The next line of the commentary says, “You should enter this koan at the words ‘we encountered and saw the third son of the Sha family on a fishing boat.’ This was Xuansha’s intimate study of his own karmic self and conditioning together with the ever-present guidance of the Buddha.” This was Xuansha’s intimate study of his own karmic self because the third son of the Sha family was none other than Xuansha. So both Xuansha and Shakyamuni were studying this fisherman, this past life of Xuansha, this conditioning of Xuansha. Incidentally, Xuansha was also a fisherman, before he became a monk. The monk in the koan asks, “Who was it that you encountered and saw?” The seeing that the koan deals with is not a visual phenomenon. It’s an experiential phenomenon. It’s a whole body and mind phenomenon. To see one’s self means to see into all aspects of one’s self, all intricacies of one’s self. That’s what it means to study the self. And again, you cannot just do this once and be done with it. We have to see ourselves over and over again, peel back the layers of conditioning that are covering up our true self, the ground of being.
Dogen’s genius is in saying the same thing in so many different, new, and fresh ways. In saying “Fishing for a person, fishing for a self on the fishing boat, “ he’s essentially restating what he said in Genjokoan, The Koan of Everyday Life: “To study the Buddha way is to study the self.” But how many of us remind ourselves when we sit down to do zazen that what we’re doing is studying the self? Yet this is all we’re doing. This is how we learn about our selves.
Dogen, commenting on this koan, said, “You should enter this koan at the words ‘We encountered and saw the third son of the Sha family on a fishing boat.’ This was Xuansha’s intimate study of his own karmic self and conditioning together with the ever-present guidance of the Buddha.” And then the last line, “It is from here that the spring faces laugh with delight and the New Year’s morning zazen is a great and auspicious sign.” What is the “ever-present guidance of the Buddha”? Is Buddha like God, or some kind of guardian angel that’s whispering in our ears as we encounter our lives? What is buddha? Where do you find yourself?
The capping verse:
When the teacher sees the student,
the student sees the teacher.
Isn't that the teacher meeting himself?
Isn't that the student meeting herself?
This seeing is whole body and mind seeing. It’s not the same as seeing with the eyes. It doesn’t mean to just visually identify someone as a teacher. It means to see into the teacher, just as the teacher sees into the student. So, when the teacher sees the student, the student sees the teacher. Why? Because they are identical. That’s the experience of unity. And once that happens, we begin to see that unity in all things, sentient and insentient alike.
The practice of the buddhadharma is a practice. It’s not a matter of going to church, or the synagogue, or a mosque once a week. It’s not a matter of having some higher power forgive us our sins or tell us what to do. It is a matter of practice. It’s a matter of doing and a matter of training. Prospective students of the Mountains and Rivers Order stand at the threshold of the zendo and say, “I come here realizing the question of life and death is a vital matter. I accept the rules of this Order and take full responsibility for observing them. Please guide me in my practice.” Practice is what we do. Training is the guidance that we receive. And together, these two aspects of the spiritual life are transformative.
But it’s not enough to do zazen once or twice a week, or even every day. It’s not enough to just come to the Monastery or go to the Temple in Brooklyn. It’s not enough to sit on the cushion. In the Rule of the Order there is a line that says that a student must continually show progress, must show that something is happening—so we know you’re not dead! Because if you’re not moving, we should do a funeral for you. You have to keep moving, keep growing, keep seeing. The whole thing is in your hands. There is nothing that anybody can do for you. There is nothing I can do, and there’s nothing I have to give you, because you are already fully equipped as a buddha. But you won’t know that for yourself until you discover it for yourself. All this practice has to offer is a process. If you willingly enter this process, truly engage it. Do not deceive yourself. Really study the self.
Yasutani Roshi, my dharma grandfather, said, “To study oneself it is essential to throw away one’s own views of oneself, to throw away all one’s acquired affectations, which are the knowledge and experience accumulated since birth, to become pure white sheets of paper.” It’s true, but it’s also really important to be diligently aware of what it is that we are throwing away. First we should be aware of the affectations, and then we should let them go. Put them down. When we do that, we are not suppressing anything. Zazen is not about suppression. It’s about clarity. It’s about allowing our conditioning to be what it is. Ultimately, each one of us is the master of our lives.
I’ve said this many times: this practice is not for sprinters. It is for long-distance runners. So be determined—be determined to make yourself free. Be determined to give your life to your practice. Be determined to give life to the Buddha. This world needs more buddhas, and you are on the assembly line. So get it done.
Compiled by Daido Roshi at Zen Mountain Monastery, Koans of the Way of Reality is a collection of 108 traditional and contemporary koans of particular relevance for modern Western practitioners. It includes dialogues from the traditional koan collections, as well as writings by Dogen, Whitman, and Lewis Carroll.