Transmigrating, For Now

· Dharma Discourses, Open Access · ,

by Konrad Ryushin Marchaj, Sensei

Ruiyan’s “Constant Principle”
Book of Serenity, Case 75

Even as you call it ‘thus,’ it’s already changed. Where knowledge doesn’t reach, avoid speaking of it. Here, is there any investigating or not? 

Ruiyan asked Yantou, “What is the fundamental constant principle?”
Yantou said, “Moving.”
Ruiyan said, “When moving, what then?”
Yantou said, “You don’t see the fundamental constant principle.”
Ruiyan stood there thinking.
Yantou said, “If you agree, you are not yet free of sense and matter: if you don’t agree, you’ll be forever sunk in birth and death.” 

The round pearl has no hollows,
The great raw gem isn’t polished.
What is esteemed by people of the Way is having no edges.
Removing the road of agreement, senses and matter are empty:
The free body, resting on nothing, stands out unique and alive.

Master Wansong’s introduction to this koan begins with this simple line, “Even as you call it ‘thus’ it has already changed.” The word “thus” is a key word for Zen practitioners; it has a mysterious power, as though if we can just access what “thus” names, then we will be home. But the moment we utter the word, things have already disintegrated, have already transformed.

That’s the remarkable thing about speech—while it brings our mind to a point of common understanding, the fact is that within language, we are continually witnessing the disintegration of reality. As the words leave my lips and touch your ears, as you comprehend them and make sense of them, you are participating in an exercise of abstraction—and this is the nature of most all communication that happens through words. We seem to find a certain security and value within this kind of communication, our ability to name and label and think about things, yet if we’re paying attention to what’s actually happening, we’ll see that through this very process, reality has already transmigrated, shifted, changed. If we investigate this further, can we see what has changed? What would it mean for something to change into something else? Can this moment, this experience, recreate itself as something else? Can it transmigrate, move across a gap of space, an emptiness of existence, and in this way journey from being one thing to being something else?

At the end of his commentary on the koan, Wansong introduces two beautiful lines that sum up not only the koan itself, but also the implications for what it actually means for a person to live freely within this mystery of change:

The golden chains and hidden barrier cannot stop him; He travels in different paths, transmigrating for now.

Transmigrating. Reincarnating. Being reborn within a path that is dedicated to putting an end to rebirth. But he is transmigrating for now, free of golden chains and hidden barriers.


Within Certain Religious traditions, you’re not supposed to utter the name of God. Or to reduce it to a pop culture reference, it’s like how in Harry Potter you’re not supposed to say the name of Voldemort, the most evil wizard. “Thus” gives us a way out; it points us toward an experience that we appreciate as being beyond language—totally alive, ineffable, real. I think of Maezumi Roshi’s calligraphy of thus that hangs in the dokusan room. Clearly he was in touch with that reality as he put his brush to paper—it brings it alive. And because of this, I never get tired of looking at it. “Even as you call it ‘thus,’” even as you paint it “thus,” it has already changed—and yet this vitality, this reality is available, thirty, forty, fifty, one thousand years later. In that sense, the dharma has been transmitted.

Wansong continues, Where knowledge doesn’t reach, avoid speaking of it. Knowledge cannot penetrate it. What we know is inevitably different from the immediacy of our actual, present-moment experience. Knowledge does not reach “thus.” What does? Zazen. The practice of sitting deeply into the intimacy of that which can’t possibly be known. In the last line of his verse, Hongzhi says, The free body, resting on nothing, stands out unique and alive. This phrase echoes teachings from the Sixth Ancestor, who saw into the nature of reality when he overheard somebody say, “Abiding nowhere, manifest the mind.” Resting on nothing, stand unique and alive. Dogen also brings this teaching to life again and again, using anything that comes to hand. That’s his brilliance—he can see into the world of things and recognize the thusness of those things. He sees how they abide nowhere and how they manifest their virtue because of that ineffable quality of their being. In the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, he returns to the image of the bright pearl rolling freely within the continuum of space and time. How is it to stand freely? Speaking about water, he says,

Water is neither strong nor weak. Neither wet nor dry. Neither moving nor still. Neither cold nor hot. Neither being or non-being. Neither delusion nor enlightenment. Solidified [in its thusness] it is harder than diamond. Who could break it? Melted [in its thusness] it is softer than milk. Who could break it? This being the case, we cannot doubt the many virtues realized by water.

“We cannot doubt.” That’s a directive, not a suggestion. This is his description of “thusness,” yet Dogen knows the transgression that he’s committing. He knows that the truth is disintegrating as he speaks.


We Frequently Misconstrue spiritual practice. We imagine that the purpose is to get to a certain point where we will discover something innate about ourselves. We have an idea of our enlightened nature, of what it will mean to see it. But if buddha nature is the constant fundamental principle, then it is moving. It is changeability itself. We seek a constant principle, something fundamental to rely upon. And even within a tradition that teaches impermanence, it’s possible that we will unwittingly make a god out of impermanence. We want to realize the entity behind the many facades and manifestations—we want to know the soul, the spirit, or even the mathematical abstraction. Maybe Planck’s constant is that fundamental reality.

We want to nail things down. We want to be able to pinpoint who we are, what this life is. We want to have some sense of a definition. Or at least have a sense of who is seeking the definition. And despite the teachings on no self, for many of us, spiritual training actually becomes a way to move to a place where we can find a sense of identity. Through practice and training, we may come to a place where we are newly capable of forming a relationship or holding a job, of knowing who we are in that way. And at that point, for some of us, that’s as far as we needed to go along the path—for now, anyway. There is truly nothing wrong with that. That, too, is the process of this clarification, of finding yourself fulfilled within your life. Often we are unconsciously projecting a vision of what fulfillment is supposed to look like on to our life, nourishing the idea that we will emerge at future moment as someone who is somehow, now, secure.

I was recently speaking with an actor in the sangha about the Stanislavski method of acting, where the actor works with being completely intimate with the dramatic situation, letting go of themselves and allowing that intimacy with the character and the reality of the play to express itself completely. It’s the sense of “letting the dance dance itself,” or the “role play itself.” I remember an interview with Ralph Fiennes after he played the sadistic Nazi commandant in Schindler’s List, in which he spoke about how he crawled so deeply into that role that he had difficulty returning to himself afterwards. And yet the fact that he was able to comment on that experience means that there was still a part of him that was able to observe, to recover, to transmigrate across that gap.

What would it mean to be in complete intimacy, where that transmigration is the reality of our lives? As Master Yantou says in this koan, it’s not that we’re moving from point to point—there is just moving. Not toward some point of recovery or reorganization. Just moving. We sometimes think that it is the intention behind practice, the instinct for selflessness, for example, that is constant. Yet that, too, is nothing but a conditioned reality. That, too, is nothing but moving.


“What Is The Fundamental constant principle?” Moving. Just moving. There is no subject attached to the moving—no thing that moves. Notice, too, that Yantou doesn’t say “movement”; he says “moving.” There is a difference. Movement is a contained reality. Moving is not. Moving is continuous. Moving doesn’t have a beginning or an end. It is a process without a reference point. Without becoming. Without transmigration. Without before and after. Without rebirth into anything else. It’s like shikantaza. Just sitting is just moving. Just moving is just sitting. This is the fundamental constant principle.

Photo by Joe Sampouw

Photo by Joe Sampouw

Ruiyan persists: “When moving, then what?” Yantou says, “You don’t see the fun- damental principle.” Constant means continuous, forever, but since it is moving, you never see it. If you can see it, then it’s not moving. So, amidst this moving, who are you? Who are you amidst the choices you will make today, amidst the aches and the pains, the responsibilities of this life? Who are you within the continuity of causality? What are we atoning for when we turn our mind to our past? What are we turning to in our vows to help others? What is it that chases us and extends itself even beyond our death?

Who are you amidst the choices you will make today, amidst the aches and the pains, the responsibilities of this life?

One of the commentators on this koan said Yantou’s response was very unskillful—that the question of the fundamental constant principle invited Yantou to respond instantaneously, non-verbally, to express it in a gesture or a shout. But actually he is extremely skillful—skillful enough to precipitate Ruiyan’s realization.

Within Yantou’s teaching is the Buddha’s commitment to respect each individual and his or her direct experience as the only valuable path to waking up. The Buddha never required that we have faith in things beyond our immediate experience. And Zen training basically follows this. Everything that happens within this Monastery points to something that you can immediately verify if you attend to the unfolding of this reality. We’re asked to trust, but never beyond our experience. So when we talk about transmigration or rebirth, the Buddha doesn’t deny that it’s possible to see into this movement beyond this lifetime. But he also recognizes that doing so may not be helpful, because in order for this to be possible, most of us would need to trust something we can’t actually access at this particular moment. Yes, there are teachings that offer precise descriptions of how to travel through the 49-day gap between your last breath in this form and the moment of your first breath in whatever form you might take next. But instead, the Buddha points to the immediacy of our experience as a way to understand the significance of rebirth. He looks at constancy and change in relation to the only thing that ultimately matters: how to end suffering. Your suffering and the suffering of others.


The Kalama Sutra is a teaching that the Buddha offered to the Kalama clan, a group of ascetics who lived on the edge of the forest. Periodically, different teachers of that time would pass through the forest and offer teachings. When the Buddha arrived the Kalamas complained that the various teachings on rebirth and transmigration were contradictory, confusing and impossible to verify. The Buddha said, “I’ll help you.” Then he guides them very gently.

First, he basically says, “trust yourself.” He says there are ten things that you shouldn’t invest yourself in when you meet a teacher. In their investigation of reality, he cautions them not to rely on the ten sources of belief. Four of these sources pertain to the established scriptural authority: don’t believe oral traditions; don’t believe a lineage of teachings; don’t trust any texts; don’t trust hearsay. Then he shifts to the rational ground: don’t trust logic; don’t trust inferential reasoning; don’t trust reasoned cogitation and the acceptance of view after pondering it. Then he says don’t trust authoritative persons, impressive speakers or respected teachers. After you’ve removed all of these assumed sources of the teaching, where are you left?

The Buddha basically says let’s look at the nature of what is observable to you right now. If you want to understand rebirth and what it means to transmigrate, then pay attention, with utmost mindfulness, to your actions at this particular moment. Attend to your body, speech, and thought. And now, look at the consequences. See how you recreate the nature of this reality. Specifically, pay attention to the wholesomeness and unwholesomeness of those actions and see what kind of world you’re creating from moment to moment. This will show you how you’re transmigrating through this reality. You don’t need to look at anything else.

This response, which is to return you to your present experience and invite your deep exploration of this, is valid regardless of the question because it instantaneously places you at the center of reality. Thus. The Zen teachings arise from this approach. Ruiyan stood there thinking, and Yantou gave him a moment, possibly seeing the ripeness. Then he responds: “If you agree you are not free of sense and matter, if you don’t agree you’ll be forever sunk in birth and death.” And in that, whatever Ruiyan was holding on to explodes. He was freed from “agreement” and “disagreement,” no longer bound by their golden chains. In that particular moment, there was just moving. As Dogen says,

Water is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither being nor non-being, neither delusion or enlightenment. Solidified, it is harder than diamond: who could break it? Melted it is softer than milk: who could break it? This being the case, we cannot doubt the many virtues realized by water.

How completely can we penetrate the totality of reality, including this rebirth, this here, this now? What is necessary is the exploration itself. Focus here—therein is the deepening. This is the freedom of being reborn without there being any self. This is the reality of a bodhisattva traveling different paths, transmigrating for now. This being the case, we cannot doubt the many virtues realized by you.

Konrad Ryushin Marchaj Sensei was the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery from 2010-2015.

The Book of Serenity is a collection of koans compiled during the 12th century and commented on by Master Wansong with poems by Master Hongzhi.

NextMind Beyond Death