Nothing exists

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku. Desiring to know his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentinent beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing be received.”

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry. “If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”

From: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps

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The Song of Zazen

by Hakuin Ekaku Zenji

All sentient beings are essentially Buddhas. As with water
and ice, there is no ice without water; apart from sentient
beings, there are no Buddhas. Not knowing how close the
truth is. we seek it far away – what a pity!

We are like one who in the midst of water cries out desperately
in thirst. We are like the son of a rich man who wandered away
among the poor. The reason we transmigrate through the Six
Realms is because we are lost in the darkness of ignorance.
Going further and further astray in the darkness, how can we
ever be free from birth-and-death? As for the Mahayana practice
of zazen, there are no words to praise it fully. The Six Paramitas,
such as giving, maintaining the precepts, and various other good
deeds like invoking the Buddha’s name, repentance, and spiritual
training, all finally return to the practice of zazen. Even those who
have sat zazen only once will see all karma erased. Nowhere will
they find evil paths, and the Pure Land will not be far away. If we
listen even once with open heart to this truth, then praise it and
gladly embrace it, how much more so then, if on reflecting within
ourselves we directly realize Self-nature, giving proof to the truth
that Self-nature is no-nature. We will have gone far beyond idle
speculation. The gate of the oneness of cause and effect is thereby
opened, and not-two, not-three, straight ahead runs the Way.
Realizing the form of no-form as form, whether going or returning
we cannot be any place else. Realizing the thought of no-thought
as thought, whether singing or dancing, we are the voice of the

How vast and wide the unobstructed sky of samadhi! How bright
and clear the perfect moonlight of the Fourfold Wisdom! At this
moment what more need we seek? As the eternal tranquillity of
Truth reveals itself to us, this very place is the land of Lotuses
and this very body is the body of the Buddha.

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Eating the Blame

From: After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

By Jack Kornfield

When we are confused or in pain, we often judge ourselves as
“not spiritual enough.” But the awakened heart does not judge
anything-not our family or our love, nor our pain and confusion,
our passion or anger. “Terrible harm has been done by this
misunderstanding,” said one Catholic monk.

In mature spirituality we are willing to have a dialogue
with pain, with evil, to hold them in our prayers. In
situations Of great pain, someone has to consciously
suffer the impact, to become the ground where the
sorrows can be held and reworked. These things can be
carried with grace. But it can’t be faked. If you go to
someone with 99 percent of goodwill and are still caught
in 1 percent anger, all they feel is the anger, and it pushes
them from reconciliation. The heart has to willingly hold the
whole of suffering for it to be transformed.

In Zen, holding the suffering sometimes takes the form of
“eating the blame.” It is illustrated by the story of a
cook who made soup for the monks from a turtle offered by
fishermen that morning. When the soup was ladled into the
monks’ bowls, the roshi bellowed for the cook to come out.
The turtle’s head, which should have been removed before
serving, was floating in the master’s bowl. The cook bowed
to the master, looked into the bowl, saw the problem, and
with a deft movement of chopsticks plucked the turtle head
out and ate it. Then he bowed to the master, the master
back, and the cook returned to the kitchen.

More from Jack Kornfield

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Ryonen’s Clear Realization

From: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Edited by Paul Reps

The Buddhist nun known as Ryonen was born in 1797. She was a granddaughter of the famous Japanese warrior Shingen. Her poetical genius and alluring beauty were such that at seventeen she was serving the empress as one of the ladies of the court. Even at such a youthful age fame awaited her.

The beloved empress died suddenly and Ryonen’s hopeful dreams vanished. She became acutely aware of the impermanence of life in this world. It was then that she desired to study Zen. Her relatives disagreed, however, and practically forced her into marriage. With a promise that she might become a nun after she had borne three children, Ryonen assented. Before she was twenty-five she had accomplished this condition. Then her husband and her relatives could no longer dissuade her from her desire. She shaved her head, took the name of Ryonen, which means to realize clearly, and started on her pilgrimage. She came to the city of Edo and asked Tetsugyu to accept her as a disciple. At one glance the master rejected her because she was too beautiful.

Ryonen then went to another master, Hakuo. Hakuo refused her for the same reason, saying that her beauty would only make trouble. Ryonen obtained a hot iron and placed it against her face. In a few moments her beauty had vanished forever.

Hakuo then accepted her as a disciple. Commemorating this occasion, Ryonen wrote a poem on the back of a little mirror:

In the service of my Empress I burned incense to perfume my exquisite clothes, Now as a homeless mendicant I burn my face to enter a Zen temple.

When Ryonen was about to pass from this world, she wrote another poem:

Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the
changing scene of autumn.
I have said enough about moonlight,
Ask no more.
Only listen to the voice of pines and cedars
when no wind stirs.

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Chao-Chou – Etiquette, and Hell

From: The Roaring Stream

Edited by Foster and Shoemaker

One day the Prince Governor of [the] Prefecture came with
the royal princes and scholars to visit the temple. Remaining
seated, the Master inquired, “Great Prince, have you
understanding of this? The Prince replied, “No, I cannot
grasp it.”

The Master said, “Since my youth I have kept a vegetarian
diet and my body is already aged. Even if I see people, I have
no strength to descend from the Ch’an seat.”

The Prince felt great admiration for the Master. The next
day he sent a general to the Master with a message, and the
Master came down from the seat in order to receive him.

Afterwards the Master’s attendant said, “Master, you did
not come down from the Ch’an seat even when you saw the
great Prince coming to visit you. Why did you descend from
it for the general who came to see you today?” The Master
replied, “My etiquette is not your etiquette. When a
superior class of man comes, I deal with him from the Ch’an
seat; when a middle grade of man comes, I get down to deal
with him; and for the dealings with men of low grade, I step
outside the temple gate….”

Someone asked, “Master, will you enter into Hell?”
The Master said, “[I’ll be] the first to enter it.”
The man said, “Why should a great and good Ch’an master
enter Hell? The Master said, “Who would transform you
through the teaching if I had not entered it?”

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Sonome – a Lone Lamp

From: Zen Antics

Edited by Thomas Cleary

Sonome was a well-known poetess and a profound student of Buddhism. She once wrote to Zen master Unko: “To seek neither reality nor falsehood is the root source of the Great Way. Everyone knows this, so even if I seem immodest for saying so, I do not think this is anything special. As goings-on in the source of one mind, the willows are green, the flowers are red. Just being as it is, I pass the time reciting verse and composing poetry. If this is useless chatter, then the scriptures are also useless chatter. I dislike anything that stinks of religion, and my daily practice is invocation, poetry, and song. If I go to paradise, that’s fine; if I fall into hell, that’s auspicious.”

By myself I remember
not to seek mind;
the green lamp has already illumined
my lone lamp heart.
Whether in clamor or silence,
I have a clear mirror:
it thoroughly discerns
pure hearts among humans.

It is not something existing,
that anyone can see and know,
nor does it not exist:
such is the lamp of truth.

When Sonome was about to pass on, she bade farewell to the world with this poem:

The sky of the autumn moon
and the warmth of spring:
Is it a dream? Is it real?
Hail to the Buddha of Infinite Light!

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Zen Poetry

Zen Master Ryokan

From Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf translated by John Stevens


When all thoughts
Are exhausted
I slip into the woods
And gather
A pile of shepherd’s purse.

Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.


The flower invites the butterfly with no-mind;
The butterfly visits the flower with no-mind.
The flower opens, the butterfly comes;
The butterfly comes, the flower opens.
I don’t know others,
Others don’t know me.
By not-knowing we follow nature’s course.


Too lazy to be ambitious,
I let the world take care of itself.
Ten days’ worth of rice in my bag;
a bundle of twigs by the fireplace.
Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment?
Listening to the night rain on my roof,
I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.




The following are all from: Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems

by Ko Un


Jang Ku-Song the hermit was busy shitting
when he heard frogs croaking. It made him

The croaking of frogs on moonlit nights in early spring
pierces the world from end to end, makes us all
one family.

Look, if you’ve had your shit,
wipe yourself and get out of here.


The Lotus Sutra. Ultimate reality.
So far
you’ve been bashing me badly.
I’ll cudgel you, bastard.
Oh! Ouch!
Take that too.
Oh! Ouch!
Oh! Ouch!

The Lotus Sutra dashed away.
Fields open wide, once the farmers
have gone.

Shakyamuni held up a lotus
so Kashyapa smiled.
Not at all.
The lotus smiled
so Kashyapa smiled.

Nowhere was Shakyamuni!


Let be. Please, let be.
Kill Buddha
if you meet him?
Kill mother and father
if you meet them? Why kill?
Things made of clay all fall to bits
once soaked by monsoon rains.


Even Shakyamuni could never tame Ananda
but Kashyapa kicked him out and tamed him.
Throw away all you know.
Throw away all you don’t know.
Then and only then one star shines bright.


Wow! You recognized me.


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