九 Returning to the Source
This is the continuation of a lecture by Nakamura Tempū on the meaning of the “Ten Ox Herding Pictures” of Zen Buddhism. To go to the beginning of the lecture, click here.
Now, picture nine, “Returning to the Source.” In the picture, we see a plum blossom. We can imagine its fragrance.
In spring, the willows turn green and the flowers bloom crimson, even with no one there to dye them.
Just as the hills turn green without dye, the color of flowers and the color of the self both pass.
So, it’s a verse about the natural order; that’s self-evident. But what does it mean?
What it’s suggesting is the culmination of one’s development, one’s return to his inherent and original nature. This is a little difficult to explain. The seeker has awakened and awakened and awakened. He has awakened to the extent that he has returned to his original natural state. That original state is one that is unblemished, spotlessly clean. It’s the original state of everything, the state not given to form. It’s not occupied by anything; there’s nothing there.
In the shin-shin tōitsu method, I describe this state as that inhabited by those who are living a totally spiritual existence. We were talking about this yesterday: a spiritual existence is not something other than a human existence; it’s the way that human beings are meant to live.
Zen calls it “unenlightened enlightenment” (悟了同未悟、goryō-dō-migō). What it means is, once you are enlightened, you are just as if you are unenlightened. Before you were enlightened, the willows were green and the flowers, crimson; now that you are enlightened, the willows are still green and the flowers, still crimson.
Isshin Zenji (青原惟信、Chinese: Qingyuan Weixin; ninth century Zen master) said it this way. “Before one begins his training, he sees mountains as mountains, flowers as flowers, and water as water. Once his training takes effect and he enters the state of satori, mountains no longer appear to be mountains and water no longer appears to be water. But then, when one’s realization deepens and he looks at the world with a spotless mind, mountains are just mountains and water is just water.”
Maybe it’s a little difficult to follow; the shin-shin tōitsu method explanation is easier. During the process of self-development, and as a means to an end, I tell people to forget their attachments and worries and to deny validity to conditions of sickness and circumstance—to firmly believe that such conditions are illusions, that they don’t really exist. This is not the cultivation of denial; it’s the cultivation of positivity.
But once positivity becomes immediate and automatic, there’s no more need to deny anything. That’s because there’s no longer any such thing as either denial or affirmation. There’s just absolute equanimity.
In his day, Miyamoto Musashi was said to have been without equal among swordsmen in all the sixty provinces. After his famous duel on Ganryūjima, he was guested by the house of Hosokawa in Higo Domain [modern Kumamoto]. One day, Lord Hosokawa called for him.
“Musashi-dono, it’s said that you have engaged in over one hundred life or death duels,” the Lord said. “Among all your adversaries, was there anyone you thought particularly formidable?”
Musashi let out a short laugh before he responded. “That’s a strange question. All of the men I’ve fought have been warriors of exceptional ability.”
To this, Lord Hosokawa answered, “Of that, I have no doubt. Only a man of exceptional ability would be so brazen as to pick up a sword and to face you in a duel. But what I’m asking is, out of all those contests, was there ever one where, maybe just for an instant, you wondered, is this going to be the one I don’t win—the one where I lose?”
“Oh, so that’s it? In that case, the answer is no.”
“How extraordinary. There’s certainly not a man alive—especially one who aspires to mastery of the sword—who doesn’t value his life: it’s out of concern for his life that he assesses his adversaries for their strengths and weaknesses. As you say that all your adversaries have been men of exceptional ability, surely you’ve experienced such concern.”
Musashi laughed again. “In my case, I never studied the art of the sword under a teacher; I was never taught. Instead, I went into the mountains. There, I would cut down tree limbs of appropriate lengths and then hang them at their midpoints on ropes from above—maybe ten or twenty at a time. Then I would bat at them with a stick. Each time I struck one end of a limb with a stick, the other end would invariably swing around at me; the harder I struck, the faster its return. In order not to be struck down by swinging tree limbs, I perfected my sense of distance and timing (間合、maai). This was the foundation of my martial training.
“Consequently, when I engage in a duel with a living person, I don’t draw my sword with the intention of killing him or even of overcoming him. I just gauge my distance and timing to stay out of the way of the swinging tree limb. It’s really just the same feeling as training alone in the mountains. The only difference is, men are much easier to fight than tree limbs.”
“How do you mean?”
“A tree limb shows no fear; I’m the only one in the contest who’s afraid. But when it’s man against man, my opponent is also afraid, and because he’s afraid, he evades my blade. The tree limb doesn’t evade me, nor does it hesitate; it just responds, and it responds immediately. From time to time, when dueling against tree limbs, I would lose. The swinging limb would knock me over. But that’s never happened in all my engagements with men; that’s why I’ve never lost.” Such was Musashi’s answer.
When I first heard this story, I thought, “That’s it. That’s the secret to unifying mind and body.” Do you see?
I’ll say it again. The cultivation of mental positivity by not allowing attachments or worries or sickness or circumstances to have any power over you is a necessary stage in your shugyō. It’s necessary that you deny them any place in your reality. But once you attain a permanent condition of mental positivity, negativity disappears. It disappears because your mind is in a state of absolute tranquility. When you are completely tranquil, you become like Musashi; even in moments of life or death, you don’t feel as though you’re doing battle. You’re more at ease than if you were batting at a limb hanging from a tree.
Think about it. A sword only cuts if it makes contact. Even the most famous swords—those called suimo-no-ken (吹毛の剣; “blowing hair sword”), meaning that the blade is so sharp that, if you rest a strand of hair on it and blow, it will sever the strand of hair. Even such a sword doesn’t cut unless it makes contact.
In just the same way, if the events of your life don’t touch your mental state, then they don’t cut. An absolute state is not the same as one which repels all opposing forces with kiai (気合; a warrior’s yell or battle cry).
So, positivity comes in two colors. “Disinterested clarity and vivacious gallantry”—that’s the original shade of positivity. Once you make it yours, you don’t lack anything. When an adversary strikes, you just move out of the way.
A secret teaching (極意、gokui) in the sword arts says, “Never receive the thrusting blade; let it go by. But if your adversary then stumbles forward, cut him down with a diagonal strike (袈裟斬り、kesagiri).” By receiving a thrust, you assume the role of defender; your physical demeanor changes. So, don’t receive it; just let it go by. The events of life come at you just like a thrusting sword. Don’t receive them, just let them go by. Don’t take them on. When you don’t offer them any resistance, they have a way of stumbling and falling on their own.
Once you arrive at that stage, it’s like I said: there’s no more bull, no more smell, no more residue. “If miso stinks of miso, then it’s not real miso.” The man who carries an air of enlightenment is not truly enlightened.
There’s an old saying. “The great sage is as a fool; the man of substance and virtue is as a young child.” Yoga teaches, “The wise man is as a newborn child.” I’m not there yet; I’ve yet to become as a newborn child. But, lucky for me, in this modern world, men are recognized as sages even when they have yet to become as a newborn child.
Buddhism has a saying too. “The ordinary [unenlightened] man often assumes the trappings of a sage. The great ability of the man of substance and virtue is to behave as an ordinary man.” I like that saying; it’s wonderful.
When I was twenty-two or three, Sun Yat-sen came to call on Tōyama Mitsuru one day with a man who had asked to be introduced. The man was Japanese, the boss of a large general contractor—just like the gangster bosses of today. He was eager to meet Tōyama-sensei because Sun had spoken so often and so highly of him.
After eating dinner together and talking for two or three hours, Tōyama turned to me and said, “Accompany him home.” So together, Sun Yat-sen and I escorted the man back to his inn. When we arrived, Sun turned to him and asked, “So, now that you’ve finally met him, what do you think? What’s your impression?”
To which, the boss responded, “What a disappointment! He’s just an old man. Nothing unusual about him at all. Here I was expecting to hear words of wisdom and to receive invaluable advice, but all we did was talk about women and other trivialities. It was a waste of time!”
Sun just looked him in the eye. “That’s what makes him special,” he said.
“What’s so special about that?”
“That he carries on in such an ordinary fashion. Even though there are any number of men willing to lay down their lives for him in an instant. It’s not every man who commands that kind of loyalty.”
I was just an observer listening in on this conversation, but I remember thinking, “Sensei really is just as remarkable as I take him to be.”
People today don’t recognize that kind of exceptionalism. They think that unless a man looks exceptional, he can’t be exceptional.
That reminds me of another story.[i] Men may not distinguish the exceptional from the unexceptional, but birds and beasts do. The story has to do with Kyoto long ago.
In Kyoto, there were two men who entered the priesthood after failing with women. The first was Monkaku Shōnin (門覚上人、1139–1203), who is well known; the other was named Saigyō Hōshi (西行法師、1118–1190). Both were defeated by love. They both lived at the same time and were former bushi, so they had much in common. But Saigyō, on the one hand, embarked on a pilgrimage through the sixty provinces to proclaim everywhere he went that “the cruelty of love is like that of breaking whitecaps on the high sea,” while Monkaku, on the other, lashed out; having decided that love was a curse, he attempted to stomp it out by cutting down the woman who was the object of his desire.
So now, after having lost everything, he went to the great falls of Nachi, where he stood under the falls to do penance and to purify his mind. He didn’t stand directly under the falls, mind you; if he’d done that he would have been crushed. Those of you who’ve been to Nachi understand; it’s the highest falls in all of Japan: the weight of the water coming over it is enough to flatten any mortal. Instead, he stood just to the side of the falls and subjected himself to its spray. In any event, after continuing this ascetic training for a long time, he eventually turned to Buddhism and became a priest.
Monkaku. Just because he’d become a priest doesn’t mean he was awakened. Of the two, Saigyō, traveling through the countryside and reciting his verse about the cruelty of love was the more advanced, even if he had yet to attain the state that Zen calls satori—had he attained satori, he would probably never have bothered to become a priest.
Monkaku became the head of a temple in, I think it was Nara. But at heart, he was still a warrior. He was inhabited by demons and vipers. In those days, it was said “where a bushi goes, the people hide.” The bushi were known to cut people down at the slightest provocation. Even the smallest thing, they might take as an affront.
Even so, he had taken on the robes and was following in the footsteps of the Buddha. Maybe he thought he was already enlightened or maybe he didn’t, but in any event, he took it upon himself to play the part. He did everything he could to appear as if he was enlightened and to project that image.
But then, there was a problem. Whenever he left his quarters and walked out onto the passageway under the temple eaves, he was greeted by a big monkey, down out of the mountains. The monkey would run out into the garden, climb into a camphor tree, and provoke Monkaku by making faces and showing its rear end. Chasing it or yelling at it did no good; after all, it was a monkey.
It’s said that Taira-no-Kiyomori (平清盛、1118–1181; military leader at the time of the story) would look at the sunset and say with indignance, “In all the world, it’s only the cycle of the sun that is indifferent to my command. Even I can’t bring the sun back up over the western horizon.” For Monkaku, it was just the same. Everyone in the temple and its immediate vicinity yielded to his command except for that monkey. That monkey alone was completely beyond his control. He kept a short-bow and arrows close at hand and took shots at it whenever it appeared, but he always missed; the monkey was far too quick. That monkey! It irritated him to no end. It really got his goat.
Soon, however, he found something else to be irritated about. And that was Saigyō Hōshi.
“That dog. Here he went down in flames over a woman, just like me. But the difference is, he seems to have profited from it. I never once got to be with my beloved—I just finished her off. While he, even if only once, was united with the woman he loved. What’s more, his woman was from the highest rungs of the aristocracy. His luck is so much better than mine. Now, everywhere he goes, he’s treated like a great poet; he’s wined and dined by Daimyō and noblemen. Should he ever show his face at this temple, I’ll take his head.”
He’d been drinking. He called all the monks together and told them, “Mark my words. Should Saigyō ever come this way, I’m going to finish him. You’ll be privy to the whole spectacle, so look forward to it! I’ll bring you his head!” Of the monks, not one doubted he was capable of it.
Well, the world works in mysterious ways, and toward the end of that same year a letter was delivered from Rokuhara (Taira-no-Kiyomori’s palace and central administrative headquarters) informing Monkaku that Saigyō was traveling through Nara and would be calling at his temple.
“Hey! He’s coming, he’s coming! Saigyō’s coming. And I’m going to take off his head!”
Monkaku. He was said to have been over six feet tall and to have had the power of thirty men—although I can’t vouch for it, because I never met him.
Presently, word came from the village that Saigyō had arrived.
“Everyone, stay where you are. I’ll go down to meet him alone, so just wait. I’ll come back with his head.”
Monkaku stomped off down the mountain, leaving his students sweating cold sweat out of the palms of their hands.
“This is no joke. What he’s been saying for months now is finally coming to pass. What a predicament. We’ve heard of temples getting into fights with villagers but never of a temple fighting another temple. Taking the head of a fellow priest—what purpose could that serve? This doesn’t look good.”
As the monks sat huddled together, hearts palpitating, the sound of laughter reached them from the foot of the mountain. They peered down the path. To their amazement, there, through the temple’s mountain gate, came Saigyō and Monkaku walking side by side, talking and laughing in loud voices, each with an arm on the other’s shoulder.
The monks muttered among themselves. “It’s because he didn’t want to do it in public,” they said. “He’s playing the friendly host, just to get him into the temple. He’ll do it here.”
Monkaku ushered Saigyō into his personal living quarters and had the monks prepare a sumptuous feast. Then the two continued their lively conversation late into the evening, neither with any end of things to say.
“Something’s not right,” the monks said in hushed voices. “He doesn’t look like he’s going to kill him after all.”
“Wait until the middle of the night. After all, Saikyō too is a bushi. You can’t just cut him up as if you were preparing a fish for dinner; you have to attack him while he’s asleep.”
The monks slept not a wink throughout the night. But when, from time to time, they crept up to the closed entrance to Monkaku’s living quarters, all they could hear from within was the peaceful snoring of both Saigyō and Monkaku. And when dawn broke, they watched as both Saigyō and Monkaku emerged from the room to wash their faces.
“He didn’t do it! How odd. I’m going to find out what’s going on,” said the chief of temple affaires. He approached Monkaku.
“You aren’t going through with it?” he asked.
“Through with what?”
“What you said yesterday. You told us you were going to take Saigyō’s head.”
“Oh that. No. I’ve changed my mind.”
“You’ve changed your mind?”
“I’ve changed my mind.”
“What was it that made you change your mind?”
“That guy is a notch above me.”
Monkaku, someone who never, ever admitted defeat to another man, was saying, “He’s a notch above me.”
“If I might ask, what do you mean?”
“Yesterday, when we received word that Saigyō had arrived, I left with every intention of taking his head. But when I got to the temple gate at the base of the mountain, that monkey came out of the woods again. He laughed and jeered and showed me his rear end—I was so angry. But Saigyō was right there, so I couldn’t do anything.
“Instead, Saigyō just turned to the monkey and said, ‘You. Go away now. Go away.’ Whereupon the monkey turned around and ran off into the forest. The monkey just did as it was told. Even though the two were meeting for the very first time.
“Then, a little bird that had been perched on a branch just to Saigyō’s side alighted on his shoulder. Saigyō acted as though this were entirely normal; neither did he pay the bird any attention, nor did he shoo it away.
“That was my defeat. The monkey that has been tormenting me for many months just runs off at Saigyō’s command, and then a little bird lands on his shoulder like it’s the shoulder of an old friend. ‘So, this is what it’s like to be a realized human being,’ I thought. I was powerless over him.
“That’s why I brought him back to the temple with me and kept him up late talking. I wanted to absorb his wisdom; I wanted to learn from him.”
That’s the story. Were one to judge from appearances, it was Monkaku who was the more advanced of the two: He’d undergone rites of purification at Nachi Falls and been adorned with title and position in the Buddhist faith. While Saigyō was only a half-starved wandering monk with nothing to his name but his poetry. But in substance, they were as far apart as heaven and earth.
[i] The story that follows appears to be based on one found in a treatise on classical poetry entitled Seiashō (井蛙抄) written by the fourteenth century priest and poet Ton’a (頓阿). Tempū’s version, however, differs substantially from that original. Furthermore, his telling is in the style of rakugo (落語), traditional comedic storytelling, an art in which he was accomplished. While no more than conjecture, I strongly suspect that the story as Tempū tells it comes directly out of the rakugo repertoire.