An Outline of Bukko’s Teachings

What follows is a brief note of some of Bukko’s main teachings as given in the Record of Bukko— the brief sermons preached by him in Japan and then circulated among his mainly warrior disciples at Enkakuji temple in Kamakura. They are hard to follow in isolation, so first a sort of outline of the teachings is given as a rough framework, then a very free rendering of a few of them as they stand, each supplemented with others taken from elsewhere in the Bukko Goroku, The Sayings of Bukko, and occasionally a few extra comments.

The way out of life and death is not some special technique; the essential thing is to penetrate to the root of life and death. It is in the centre of everyone, and everything else is dependent on it. Zen is to pierce through to it.

Zen sitting is not some sort of operation to be performed. It is going into one’s true original nature before father or mother were born. The self seeks to grasp the self, but it is already the self, so why should it go to grasp the self? Look into it. Where was it then? Where is it now? When life ends, where does it go? When you feel you cannot look any more, look and see how that inability to look appears and disappears. As you look and see how the looking arises and goes, satori, realization, will arise of itself.

At the beginning you have to take up a koan riddle. One such is this: What is your true face before father and mother were born. For one facing the turbulence of life and death, such a koan clears away the sandy soil and opens up the golden treasure which was there from the beginning, the ageless root of all things.

In concentration on a koan, there is a time of rousing the spirit of inquiry, a time of breaking clinging attachments, a time of furious dashing forward, and there is a time of damping the fuel and stopping the boiling. In general, meditation has to be done with urgency, but if after three or five years the urgency is still maintained by force, the tension becomes a wrong one and it is a serious condition. Many lose heart and give up. In such a case, the koan is to be thrown down. Then there is a cooling. The point is that many people come to success if they first have the experience of wrestling with a koan and later reduce the effort, but few come to success when they are putting out exceptional effort. After a good time, the rush of thoughts outward and inward, subsides naturally, and the true face shows itself as the solution to the koan. And mind, free from all motivations, always appears as void and absolute sameness, shining like the brightness of heaven, at the centre of the vast expanse of phenomenal things, and needing no polishing or cleaning. This is beyond all concepts, beyond being and nonbeing.

Leave your innumerable knowing and seeings and understandings, and go to that greatness of space.

When you come to that vastness, there is no speck of Buddhism in your heart, and then you will have the true sight of the buddhas and patriarchs. The true nature is like the immensity of space, which contains all things. When you can conform to high and low, square and round, to all regions equally, that is it. The emptiness of the sea lets waves rise, the emptiness of the mountain valley makes the voice echo, the emptiness of the heart makes the Buddha. When you empty the heart, things appear as in a mirror, shining there without differences in them: Life and death is an illusion, and all the buddhas one’s own body.

Jottings from the Sayings of Bukko

1. If you live on the heights, on top of the mountain, you are in constant anxiety. You have to hold onto everything in case it falls and is lost to you; your name, your reputation, your status, your money, your learning—you have to look after them, you have to hold onto them all. Otherwise, a moment’s carelessness, and one of them will slip down and go on falling right to the bottom of the mountain. And you yourself may fall down too.

It is better to be at the bottom of the mountain already. And if you can remain pure, you will be like a hollow at the mountain foot, which will keep the pure rain and become a little lake. In that lake fish can live in purity and humility at the bottom of the mountain. Keep pure and nourish the fish.

2. A teacher of one of the philosophical schools of Buddhism, a very learned man, said to Bukko, ‘I know the holy texts. How is it that I do not have this freedom of realization?’ Bukko replied, The seeds have been planted; the seeds are there, but the ground is in such a state that they do not strike, they do not germinate. You must dig up all your prejudices and clear the ground of your fixed ideas, and then the seeds will germinate.’

3. In another little sermon Bukko says, ‘All of you are sideways on, standing there in the gateway of the temple. You cannot make up your minds whether to come in and really practise for realization. On the other hand, neither can you tear yourselves away and go into the world. You stand there sideways on, half facing in, and half facing away.

Then he added, ‘And you have to practise in the right way. There are fish in the sea, but you don’t get them by jumping into a boat and going after them with a sword!’

4. The great universe has no outside. The great perfection has no inside. The sea, the moon, the mountain, the cloud, face and delimit each other. Last night the wind changed from east to north, but the great Void has no directions.

Bukko often uses the expression ‘the wind changed’.

We are not to curse and complain that the wind changed. People may be fawning on you, and then come to hate you. Someone is a bitter enemy, and then abruptly becomes rather friendly, and you find yourselves working together. A reputation is high, and within half an hour it is lost. A man who has been ignored and despised, a woman who has been slighted, are recognized as great figures. We tend simply to hang on to this and that, but you cannot hang on, the wind changes. So, accept the changes of the wind. In the great Void, there are no directions, no north or south, no east or west, no high or low.

5. You are like starving people who do get some food, put it in their mouths, but then spit it out at once. You are spiritually starving! You hear the great teachings, take them, and then you too spit them out. You don’t chew them, you don’t digest them, and so they do you no good. Here you are listening to me, but in the next half-hour you will go away, and you will be talking all sorts of nonsense. That means you are spitting out what you had taken in, and it has done you no good at all. There are so many teachers, so many teachings, but immediately afterwards you leave them, and so they do you no good, and give you no life.

6. How can I tell you? The ancients themselves said they did not know, but now you come and ask me to explain. You want me to cut up the waters with a sword.

One knot and everything is knotted. One loosening and everything is loosened.
Everything is freed, freed from the illness of being Buddha,
freed from the illness of being a patriarch,
freed from the illness of being a living being in samsara.
All are already free!

After this sermon, Bukko was asked, ‘In that case, what are you doing giving these sermons? If all are already free, there is nothing to be done.’

He replied, ‘With a deaf person, you show the gate by pointing. With a blind person you show the gate by knocking on it.’

7. People say: We have been in ignorance for so long, with so many associations, how can it all be cleared away quickly, in a single lifetime, as the Zen people claim?

Bukko said, ‘The throat may have been very dry, absolutely parched, for a long time, but one good drink of water, and everything is all right.’

8. The Absolute beats the drum.

[The Absolute is a translation of two Chinese characters, read in Japanese as Shinnyo. It means ‘what it is really like’.]

The Shinnyo beats the drum and in India the baby Buddha is formed, and in us the intelligence quickens and becomes bright, and the clouds clear away from the mountain peak. Listen for the throb of infinity: The Absolute beats the drum. Listen for that!

9. On the anniversary of Buddha’s nirvana, Bukko stood up in front of the assembly, pulled in his hands, and rubbed his chest. Then he said, ‘The Absolute had a pain in the chest, but rubbed it and everything was all right again.’

10. Bukko banged his staff on the pillar of the meditation hall and said, ‘Invest your spiritual energy here, as a merchant invests his money in a new warehouse.’

11. Bukko quoted an incident concerning an old Chinese master:

A monk said, ‘I cannot manage to realize my true nature.
Have you got some means for someone like me?’
The master said, ‘I have got no earmuffs on my ears.’
The monk said, ‘I can see that for myself.’
The teacher said, ‘I have created a mistake.’
The monk said, ‘What mistake?’
The teacher said, ‘I made you see for yourself something that is not there!’

Bukko set this as a riddle to be solved by his audience.

12. Bukko said, ‘It is like the dragon playing with the wisdom-ball. He does not always stay above in absolute transcendence, but plays with it, sometimes letting it drop. But he never lets it fall onto the earth as absolutely real. He plays with it between the two, sometimes tossing it high, and sometimes letting it fall low.’

[The heavenly dragon represents transcendence. He carries a crystal ball of wisdom.]

13. The master whirled his staff around, and then he said,
‘If I wave it around, you think, “Ah, but the true nature of the staff is to be still.”
Then, if I do keep it still, you keep wondering when I’m going to do something with it.’
Then he put out his tongue. He said, ‘If I say something, you say, “Ah, but the truth is really silent.”
And then if I keep my mouth shut, you begin to invent teachings for yourselves!’

14. The great changes take place in the universe, and they are right and perfect as they are. It is our passions, our clinging, that lead to all the suffering and produce all the obstacles.

Bukko points to these things in many different ways. Indians would never stand for the contradictions, but in the Chinese Zen tradition this is how it developed. They are like striking flint and steel to produce a flash of insight, as actual experience. And if one doesn’t work, then another one is presented, until one does. Then you have to nurture the glowing tinder and bring it up. For instance, Bukko describes a picture of Bodhidharma sitting in meditation: It is a dragon coiled up! Then on another occasion he will say: Things are perfect as they are. Old Bodhidharma missed the point, coming all that way; first to Sri Lanka and then to China, and standing there banging away at the gate!

When one comes across such passages, one thinks, ‘How was that again?’ We feel there is something there, and we think and think. ‘Things are perfect as they are. So why change them? Why does Bukko give sermons if things are already perfect?’

Buddhism can be looked at in terms of music, whereas the Vedanta of the Upanishads could correspond to architecture where reality is something immense and unchanging with events, including human events, passing in and out, to and fro, like shadows. They pass away. But the great reality remains, unchanging. In Buddhism, on the other hand, Buddha-nature is change. In this sense, Buddhism can be compared to music, the essence of which is also change.

As an example, take the familiar opening chords in Rachmaninov’s popular Second Piano Concerto. The movement begins with seven crashing chords.

Most pianists have to fake them today, as Rachmaninov wrote for his own hands, which were exceptional in their stretch. This is a famous dramatic passage. Each chord is different, but there is a dramatic inevitability in the sequence. Listening to it, each one is perfect in itself, but though it is perfect, we do not feel: Oh, let it stay. It is perfect. Let it stay forever. The next chord, too, is perfect and the next one. As we listen, we find that the sequence of the chords, too, is perfect. Bukko is saying: Each chord is perfect, and the sequence is perfect. But you spoil it because when one is being played, you’re thinking it should stay. Or else you’re thinking of the next one, or perhaps of the last one, or perhaps all these things together. So you don’t appreciate the things as they stand.

The warrior koan collection of 101 Zen interviews (Shonankattoroku), contains ten connected with Bukko. A famous one was this:

A nun-disciple was carrying a lacquer bucket of water for the flowers, and caught sight of the moon reflected in it. She had an intuitive flash, and made a poem:

Carrying the bucket,
I saw the moon reflected in it
When it was held steady.

Her realization was that when the passions are stilled in the mind, the truth is reflected in it, if only it is held steady. She presented this poem to Bukko, and he said, ‘Nun, take the Heart Sutra and Go!’ Well, you may have read the Heart Sutra of some 250 Chinese characters. Perhaps you have a solution, but she went away and did not find one in spite of her efforts. Then, one day, she again brought the lacquer bucket for the flowers, and the bottom fell out of it. She then had a flash of much deeper realization, and presented another poem to the teacher:

The bottom fell out of the bucket!
Now there is no water;
And no moon reflected in it.

The teacher accepted this. She later became a great teacher herself at the nunnery at Tokei—a beautiful temple which still exists.

The Shonankattoroku text has one or two cases where Bukko and his great predecessor, Daikaku, are paired in an interesting way. For instance, the importance of the Heart Sutra of 250 characters has just been mentioned. A follower of the Lotus sect came to Daikaku and said, ‘Your Heart Sutra text is too long. Our Lotus invocation—Reverence to the lotus—is only seven syllables, and much more suited to the people of today.’ Daikaku laughed and said, ‘Oh, seven syllables is much too long. If you want to recite a Zen sutra, do it in one word. Now, what is that word?’ Afterwards, he set this as a riddle for his disciples. All kinds of attempts were made—Buddha, heart, sincerity and others—but Daikaku never approved any. He died without giving the answer. So some of his disciples approached Bukko, his spiritual successor at Kamakura, in the hope of getting an answer. Bukko said, ‘Our school is a transmission from heart to heart, and does not need to set up words. If you grasp it, your whole life will be a sutra, and your death will be a sutra. You need no other sutra.’

So here the one-word sutra of Daikaku at Kenchoji is contrasted with the no-word sutra of Bukko at Enkakuji.

A substantial history of Kenchoji has recently been published in Japan, and the author sent me a copy. The Kenchoji records, though much has been lost in a great fire, contain a number of such references to Bukko.

He had women disciples. It is one of the features of Zen that there was no prejudice against women, as there was in some sects. It was sometimes supposed that women intellectually, and in some other ways, were inferior, but this was because they were not educated. In earliest times in India, however, women were respected in religious circles. In one of the oldest Upanishads (about 500 bce) Maitreyi and Gargi play prominent parts. And there is no indication that this was unusual. In a still earlier Brahmana text, Gargi is called ‘the teacher’. But later in India, and in China, women were not educated. In China, to get an education, some girls disguised themselves as boys in order to go to school. But Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen in China, had a woman among his four disciples, and in the Shonankattoroku text there are a number of pieces centred on women of the warrior class.

The warrior disciples at Kamakura did not, of course, become monks, but they became what was called nyudo (one who has entered the Way). They shaved their heads and took certain vows. Their Zen was layman’s Zen of the Rinzai line, which today stresses practice with a series of classical koan riddles. These were based on incidents in early Zen, from the Buddha onwards through the Indian and Chinese patriarchs. In Kamakura warrior Zen, the riddles were incidents that happened in everyday life here and now. It was called shikin Zen, or on-the-spot Zen. They are concerned with things like a bucket of water, a teacup, a misreading of a Chinese character, prayers for rain, various popular beliefs and even superstitions.

Some teachers today believe that the present era is suited to this kind of on-the-spot Zen. The form of the answers to the classical riddles leak out. A good teacher will never pass a mere outward imitation, but it can happen—and did happen in Japan—that a particular riddle has an answer in a particular form, and if that form of answer is given, it will be passed. When this happens, Zen decays, as the Rinzai line did in Japan, until Hakuin revived it. The shikin, on-the-spot, Zen riddles are living on the first occasion, but since they concern everyday events, they need not harden into lifeless forms.

Traditionally in China, the Zen monasteries and training centres were on the top of mountains, remote from city life. Bukko himself when he was thirteen climbed up to the monastery on a mountain. In these isolated places they became expert in formal meditation sitting. He was given his first koan at seventeen. It took him several years to pass. But in these times, some teachers say, the busy modern laypeople cannot keep at it that long, so they are passed through more easily. It takes many different riddles, however, to keep them from giving up. The chief monasteries in Japan, though often near or in cities, are still called mountain temples. Those who go there are not expected to enter the trance states described of Bukko, where the breathing practically stops. The phenomenon has been studied in India by medical teams; the pulse becomes almost imperceptible. The trance pursued as an end in itself, however, is no guarantee of spiritual growth. Some performers are, frankly, doing it for money. Bukko does not treat it as anything but an occasional by-product of prolonged Zen sitting. Bukko took one more koan, and completed his realization after passing through just two. It took twenty years of intense practice in his case.

Jottings from the Sayings of Bukko from the Old Zen Master

© Trevor Leggett

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