The Book of Equanimity - Selections

Illuminating Classic Zen Koans


352 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861713875

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Case 1: The World-Honored One Ascends the Platform

Preface to the Assembly

Close the gate and snooze—that’s how to treat a superior person. Reflection, abbreviation, and elaboration are used for middling and inferior ones. How can you stand for someone to ascend the high seat and scowl? If anyone around here doesn’t agree, step forward. I have no doubts about him.

Main Case

Attention! One day the World-Honored One ascended the platform and took his seat. Manjushri struck the sounding post and said: “When you realize the Dharma-King’s Dharma, the Dharma-King’s Dharma is just as is.” At that, the World-Honored One descended from the platform.

Appreciatory Verse

Do you see the true manner of the primal stage?
Mother Nature goes on weaving warp and woof;
the woven old brocade contains the images of spring—
nothing can be done about the Spring God’s (Manjushri) outflowing.

Attention! When the Buddha, also known as the World-Honored One, ascends the platform it means he’s ready to give a discourse on the Dharma. In this koan, Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom who is renowned for cutting delusion with Dharma words, announces the beginning of the talk with the statement: “When you realize the Dharma-King’s Dharma, the Dharma-King’s Dharma is just as is.” And then, the Buddha descends the platform; his discourse is over. What more could he say? Even Manjushri’s announcement is unnecessary. He’s saying too much; he’s “leaking” or as the verse says he is “outflowing.”

When you truly understand the Dharma, it’s just thus, just this; it’s as is. All kinds of words and phrases have been invented in Zen to express thusness or “as-is”-ness, but none are needed. Don’t add anything extra. Just let everything be as it is. That’s liberation. But letting everything be as is, is difficult for us because we’re always trying to fiddle around with things, always adding something, wishing something were taken away. We’re always putting another head atop our own.

I know people who want to be a lion but feel just like a frightened kitten—and not only that, they feel like a frightened kitten frightened about feeling like a frightened kitten! But the Dharma-King’s Dharma is as is; if you’re frightened, be frightened, leave it at that and don’t add anything extra.

What does it mean to let it all be and let it all go? And what about when you can’t let it go, what then? Well, if you’re holding on, hold on. That’s liberation too. Let the Dharma-King’s Dharma be as is.

This seems straightforward, but the subtlety comes in each moment: Each moment, how do you practice the Dharma-King’s Dharma? And let me ask you this: Why do you practice Zen? If you think you’re going to become something else, you’re fooling yourself. If you think that you don’t need to practice zazen because everything is perfect as it is, that is an erroneous view.

The first line of the verse says, “Do you see the true manner of the primal stage?” This is inviting us to realize the truth of ultimate reality. Is that ultimate reality the World-Honored One ascending the platform, or is it the World-Honored One descending the platform? If you let the light of ultimate reality blind your eye, it’s hard to see. If it does not blind your eye, then it’s hard to let go. If you see it, don’t dwell there.

The Dharma-King’s Dharma is as is. If you continue to be frightened and to maintain your judgments about being frightened, then you are not truly feeling fright. You are holding on to your opinions. By accepting your experience without judgments, you allow transformation to take place. I cannot count the times I heard Maezumi Roshi say, “Appreciate your life.” Appreciating your life means that the Dharma-King’s Dharma is just as is. From that place you can embrace yourself and appreciate yourself. It is not a matter of being a superior or inferior person. It is not a matter of Manjushri’s outflowing. Just let everything be as is and appreciate every moment of this life as the life of the Dharma-King.


Case 2: Bodhidharma’s Vast Emptiness

Preface to the Assembly

Benka’s three offerings did not prevent his being punished: If a luminous jewel were thrown at them, few are the men who would not draw their swords. For an impromptu guest, there is not an impromptu host; he’s provisionally acceptable but not absolutely acceptable. If you can’t grasp rare, valuable treasure, let’s toss in a dead cat’s head and see.

Main Case

Attention! Emperor Wu of Ryo asked the great master Bodhidharma, “What is the ultimate meaning of the holy truth of Buddhism?” Bodhidharma replied, “Vast emptiness. No holiness.” The Emperor asked, “Who stands here before me?” Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know.” The Emperor was baffled. Thereafter, Bodhidharma crossed the river, arrived at Shorin and faced the wall for nine years.

Appreciatory Verse

Emptiness, no holiness— the questioner’s far off.
Gain is to swing the axe and not harm the nose;
loss is to drop the pot and not look back.
In solitude he sits cool at Shorin;
in silence the Right Decree’s fully revealed.
The autumn’s lucid and the moon’s a turning frosty wheel;
the Milky Way’s pale, and the Big Dipper’s handle hangs low.
In line the robe and bowl handed on to descendents
henceforth are medicine to men and devas.

Emperor Wu had heard about Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who brought Zen to China in the sixth century, and summoned him to his court. In preparation for meeting with this great bodhisattva, the emperor must have asked his advisors what was the single most important question to ask a great monk. When he meets Bodhidharma, he presents that question. Yet Bodhidharma’s answer to him—”Vast emptiness. No holiness.”—surprises and confuses the emperor so utterly that he wonders if the man before him is the great and learned monk he had expected and not an imposter—hence his second question. And Bodhidharma’s thunderous reply is, simply, “I don’t know.”

What is this vast emptiness? What is this “I don’t know”? What does empty mean? It doesn’t mean blackness or nihilism or nothingness, and it isn’t the emptiness we complain about when we say “I feel empty.” Everything is impermanent; nothing is fixed. One’s own form is empty of any fixed thing. Realizing this emptiness, experiencing it directly, is one of the most important aspects of our practice. There is no fixed thing that is the self—nothing to grasp onto, no firm ground upon which to stand, no right understanding to attain. As soon as you think you’ve grabbed “it,” you have lost “it.” Realizing “it” directly, tremendous freedom is manifest.

When self-aggrandizing thoughts arise—or even negative thoughts that affirm the illusion of an independent self—we grab onto them instead of just letting them go. Why do we grab onto them? If we didn’t reinforce the illusion of a fixed self, what would we be? What would be left?

There is an old Zen expression that is appropriate here: ”Even the water melting from the snow-capped peaks finds its way to the ocean.” It finds its way without even knowing the direction and against all obstacles! We think that we need to control everything. Out of ignorance we keep affirming this false self to feel secure and to feel that we are in control of our life.

We believe that we are the content of our thoughts (and our opinions, beliefs, feelings, and reactions). We resist seeing that we ourselves are “vast emptiness” and thus are denying our deep unlimited nature. The Buddha realized that there is no gap between ourselves and others. We are all one body. And by not recognizing who we are, we’re creating a chasm between ourselves and others that is greater than the Grand Canyon, and being unable to cross this chasm makes us miserable. But even so, we feel secure in our own misery because it is familiar to us, it makes us feel in control.

Commenting on this case, one ancient Zen master said, “Leaving aside the ultimate meaning for the moment, what do you want with the holy truth?” What are you going to do with it? Another master said, “If you just end attachments, there’s no holy understanding.” The Third Ancestor said, “Don’t seek after the truth, just don’t cherish your opinions.” Just let the clouds of delusion disperse. If you don’t cherish your delusions, then wisdom will shine through naturally. One of the scriptures says, “If you create an understanding of holiness, you will succumb to all errors.” How many wars have been fought in the name of an understanding of what is holy? What kind of holiness is that? If you create an understanding of holiness, if you know—right there, you’re stuck in the mud. As soon as you know, that knowing becomes dualistic, and as soon as it becomes dualistic it no longer corresponds to reality.

Yasutani Roshi said, “When you make Bodhidharma’s ‘I don’t know’ your own, it does not break into consciousness. If you know it, at a single stroke it’s gone.” When you make it your own, it’s a part of your flesh, bones, and blood. But if you describe it, it becomes something else.

Relating to this case, Yasutani Roshi wrote this poem:

Holy reality, emptiness.
The man, unknowing.
Spring breeze and autumn moon speak heavenly truth.
Reverent monks building temples to no merit.
Emperor Wu, how could you know the willows’ new green?

How could you know the willows’ new green? You’re so busy trying to figure it out, you’re missing the buds under your own nose.

So what is this not knowing? There are all kinds of “I don’t know.” In this case, this “I don’t know” snatches everything away. We can point at it, but how can we really express it? It is like a mute serving as a messenger to us. But if we really open ourselves up, we can receive the message nonetheless. But what is given? What is received? What is maintained?

When Bodhidharma left the emperor, he spent nine years facing a wall. What was he doing for those nine years? If you understand this koan, you can answer without hesitation.

Case 3: An Invitation for the Patriarch

Preface to the Assembly

By the activity existing before even a hint of this kalpa, a blind turtle faces the fire. By the phrase that’s transmitted outside the scriptures, a mortar’s rim spouts a flower. Tell me: is there something to receive, maintain, read, and recite?

Main Case

Attention! The ruler of a country in Eastern India invited the Twenty-Seventh Ancestor, Hannyatara, for a midmorning meal. The ruler asked him, “Why don’t you read the sutras?” The Ancestor replied, “This poor follower of the Way, when breathing in does not dwell in the realm of skandhas, and when breathing out is not caught up in the many externals. Always do I thus turn a hundred thousand million billion rolls of sutras.”

Appreciatory Verse

Cloud rhino sports with the moon and glows embracing its beams;
wooden horse plays in the spring, unfettered and fleet.
Beneath his brows, two chill blue eyes—
what need to read sutras as though piercing oxhide!
Bright white mind transcends vast kalpas,
a hero’s strength tears through nested enclosures.
The subtle round hub-hole turns marvelous activities.
When Kanzan forgets the road whence he came, Jittoku will lead him by hand to return.

Hannyatara, Bodhidharma’s teacher and the twenty-seventh Ancestor in our lineage, doesn’t dwell in the realm of form, sensation, perception, conception, and consciousness—the skandhas—and so he doesn’t get caught in a notion of a fixed separate self. Inhaling and exhaling, there is no inside or outside. Each breath reveals the sutra.

Sutra usually refers to the teachings of the Buddha, but a sutra could be anything that is undeniably true. With each breath Hannyatara revolves the sutras. Breathing in, breathing out, the fundamental holy truth of the primary principle is revealed.

Hannyatara turns a nice phrase: “This poor follower of the Way.” To be poor is to have nothing and to hold onto nothing. Being poor in that way gives us the richness of not being constrained by external conditions.

This is a prescription for all of our dis-ease: Breathe in without attaching to internals, breathe out without attaching to externals. When we do that, we manifest clear, unclouded vision. But if we add anything to that simple practice, it becomes something else entirely. To learn simple breathing in and breathing out takes steady years of meditation. Breathe in and do not create a false self; breathe out and don’t perturb the world or be perturbed by the world—the ultimate meaning of the holy truth is revealed.

The verse says “A hero’s strength tears through nested enclosures.” Breathing in, you’re a minister. Breathing out, you’re a general. These “nested enclosures” are all of the cloaks that we wear. “I am a teacher.” “I am a Buddhist.” “I am an artist.” Breathe in and you see past the teacher. Breathe out and you see beyond the artist. The hero’s strength tears through these wrappers that we put around ourselves. Each time we breathe it is a new sutra.

In this way whatever you’re doing, you’re revolving the sutras. Picking the weeds, changing a diaper, and making a flower arrangement are a hundred thousand million billion rolls of sutras. Completely become breathing in and breathing out and that’s all there is. In that moment, where’s Hannyatara? If you realize “this poor follower of the Way” you are free to come and go. But if you don’t, you’re using counterfeit money to buy stock in a corrupt corporation.

Case 4: The World-Honored One Points to the Earth

Preface to the Assembly

When a speck of dust is raised, the great earth is fully contained in it. It’s very well to open new territory and extend your lands with horse and spear. Who is this person who can be master in any place and meet the source in everything?

Main Case

Attention! When the World-Honored One was walking with his disciples he pointed to the ground and said, “It would be good to erect a temple here.” The god Indra took a blade of grass and stuck it in the ground and said, “The temple has been erected.” The World-Honored One smiled faintly.

Appreciatory Verse

On the hundred grass-tips, boundless spring— taking what’s at hand, use it freely.

Buddha’s sixteen foot golden body of manifold merit spontaneously extending a hand, enters the red dust— within the dust he can be host coming from another world, naturally he’s a guest. Wherever you are be content with your role— dislike not those more adept than you.

Part of experiencing growth in our life requires developing a larger vision unconstrained by our usual, limited mind, like Indra and Buddha. Doing so requires great awareness. We all have blind spots, and we project our world view from those dark places. That projection inevitably distorts our relations with others, with the world, and with ourselves. We need to practice awareness in order to develop clarity and to perceive the difference between reality and distortions. We also need perseverance because without it we will not generate the heat necessary to melt our self-grasping ignorance.

Suppose you saw a black raven flying by, and everybody in the room said, “That’s not a black raven. That’s a white snowy egret.” You’d say, “No it’s not. It’s a black raven!” “No, everybody here except you says it’s a snowy egret.” You might see certain things with the clarity developed from your Zen practice, and yet everyone is telling you something else. This often happens when you visit close relatives. Someone might say, “This Zen stuff, sitting on the cushion all these hours—it’s a total waste of time!” What do you say? Whenever visitors would say something argumentative to him, Maezumi Roshi would give them space for their opinions. He would respond, “It could be so.”

The verse says, “Taking what’s at hand, use it freely.” Just put aside all of your ideas, standards, and judgments, then look at the world with your larger vision and see what arises. How can you manifest the sixteen foot golden body of the Buddha? How can you erect a temple from a blade of grass? The Bible says that your body is your temple. A piece of grass is your temple too. All dharmas in the ten directions are your body and your temple. But, as Master Bansho says in commenting on this case, “Repairs won’t be easy.”

The verse also says: “Wherever you are, be contented with your role. Don’t dislike those that are more adept than you.” No matter how good you are there is always somebody better. No matter how bad you are there is always somebody worse. How can we be everything that we want to be? Everywhere life is sufficient. Just be who you are, and don’t restrict it.


How to cite this document:
© Gerry Shishin Wick, The Book of Equanimity (Wisdom Publications, 2005)

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