The story of Sokko Konin9 min read

Here is an instance from the old records of Zen. A monk named Sokko enrolled as a pupil under the famous Master Hogen, but for a long time he never seemed to want to hear about Buddhism and never asked the master any questions about it.

Then the teacher said to him:

‘You have been my disciple for three years now, but you have never inquired of me about Buddhism.’ In other words: Why is it that you ask nothing?

The disciple replied: ‘Before I was with Master Seiho and I heard the doctrine and attained peace and bliss.

He declares that under Seiho he obtained satisfaction, that he attained realization.

Then the teacher said: ‘Through what words did you get what you sought?

He inquires what was the phrase which brought peace to him Then Sokko related the passage of question and answer with his former teacher:

‘I faced Seiho and asked him: “How is it, the self of this disciple?” He told me: “The lampboy is looking for a light.”’

Master Hogen said: ‘It is a fine phrase. But probably you have not understood it.’

The words are well, but it is likely that you have not grasped them

So Sokko explained how he understood it: ‘The lampboy is in charge of the lights. Taking the light to go to look for a light is like my taking the self to look for the self’ This is belief in the Buddha, and conviction that the Buddha is the true nature of the disciple”.

‘I knew it! You have not understood. If that were Buddhism it would never have lasted till now.’

At first he said only that his disciple had probably misunderstood, but after the explanation it was clear that he did not know.

Sokko, it is related, was very upset and got up at once. His heart agitated, he muttered: ‘What am I doing under such a fool?’ and left.

After going some way, however, the thought came to him that Abbot Hogen was said to be one of the wisest of men, and spiritual director of five hundred disciples.

If such a man declares there is a mistake, there must be something in it. And so he went back to the teacher.

‘In repentance and reverence I ask . . .’ I have been wrong. I bow and ask pardon. Then addressing the teacher, he asked: ‘How is it, the self of this disciple?’

Now the Master Hogen replied: ‘The lampboy is looking for a light.’

At these words, we are told, Sokko had the Buddhist enlightenment. He had the great satori. How are we to understand it?

This is my own humble view:

The first time the phrase was uttered, by Sokko, it was in the sphere of empty concepts; the Buddha was an intellectual Buddha, something thought in the head. The self is the Buddha—it was all

no more than drawing a picture Buddha in thought. It called forth the response ‘your Buddha is no true Buddha’, which upset and enraged him But after reflection he realized that the utterance of such an enlightened teacher must have a purpose, must have a deep significance, and so he went back and asked pardon.

Asking pardon has a very great meaning. It means a state of self-merging. ‘Please forgive me’ means merging what is called self altogether in the spirituality of the teacher, and when the self thus is naughted, in that very self-submerging is verily release, is awakening. He sank his self into the heart of the teacher named Hogen, and that was his awakening.

And then just one sentence, a single sentence of the teacher, had the power to change the bones and substitute a new core of life, the power to dispel illusion and open up satori, which transcends life and death. It is not teaching empty concepts. Not one word of the Buddha, not one word of the patriarch, ever fails.

When Shakyamuhi reached the end of the Way, he first thought of the five ascetics who had served him, and went to the place where they had separated from him They had resolved that if he returned they would not acknowledge him But when he came from afar off, as he approached he said ‘Good, good’, and unconsciously they rose and saluted him.

Their hair fell off of itself and the Buddhist scarf was round their bodies. It was a symbol that they had become his disciples and had gone beyond birth-and-death. When he spoke, without thinking they rose and saluted him Their hair and beards fell off and instead the scarf appeared round their shoulders—it meant that they had attained realization from that one phrase of the Buddha.

Similarly the words of the Prajna Paramita are unfailing to give release to all.

So it is that there are infinite depths of meaning in the Prajna Paramita mantra.

Of the great Prajna Paramita Sutra in six hundred books the Heart Sutra is the kernel, and of that kernel the phrase of the mantra is the kernel. It is in the original Sanskrit: Gate, gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi, svaha! The traditional translation runs: Gone, gone, gone beyond, altogether beyond; Awakening, fulfilled!

Now I add a last word on this mantra of the Bodhisattva path. The mantra refers to the Bodhisattva path of Mahayana Buddhism The word Bodhisattva may be split up as follows: Bodhi means awakening and sattva means a living being.

The Bodhisattva is one whose sublime aim it is himself to awaken and to awaken the others. It has been said that he first himself awakens and then awakens others, but in the view of the patriarch Dogen the Bodhisattva is one who undertakes that: all living beings shall cross beyond before he himself does so. Before fully awakening himself he will see that all others are awakened; the true Bodhisattva spirit is to leave himself where he is and undertake that all others shall first cross to the far shore.

‘What if this foolish I do not become a Buddha?

Let me only be one engaged in taking others across.’

Let me not become a Buddha but let others become Buddhas first. The Buddha-heart is this: to labour ceaselessly with body, speech and mind to cause the Buddha-heart to arise in others and draw them to the Buddha-path. He spares himself not a moment’s rest but breaks his bones in labouring to draw others along the Buddha way.

The futile attempt to gratify worldly desires has no value for living beings. To seek to fulfil worldly desires is not the Bodhisattva spirit, which is an uninterrupted exertion for the sake of bringing others along the Buddha-way.

Consider the words of the mantra. ‘Gone, gone.’ It is repeated, and it means crossing for oneself and crossing for others. And the view of the patriarch is that the others should cross first. Cross to where? To Nirvana, to the far shore. From this bank of the illusion of birth-and-death to the world of Nirvana which leaves no karmic track, to the sublime state of Nirvana, is the crossing for me and for others. ‘Altogether beyond’ means that all living beings are to cross, and the awakening is complete.

Here is the fulfilment of the Bodhisattva path of self-awakening and awakening others. And the view of Master Dogen is that the Bodhisattva Kannon still does not become Buddha, that the Bodhisattva Jizo for aeons in the future will not become Buddha. Before becoming Buddha, they will release all living beings.

There are people who say that the ideal of Buddhism is to live together and prosper together, and this principle will manifest real peace. But I believe this idea is a deplorable mistake. Buddhism is not living and prospering together, it is offering up one’s whole body and mind for the sake of all living beings. That is the real Bodhisattva spirit. Mutual prosperity would mean that if there are ten things, then we divide them equally between us. But the question is, whether equal division of the spoil in fact lead to peace in society.

Take a trivial example: I am asked out somewhere. In front of me are placed three of those delicious cakes of which I am so fond, and before my neighbour the same. As we each have three, there should be no cause for discontent. But it doesn’t work out like that. When I look carefully at his cakes, they seem to be bigger than mine. We have both got three but his are bigger, and so it is that, even though there is equality in number, we need not expect to have a world of living together in mutual prosperity.

If we to great matters, say international relations, isn’t it just as unreasonable to expect mutual satisfaction on the basis of numbers? You build five battleships and I will build five battleships. But it is impossible that peace should be attained just by equality of numbers. The principle of live and let live is based on sticking attachment to self and soon leads to a struggle. A world of temporary ‘mutual prosperity’ is built up on what they think is self, that’s all.

Buddhism is not mere words, but whole-hearted sacrifice of body and mind for the sake of all. Though I do not become a Buddha, may I be of service to all beings in becoming Buddhas. It is when we can have this spirit in all our dealings that peace will be manifested.

Finally, for myself, let me live among the humble, let me labour at a thankless task, let me discover a real meaning in the circumstances in which I find myself. The whole of the Bodhisattva spirit is in those ultimate words of the mantra. The way of Buddhism is in the traditional prayer: May these merits reach all, and we and they together attain the end of the Buddha way. So with this ancient prayer that the merits of our study may be for the benefit of all, I close my discourse.

May the merits of our study reach all, and we and they together attain the end of the Buddha way.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect