Mirror of Zen Blog

Go Early, Go Later


Our physical body is not our true self. What is our true self, our true I? Every human being must find their true I. If you find the answer to this question then freedom from suffering and freedom from life and death appears. Don’t be afraid of sickness. At times everybody is afraid of what will happen to their body. However, the only difference between human beings when it comes to death is: go early, go later. So again, what is a human being? You must find this! Then when you die, your direction will be clear.

Zen Master Seung Sahn

“And Mahler Foresaw It All…”


“Ours is the century of Death, and Mahler is its musical prophet.”

Suffering led me to you, and you led me to Seung Sahn, and Seung Sahn led me to everything you were searching for.

Leonard Bernstein’s historic “Norton Lectures” at Harvard are presented here for all to experience. I have excised out the main section of this long lecture-series to focus on this discussion of Mahler. This talk is for true existentialists to get right straight at the heart of our predicament and its possible resolutions through one of the greatest sacred prophets of ours or any time.

Any student of the 20th century — or born then, or benefitting from anything from then, or knowing anyone or anything originating then — must hear this profound disquisition, this lecture of such passion and such urgency that I can only bear it maybe once or twice per year. I have listened to this lecture upwards of 20 times, and it contains more intellectual and existential “rightness” than I attained in four years at Yale or Harvard, especially if you follow it to its conclusion in Bernstein’s attached performance of the searing, soul-rending, universe-shattering expression of Mahler’s absolute final moment of his eternal Ninth — the symphony which marched me uncontrollably into the infinite silence of Zen.

This movement. This movement. Hearing this symphony — and especially this final movement in it — literally reoriented how I would approach my my existence in this world.

"The Unanswered Question": Bernstein on Mahler

It’s Not in the Words***


The Sixth Ancestor of Zen is Hui Neng (638-713 CE). The kind of Zen practice which we study today derives directly from his revolutionary teaching style. Every lineage of Zen can be traced back through him to the Buddha. In 1992, I had the tremendous good fortune to be allowed to cut my hair and take the novice monks Precepts in his temple in China, Nam Hwa Sah Temple on Chogye Sahn Mountain, before an altar on which sits his mummified body.

There is a story about Hui Neng Sunim which describes quite well why he is the central root-point for all of the many Zen schools which branched out from his practice, down until today:

One day, Hui Neng Sunim encountered a nun, Wu Jin Sunim, who recited the long Maha-Paranirvana Sutra as a practice. After hearing her chant just a short segment of this incredibly long sutra, Hui Neng Sunim already penetrated its meaning, and began expounding beautifully on it. Everyone was completely astonished! Their surprise was magnified by the fact that we Nangs Sunim was known to be functionally illiterate – – he could not even write or read Chinese characters!

The nun was also very surprised, and a little bit doubtful that he could attain such insight into the sutra just by hearing the words that she chanted. Despite her many, many years of practice, she had only recently begun to get a glimpse into the meaning of the sutra – – how could this monk attain that meaning so directly?

In order to test Hui Neng Sunim, the nun then pointed to certain words and terms in the text, and asked Sunim about their true meaning. “ you seem to have grasped the inner meaning of something I have chanted for so many years, yet only recently begun to understand. Then, what do this and this and that term mean, exactly?”

“Sorry, Sunim,” he replied humbly. “I can’t read these words that you are pointing to. If you want to know the meaning, you’ll need to ask me straight out what your doubt is.”

“How can you possibly grasp the meaning of this sutra so well when you don’t even know the words?” she asked.

“The profound teaching of the Buddhas,” he replied, “is not in the written words themselves.”

Hui Neng Sunim’s answer reveals why he is universally regarded as the one who — like the Buddha and Bodhidharma before him — established the ethos for how we practice Zen. 

“The profound teaching of the Buddhas is not in the written words themselves.”

***(Or in the mummified body, either.)

Misguided Students of the Way


Zen Master Bassui once said:

How incredible! Today’s students of the Way are of inferior character, and their aspiration is superficial. They give no thought to the truth of the great matter of life and death.

Though they go to teachers everywhere, they don’t want to penetrate completely, all the way to the bottom. They only care about their relation to the teacher and his name, not knowing whether he is a teacher of the Right Law or a heretic. They count names, journey to the east, west, north, and south, and take pride in having met many teachers.

Then there are others who despise the behavior of these kinds of people. They say nothing is necessary other than to simply keep to one koan. While these people observe people in Zen encounters, their ears are closed.

Though they are in the congregations of good teachers, they do not express their own understanding and therefore do not experience true training. Because their nature is such that they can’t remove the destructive ideas (literally, ‘nails and wedges’) that delude them, they concern themselves with one activity around one confined area, and in the end, they won’t be able to climb out of the hole they have dug for themselves.

They keep a few formal precepts strictly, thinking it sufficient if they don’t break them. Then they add a number that are, to the contrary, not among the body of precepts usually kept by monks: to refrain from wearing things made of silk or cotton, to refrain from eating salt, vinegar, and the five kinds of cereal. Saying they are acting in accord with the teachings of the Buddha, they deceive the sons and daughters of the households.

Others embrace the gathering of followers, become attached to their lay names, artistic skills, and family names.

Still, others cannot completely rid themselves of the path of duty. As a result, they lose sight of attentive practice, hold onto their own thoughts and opinions, and indifferently assess the Buddhadharma. Though they try to surpass others with Zen stories and defeat them in question-answer combat, they do not have the power of seeing into their own nature and therefore collect paradoxical words and clever expressions from old masters and keep them in secret, showing them to no one. Using these words and expressions, they write poems and songs and take pleasure in adding their own critical comments to the words of the masters. Through the clever use of words, they try to defeat their fellow practitioners. These are all examples of the way of heretics.

Mud and Water,: The Collected Teachings of the Zen Master Bassu

/ / /

Bassui Tokushō
 (抜隊 得勝, 1327–1387)was a Rinzai Zen Master born in modern-day Kanagawa Prefecture who had trained with Sōtō, Rinzai and Ch’an masters of his time. Bassui was unhappy with the state of Zenpractice in Japan during his time, so he set out in life with the mission of revitalizing it. The problems he saw were really two sides of the same coin. That is, he saw both too much attachment by some monks and masters to ritual and dogma as well as too much attachment by some monks and masters to freedom and informality.Quick Facts: Title, Personal …In this Japanese name, the surname is Bassui.


Bassui was born in 1327 in Sagami (today’s Kanagawa Prefecture) during a time when Japan sat on the heels of civil war. These were the ruling years of Emperor Go-Daigo, who had begun reclaiming control of the country back from the Hōjō clan of the Kamakura shogunate. When Bassui was an infant, he was abandoned by his mother and left alone in a field. His mother had a dream during her pregnancy in which she had a premonition that her baby would be born a demon. A servant of the family retrieved the infant and raised him. Note that it is plausible his mother left him there knowing the servant would come to get him, making the ritual of abandoning the newborn a formality in which evil spirits were dispelled.

At the age of seven his father died, and Bassui became tormented by questions like “What is a soul?” and “Who is this that hears, sees and understands?” These are questions he would struggle with for a good portion of his life. He would pursue this style of inquiry in meditation, one day realizing that the soul is ungraspable due to its inherent emptiness.

When Bassui was twenty he undertook training at Jifukuji Temple under a Zen Master Oko. Bassui resisted ordaining as a monk just yet, and waited for another nine years before becoming one. Once a monk he would not wear a monk’s robes or recite the sutras as everyone was doing. Instead, he was most interested in meditation and practiced it in such a devout way that it could almost appear to border on compulsive asceticism.

Bassui related the bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism to names for the nature of the mind:

… so you should realize that all the names of the bodhisattvas are just different names for the nature of mind. As an expedient in the World-Honored-One’s sermons, he defined things using certain names, and with these names he pointed to the truth. Ordinary people, unaware of this truth, become attached to the names and, in the hopes of attaining Buddhahood, seek the Buddhaand Dharma outside their minds. It’s like cooking sand in the hopes of producing rice.

Bassui and Tokukei

At the end of his stay at Jifukuji, Bassui sought to find the hermit monk Tokukei Jisha whom he heard lived amongst the mountains. Upon first meeting each other Tokukei appeared taken aback by Bassui’s appearance (a shaved head yet regular clothing). Tokukei asked Bassui why he was not wearing his robes, to which Bassui explained he had no need for them. Bassui then expressed the true purpose of his quest, about his desire to attain enlightenment for the benefit of others. This endeared Bassui to Tokukei, and the two developed a strong friendship following this initial encounter.

Bassui’s last years

Bassui left for a hermitage in Kii province but was sidetracked at Eigenji temple, where he met the Zen master/haiku poet Jakushitsu Genkō. For many years after this Bassui lived in many hermitages all over Japan, where his reputation as a clear teacher spread by word of mouth.

In 1378 Bassui settled for a bit in Kai province, but by now the audience coming to see him was growing so fast that it became hard to continue living his life as a hermit. So Bassui moved to Enzan, where he founded a temple called Kogakuan at which he lived and taught for the remainder of his life. Bassui never did like referring to Kogakuan as a temple or monastery, however, and would often just refer to it as a hermitage.

In 1387 (at the age of 61), as Bassui was sitting in zazen meditation among his followers, he turned to them and shouted twice:

Look straight ahead. What’s there?
If you see it as it is
You will never err.

He then died.