After Ryonen scarred her face she wrote a poem:

When I was a girl,
we played in court burning incense.
Now I burn my face to study Zen.
Each season flows easily into the other,
and I do not know who writes this
in a world of change.

Is this an expression of confusion or enlightenment? Is this not knowing arising from darkness or illumination?

When we enter into practice we see that time passes, seasons come and go. We collect one paycheck after the next as the children get older. We perform our obligations and responsibilities, and yet all the while I do not know who does this in a world of change. In the midst of this life and all our daily activities, we ask, “Who am I?”

Many people never ask this question. And even when they do, it doesn’t really mean anything. Yet for others, it becomes a driving tension in their lives. They see more and more that they do not know this world. They’re in it, but somehow estranged from it. They do not know this person. They’re going through the motions of life, but somehow sense that they’re not fully living. To recognize this is indeed most distressing.

Several generations before Tongan, Master Dongshan asked a monastic, “What thing in the world is most miserable?” And the monastic said, “Hell. Hell is most miserable.” Dongshan said, “No, what is most miserable is to wear this vestment and fail to clarify the great matter.”


Photo by Red 10


Wearing the vestment is a vow. Just like the rakusu is a vow. Dongshan is saying that to vow—to turn one’s attention with one’s whole being towards trying to understand this life, from within this life, while living this life, while working, while raising children, having a family, carrying on our everyday affairs—is most difficult. What is more difficult still though, is to never have tried.