act righteously, and they are guided by morality and ethics.

Going on, they become high-school or university students, and are dissatisfied until they have examined what we mean by the words good and bad, and the scientific and philosophic reasons why we should follow ethics and be controlled by morality. One more step and they question whether there is any scientific and philosophic reason at all; they cannot find satisfaction in ethics and become sceptical and critical of any ideal. Now they get worried and distressed and can easily lose all peace of mind.

When in this way we have gradually advanced from the instinctive, the superstitious, to the common-sense, the scientific and to the philosophical, we must go on to transcend all these stages and stand finally in reverence before the unseen, in awe before the unheard. But since the Meiji Restoration towards the end of the last century, our culture has become estranged from this vital religious teaching.

We feel in it today an inner unrest, and this as it were searching after something is really the religious desire. Clearly there are many defects in our culture. What is essential, whether in universal questions or personal questions, is to understand the spiritual secret of returning to the essence of the soul. We must press the inquiry “ and then what? “ right to the end, penetrate the ultimate, and then for the first time we can get the right answer.

We human beings cannot be satisfied with the instinctive world, with the world of superstition or the world of commonsense, nor can we rest in science or philosophy. We have to reach the world of faith and the world of reality. We must not be caught in the world of so-called name and fame, nor think that the world of learning is all, but must enter directly the world of freedom, the world of things as they really are.

We must sport in the world of direct realization of our true nature by turning within. This is the world of truth transcending vain words, where words have been left behind, where as it is said the self-nature is no-nature. This is the ideal world, where all doubts whatsoever are resolved. Where shall we look for it? We must wait in the realization that selfnature is no-nature.
T.L.

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