Meeting the Great Masters Face to Face
The Ancient Way stretches back from Japan through China and Korea to Shakyamuni Buddha, some 2,500 years ago in India. But when I think of the Ancient Way, I tend to think of China.
I lived and trained for many years at Hosshinji Monastery, a Soto training monastery in Fukui Prefecture not too far from Kyoto. While I lived there, I was often struck by the verses and dedications used at the monastery which were written in the original Chinese. Why not write these verses and so forth in Japanese, I thought. Even if the characters are the same, the grammar and Japanese alphabet are different. Wouldn’t it be simpler and easier to read these verses if they were written in Japanese? And yet, this was one distinct way I felt the yearning for the Ancient Way, the tremendous respect and esteem which the Japanese monks and priests felt for their forbearers in Chinese Zen. Looking to the great Zen masters and tradition in China as one that perhaps the Japanese would never equal, was that it, I wondered. However, it could also be seen as a yearning to meet the great masters face to face: Baso, Hyakujo, Joshu, Tozan. At Hosshinji, we knew their names in the Japanese pronunciation, but we also knew of course that they lived long ago in China.
I think of one short verse in particular, one that was frequently chanted at the end of evening zazen. Written on the wooden block that hangs in the Sodo (Zendo), I always liked a rather literal translation.
Respectfully I say to those of you gathered here:
Great and grave is the matter of life and death; time passes swiftly.
Each of us must awaken; do not be negligent.
Here in America as well, it is not uncommon to see such a wooden block with a translation of this verse written on it in Zen temple or center.
At Hosshinji, it was the Ino (disciplinarian) who usually chanted this verse, after which he would hit the block in a round of three sequences. This roll-down was synchronized to end just as the big temple bell was struck for the last time that day.
This verse asks us to reflect on this day’s practice. Did you maintain your focus on the great matter of life and death or were you negligent and get off track? Time passes swiftly and waits for no one. Today you are healthy but it’s perfectly possible that tomorrow you will not have the same strength, that you may be ill and unable to sit. So, really be diligent. Do it now. This great matter isn’t something to put off until tomorrow. Now, now, now. For this reason, our teacher often encouraged us to sit yaza (zazen after 9:00 pm), particularly during sesshin. “Sit to your heart’s content,” he would say. “Don’t give up. Don’t be lazy. Really expend every effort to awaken by being a samadhi of zazen.”
In the Soto sect, we often hear the teaching that we practice within the result, that we should practice without holding onto a goal. In other words, we should “just sit” and not seek for anything else. This is certainly true, but only for someone who has realized and confirmed that result. Some may think that awakening or enlightenment is not necessary and all we need to do is simply sit, but the problem with this viewpoint is that such people end up sitting inside their own ideas of practice.
So, while on the one hand, it is possible to sit without a goal or purpose, sitting without a goal then becomes a goal, something we are often unaware of. In other words, not to have an objective becomes the objective. On the other hand, all of the successive masters who have been passed on the Dharma, generation after generation, have verified for themselves that in fact they are the Dharma and in order to do that they ground up both self and Dharma through zazen.
Dogen Zenji clearly and kindly taught us, “This (Buddha) Dharma is amply endowed in each person, but without practice it isn’t manifested, without realization it isn’t attained.” From the vantage of the Dharma, all things are the Dharma including delusions and random discriminations. However, to realize for ourselves that this is truly so, practice and realization are necessary.
This short verse concisely outlines the objective of practice. This verse also expresses the spirit of yearning for the Ancient Way. It clearly tells us what we must do to meet the Great Masters face to face.
Daigaku Rummé, April 2017