After All I Still Don’t Know

· Dharma Discourses, Teachings · ,

By Ron Hogen Green, Sensei, MRO

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Gateless Gate Case 9
Daitsu Chisho Buddha

Main Case

Once, a monk earnestly asked priest Jo of Koyo, “Daitsu Chisho Buddha sat in the meditation hall for ten kalpas, but the Dharma of the Buddha did not manifest itself, and he could not attain Buddhahood. Why was this?” Priest Jo replied, “Your question is reasonable indeed.” The monk again said he sat in zazen in the meditation hall; why did he not attain Buddhahood? Priest Jo replied “Because he is a non-attained Buddha.”

Master Wu-men’s Commentary

I approve the old barbarian’s realization but I don’t approve his understanding. If an ordinary person knows, he is a sage; if the sage understands it, she is an ordinary person.

Master Wu-men’s Verse

Better than knowing the body is knowing the mind in peace;
when the mind is realized, the body is no longer anxious.
When body and mind are fully realized,
the saintly hermit declines to become a noble.


In a strange and wonderful way, all of Zen practice is the story of beginning to learn, out of our own experience, that everything has been given to us. Our life, our possessions, our talents, our struggles, our suffering, everything has been offered to us. This is true of every human and the only question is: What will we do with these gifts?

Our wholeness is this gift. And that gift is offered to us by the Dharma of infinite blessings and generosity. It’s simply up to us to take all that we have been given and accept the offerings of the Dharma.

As you may know I was pretty sick a couple weeks ago. And there was a period of time when I was on my way to the hospital when things were not going well. Later, after I got to the hospital, my son asked me “Were you concerned? Were you worried that you were about to die?” Interestingly enough I wasn’t, perhaps because I was so involved in my illness that the thought just didn’t occur to me. So there’s that. But also I was at peace with it, which just means I was where I was. I wasn’t protesting what was offered by the Dharma of infinite blessings and generosity, in that instance.

So where do we start within the context of our life and this practice, to help us accept this offering? We’re very self-reliant people, and yet we start by taking refuge in the awakened Buddha. We take refuge in the Dharma, taking all that we have and using it to practice our life. We take refuge in the Sangha, opening up our practice in relationship with each other, to everything, all phenomena, all circumstances.

Daitsu Chisho Buddha is the Buddha of great penetrating and supreme wisdom. Sounds pretty impressive. In the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha tells of Daitsu Chisho Buddha who sat zazen for ten kalpas in the meditation hall. A kalpa is an infinitely long period of time. I’m sure sometimes a period of zazen feels like ten kalpas. And yet the Buddha Dharma did not appear.

So what is going on here? The monk asks priest Jo about this. “Daitsu Chisho Buddha sat in the meditation hall for ten kalpas, but the Dharma of the Buddha did not manifest and he could not attain Buddhahood. Why was this?” Is this an innocent question? Is there some weight behind it?

There are many kinds of questions we can ask—questions that arise from a desire to know and understand, or that help us investigate our confusion. Sometimes asking a question is a way of keeping at a distance what we’re afraid of. It’s protection.

You’ve probably heard there were certain questions the Buddha wouldn’t answer. He was asked is there life after death? He wouldn’t answer, and when he was asked why he wouldn’t answer he would say, “Because answering these questions will not help you to address your suffering.”

So where is the monk’s question coming from in this koan? I call it spiritual fear. Fear with a particular frame; our sense of a solid, enduring ‘self’ now in the frame of practice. An attempt to control my own fear, anxiety, or depression by being saved by something other than our own acceptance of our birthright of wholeness. Do we fear we will not get the golden prize? That we will not awaken, not be free, not get whatever it is we believe we should have? Are we afraid that we will die lonely and afraid in the midst of this golden treasure house that we hear so much about but cannot quite grasp?

We fear we will not attain buddhahood, whatever we believe buddhahood means. Realistically, it’s hard enough to sit even a few minutes sometimes. So why sit for ten kalpas with still no satisfaction? Priest Jo replies, “Your question is reasonable indeed.” Is he saying it’s a good question? It makes sense. Or is there something more in Jo’s response?

It is a reasonable question. Will we awaken? Do you see the perspective from which the question arises? Obviously the monk does not see this because he asks it again. “He sat zazen in the meditation hall, why did he not obtain Buddhahood?” Can you feel his fear? Can you feel your own fear of not attaining whatever it is you think you should attain? Jo replied in complete honesty, “Because he is a non-attained Buddha” What does it mean to be non-attained in practice/realization?

What would your mind be if it was a mind of not-having? A mind of each moment of your life, being where you are? Where you don’t know, even though you are fully conscious and present? Is there attainment? Is there non-attainment?

What do you desire in practice? What do you wish to make yours? To own, to have, to possess?

We often speak of zazen in terms of concentration and attention and awareness. Another way to look at that is from the perspective of being totally immersed in your zazen, so that the skin between the practice of reality and you is completely permeable. And why limit that to zazen? What would our life look like if we let go of the thoughts, ideas and desires which bind us? When we forget to know, our body becomes permeable, becomes the entire universe.

Photo By Elizabeth Haslam

Photo By Elizabeth Haslam

We let it fall away of its own weight, the judgments that we have of each other and each thing encountered.

What would our life and our zazen look like if there was not exertion towards a specific aim and goal? Can we be deeply committed to the practice of immediacy, of non-attaining, of not knowing? This is not the not-knowing of ignorance, but a place that has open inquiry, awareness, and an incredible, bottomless depth. Because if you don’t know, then where is the bottom? And so this not-knowing is not satisfied by knowing or by understanding. It doesn’t need satisfaction. It is complete in non-attainment. It is fresh and alive, new in each moment. It’s the mind of the Buddha. It is your mind. It’s an awakened mind. It’s the mind of a non-attained Buddha.

In acknowledging our anxiety and our fear, by going to that place that is so deep within us that we’re not rejecting anything and not grasping anything, we become free of our fear. An open heart can acknowledge fear and anxiety, depression, or any state of mind. Because with an open heart, what’s the problem? Where is the problem?

The commentary: “I approve the old barbarian’s realization but I don’t approve his understanding. If an ordinary person knows, he is a sage. If the sage understands it, she is an ordinary person.” The old barbarian is Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, who himself sat for nine years in his cave in the mountains of China. So Mumon is saying “I approve the old barbarians realization.” Daitsu Chisho Buddha is a non-attained Buddha. What is the relationship between Bodhidharma, who sat before a wall for nine years and clearly was realized, and Daitsu Chiso Buddha, who sat for ten kalpas and did not attain realization?

How do we wake up from the fear-dream that we are possessed by? How do we let desperate grasping just be? There’s an intelligence here that is connected with what you want. This is the basic intelligence of your being—which is bodhicitta—the desire to awaken, yet not resting in our self-centered grasping. Here we come face to face with: what do you want, what will you trust? We always have a choice—to acknowledge our inherent Buddhahood, our fear, and our responsibility to our self and all living beings. Or not.

This is your life. You always have power. You may have to dig deep, you may have to be patient, you may have to discern; that’s part of the practice. So it comes down to what you want and what you will trust. The desire to awaken, to live in a kind and open heart, is not possessable by you or me.

Mumon says “I approve of the old barbarian’s realization but I don’t approve of his understanding.” Bodhidharma, the old barbarian is realized, but he does not understand. What he has realized is that fundamentally there is nothing to realize. And this nothing is his own body and mind. It’s not an idea, it is not something out there, it is not something apart from you. It is you. Sometimes we call it Mu, sometimes we call it shikantaza, sometimes we call it this breath or any of hundreds or thousands of koans. How could this be understood? It can’t be held, it can’t be grasped; if we try, we’re grasping in desperation at a mirage.

Photo by Professor Liang

Photo by Professor Liang

Our mind of not-knowing is fresh, it’s alive and responsive, and it’s kind. Realizing this for yourself, you naturally return to the wholeness of the moment and practice whatever you need to practice. Do you hear how much freedom there is in that? To be afraid and allow each moment of our life to rise anew? That’s very different than how we might ordinarily work with fear. Just to be aware of our anxiety and fear as it functions is enormous; and then to choose not to run.

In the Faith Mind poem it says: “Be serene in the oneness of things” Be serene in the oneness, the wholeness of things, the wholeness of you. “Then erroneous views will disappear by themselves.” This is to be serene, yet awake to the freshness of this moment of your life. Where’s the boundary of this? There is no boundary. There’s no chapter that comes to an end and a new chapter begins. It’s always here, your wholeness. And the good news is we can start right now. Here. We can be a beginner: now a beginner, now a beginner, now a beginner.

The verse: “Better than knowing the body is knowing the mind in peace. When the mind is realized, the body is no longer anxious. When body and mind are fully realized, the sage declines to become special.”

Body and mind, of course, are one wholeness. You get that sitting a day of zazen, that our body and mind are too many words for a single thing.

Daido Roshi would often say, “There’s no place to put this enormous body.” An enormous body and mind; that’s how big you are. There’s nothing apart from your body and mind to realize. What would it be to do a round of zazen with no expectation? How about a day, or two days? How about 10,000 kalpas? Each breath is a new beginning, no comparison to what came before. This breath is a new breath. Whole as it is; no beginning, no middle, no end. Breath. Where is there attainment? In this breath in this moment—where are you?

There’s no practitioner who does not fall into knowing-mind with its anxiety and fear and romance. And there’s no practitioner who cannot manifest the mind of a beginner. After all, you have before and you will again. You can do that because you have done that. And so when body and mind are fully realized, the sage declines to become special. There’s no need for you to be special. It is just you. It has always been just you. Your body is so big, there is no place to put it.

So what do we need to do? Well I’ll speak from my own life because I can’t speak for yours, simply because I don’t know what you need to do. Sometimes I may need to do one hundred and eight prostrations before Avalokiteshvara. Sometimes I need to ask for help. Sometimes I need to just sit and sit and sit. Sometimes I need to cry. Sometimes I need—for God’s sake, to just drop it. Let it go! Sometimes I need to apologize. Sometimes I need in the midst of zazen to actually do zazen. And on and on. What do we need to do to be a non-attained Buddha? That’s your job, that’s my job, to answer that question. And there is no box that this comes out of. It’s all yours, and it’s fresh every moment.

Ron Hogen Green, Sensei, is a lay teacher in the Mountains and Rivers Order and co-director of the Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn, NY.

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