Bassui Tokusho, The Letters

Zen-Master Bassui Tokusho, 1327 – 1387

The three pillars of Zen, Philip Kapleau

About Bassui Tokusho
Bassui Tokusho, The Sermon


You ask me to write you how to practice Zen on your sickbed. Who is he that is sick? Who is he that is practicing Zen? Do you know who you are? One's whole being is Buddha-nature. One's whole being is the Great Way. The substance of this Way is inherently immaculate and transcends all forms. Is there any sickness in it? Man's own Mind is the essential substance of all Buddhas, his Face before his parents' birth. It is the master of seeing and hearing, of all the senses. One who fully realizes this is a Buddha, one who does not is an ordinary human being. Hence all Buddhas and Patriarchs point directly to the human mind so man can see his own Self-nature and thereby attain Buddhahood. For the best remedy for one perplexed by shadows is to see the real thing.

Once a man was invited to his friend's house. As he was about to drink a cup of wine offered him, he believed he saw a baby snake inside his cup. Not wishing to embarrass his host by drawing attention to it he bravely swallowed it. Upon returning home he felt severe pains in his stomach. Many remedies were applied but in vain, and the man, now grievously ill, felt he was about to die. His friend, hearing of his condition, asked him once more to his house. Seating his sick friend in the same place, he again offered him a cup of wine, telling him it was medicine. As the ailing man raised his cup to drink, once again he saw a baby snake in it, This time he drew his host's attention to it. Without a word the host pointed to the ceiling above his guest, where a bow hung. Suddenly the sick man realized that the "baby snake" was the reflection of the hanging bow. Both men looked at each other and laughed. The pain of the sick man vanished instantly and he recovered his health.

Becoming a Buddha is analogous to this. The Patriarch Yoka said: "When you realize the true nature of the universe you know that there is neither subjective nor objective reality. At that very moment karmic formations which would carry you to the lowest hell are wiped out." This true nature is the root-substance of every sentient being. Man, however, can't bring himself to believe that his own Mind is itself the Great Completeness realized by the Buddha, so he clings to superficial forms and looks for truth outside this Mind, striving to become a Buddha through ascetic practices. But as the illusion of an ego-self does not vanish, man must undergo intense suffering in the Three Worlds. He is like the one who became sick believing he had swallowed a baby snake. Various remedies were of no avail, but he recovered instantly upon realizing the basic truth.

So just look into your own Mind - no one can help you with nostrums. In a sutra the Buddha said: "If you would get rid of your foe, you have only to realize that that foe is delusion." All phenomena in the world are illusory, they have no abiding substance. Sentient beings no less than Buddhas are like images reflected in water. One who does not see the true nature of things mistakes shadow for substance. That is to say, in zazen the state of emptiness and quiet which results from the diminution of thought is often confused with one's Face before one's parents were born. But this serenity is also a reflection upon the water. You must advance beyond the stage where your reason is of any avail. In this extremity of not knowing what to think or do, ask yourself: "Who is the master?" He will become your intimate only after you have broken a walking stick made from a rabbit's horn or crushed a chunk of ice in fire. Tell me now, who is this most intimate of yours? Today is the eighth of the month. Tomorrow is the thirteenth!


In order to become a Buddha you must discover who it is that wants to become a. Buddha, To know this Subject you must right here and now probe deeply into yourself, inquiring: "What is it that thinks in terms of good and bad, that sees, that hears?" If you question yourself profoundly in this wise, you will surely enlighten yourself. If you enlighten yourself, you are instantly a Buddha. The Mind which the Buddhas realized in their enlightenment is the Mind of all sentient beings. The substance of this Mind is pure, harmonizing with its surroundings. In a woman's body it has no female form, in a man's body it has no appearance of male. It is not mean even in the body of the lowly, nor is it imposing in the body of the noble. Like boundless space, it hasn't a particle of color. The physical world can be destroyed, but formless, colorless space is indestructible. This Mind, like space, is all-embracing. It does not come into existence with the creation of our body, nor does it perish with its disintegration. Though invisible, it suffuses our body, and every single act of seeing, hearing, smelling, speaking, or moving the hands and legs is simply the activity of this Mind. Whoever searches for Buddha and Truth outside this Mind is deluded; whoever directly perceives that his intrinsic nature is precisely that of a Buddha is himself a Buddha. A Buddha has never existed who has not realized this Mind, and every last being within the Six Realms of Existence is perfectly endowed with it. The statement from a sutra "In Buddha there is no discrimination" confirms this.

Everyone who has realized this Mind, attaining to Buddhahood, wants to make it known to mankind. But men, clinging stupidly to superficial forms, find it hard to believe in this purposeless Dharma-kaya, this pure, true Buddha. To give it a name Buddhas resort to such metaphors as "Treasure Gem of Free Will," "Great Path," "Amitabha Buddha,'" "Buddha of Supreme Knowledge," "Jizo," "Kannon," "Fugen," "One's Face before one's parents were born." The Bodhisattva Jizo1 is the guide through the Six Realms of Existence, (he being the symbol of the power which) controls the six sensesc. Every epithet of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva is simply a different designation for the One-mind. If one believes in his own Buddha-mind, it is the same as believing in all Buddhas. Thus in a sutra we read: "The Three Worlds are but One-mind; outside this Mind nothing exists. Mind, Buddha, and sentient beings are One, they are not to be differentiated."

Since the sutras deal only with this Mind, to realize it is to accomplish at one stroke the reading and understanding of all the sutras. One sutra says "The teachings of the sutras are like a finger pointing to the moon." Now, these teachings are the sermons that have been preached by all the Buddhas. "Pointing to the moon" is pointing to the One-mind of sentient beings. Just as it is said that the moon shines upon both sides of the earth, in the same way the One-mind illumines the inner and outer world. When it is said, then, that great merit can be derived from reciting the sutras, this means what has just been said and nothing more.2 Again, it is said that through services for the Buddha one can attain Buddhahood, but to attain Buddhahood simply means to realize this Mind. Thus the merit of realizing this One-mind in a single-minded instant is infinitely greater than that of reciting the sutras for ten thousand days, just as perceiving one's own Mind in a moment of single-mindedness is incomparably greater than hearing for ten thousand years why this is so. But just as one must progress from shallow to deep by degrees, so is it a blessing for beginners, either deluded or obtuse, to recite sutras enthusiastically or to invoke the names of Buddhas. For them it is like getting on a raft or boat as a first step. But if they do not yearn to reach the shore of realization, contenting themselves to remain forever on the raft, they only deceive themselves. Shakyamuni Buddha underwent many austerities yet failed to attain Buddhahood. After this he did zazen for six years, giving up everything else, and at last realized this One-mind. Following his perfect enlightenment he gave sermons about the Mind he had realized for the sake of all mankind. These sermons are called sutras and are the words flowing from the realized Mind of the Buddha.

This Mind is latent in everyone, it is the master of the six senses. The effects and causes of all transgressions vanish in a flash, like ice put into boiling water, when one awakens to this Mind. Only after gaining such direct Insight can you affirm that your own Mind is itself Buddha. The Mind-essence is intrinsically bright and unblemished, in it there is no distinction of Buddha and sentient beings. But its clarity is hidden by delusive thoughts just as the light of the sun or the moon is obscured by clouds. Yet such thoughts can be dispelled by the power of practicing zazen, in the same way that clouds can be dissipated by a blast of wind. Once they vanish, the Buddha-nature reveals itself, just as the moon makes its appearance when clouds disappear. This light has ever been present, it is not newly obtained outside oneself.

If you would free yourself from being driven within the Six Realms of Existence or from (the sufferings of) birth-and-death, you must dispel your delusive feelings and perceptions. To dispel them you must realize this Mind. To realize this Mind you must do zazen. How you practice is of the utmost importance. You must penetrate your koans to the very core. The foundation of every koan is one's own Mind. The deep yearning for the realization of Mind we call "desire for truth" or "thirst for realization." He is wise who deeply fears falling into hell.3 Only because the terrors of hell are so little known to them do men have no desire for the teachings of the Buddha.

There was a Bodhisattva who attained enlightenment by concentrating intently on every sound he heard, so Shakyamuni Buddha called him Kannon.4 If you would know the substance of the Mind-Buddha, the very instant you hear a sound search for this one who hears. Thus you will unfailingly come to the realization that your own Mind is no different from Kannon`s. This Mind is neither being nor non-being. It transcends all forms and yet is inseparable from them.

Do not try to prevent thoughts from arising and do not cling to any that have arisen. Let thoughts appear and disappear as they will, don't struggle with them. You need only unremittingly and with ail your heart ask yourself "What is my own Mind?" I keep urging this because I want to bring you to Self-realization. When you persistently try to understand (with the intellect) what is beyond the domain of intellect, you are bound to reach a dead end, completely baffled. But push on. Sitting or standing, working or sleeping, probe tirelessly to your deepest self with the question ''What is my own Mind?" Fear nothing but the failure to experience your True-nature. This is Zen practice. When this intense questioning envelops every inch of you and penetrates to the very bottom of all bottoms, the question will suddenly burst and the substance of the Buddha-mind be revealed, just as a mirror (concealed) in a box can reflect (its surroundings) only after the box is broken apart. The radiance of this Mind will light up every corner of a universe free of even a single blemish. You will be liberated at last from all entanglements within the Six Realms, all effects of evil actions having vanished. The joy of this moment cannot be put into words.

Consider a person suffering intensely in a dream where, having fallen into hell, he is being tortured. Once he awakens, his suffering ceases, for he is now liberated from this delusion. In the same way, through Self-realization one frees himself from the sufferings of birth-and-death. For enlightenment, not nobility of birth or wide learning but only strong determination is essential. Buddhas bear the same relation to sentient beings as water does to ice. Ice, like stone or brick, cannot flow. But when it melts it flows freely in conformity with its surroundings. So long as one remains in a state of delusion he is like ice. Upon realization he becomes as exquisitely free as water. And remember, there is no ice which does not return to water. So you will understand there is no difference between ordinary beings and Buddhas except for one thing - delusion. When it is dissolved they are identical.

Don't allow yourself to become discouraged. If your desire for truth is wanting, you may be unable to attain enlightenment in this life. But if you carry on your Zen practice5 faithfully, even while dying, you will unquestionably achieve enlightenment in your next existence. But don't dawdle. Imagine yourself on your deathbed at this very moment. What alone can help you? What alone can prevent you from falling into hell because of your transgressions? There is fortunately a broad path to liberation. From your very roots ask this one question: "What is my Buddha-mind?" If you would see the substance of all Buddhas in a trice, realize your own Mind.

Is what I say true or false? Ask yourself this instant: "What is my own Buddha-mind?" Upon your enlightenment the lotus will blossom in a roaring fire and endure throughout eternity. Man inherently is no different from the lotus. Why can't you grasp this?


You ask me how to practice Zen with reference to this phrase from a sutra: "Mind, having no fixed abode, should flow forth." There is no express method for attaining enlightenment. If you but look into your Self-nature directly, not allowing yourself to be deflected, the Mind flower will come into bloom. Hence the sutra says: "Mind, having no fixed abode, should flow forth." Thousands of words spoken directly by Buddhas and Patriarchs add up to this one phrase. Mind is the True-nature of things, transcending ail forms. The True-nature is the Way. The Way is Buddha. Buddha is Mind. Mind is not within or without or in between. It is not being or nothingness or non-being or non-nothingness or Buddha or mind or matter. So it is called the abodeless Mind. This Mind sees colors with the eyes, hears sounds with the ears. Look for this master directly!

A Zen master (Rinzai) of old says: "One's body, composed of the four primal elements,6 can't hear or understand this preaching. The spleen or stomach or liver or gall bladder can't hear or understand this preaching. Empty-space can't understand it. Then what does hear and understand?" Strive to perceive directly. If your mind remains attached to any form or feeling whatsoever, or is affected by logical reasoning or conceptual thinking, you are as far from true realization as heaven is from earth.

How can you cut off at a stroke the sufferings of birth-and-death? As soon as you consider how to advance, you get lost in reasoning; but if you quit you are adverse to the highest path. To be able neither to advance nor to quit is to be a "breathing corpse." If in spite of this dilemma you empty your mind of all thoughts and push on with your zazen, you are bound to enlighten yourself and apprehend the phrase "Mind, having no fixed abode, should flow forth." Instantly you will grasp the sense of all Zen dialogue as well as the profound and subtle meaning of the countless sutras.

The layman Ho asked Baso: "What is it that transcends everything in the universe?" Baso answered: "I will tell you after you have drunk up the waters of the West River in one gulp."7 Ho instantly became deeply enlightened. See here, what does this mean? Does it explain the phrase "Mind, having no fixed abode, should flow forth," or does it point to the very one reading this? If you still don't comprehend, go back to questioning, "What is hearing now?" Find out this very moment! The problem of birth-and-death is momentous, and the world moves fast. Make the most of time, for it waits for no one.

Your own Mind is intrinsically Buddha. Buddhas are those who have realized this. Those who haven't are the so-called ordinary sentient beings. Sleeping and working, standing and sitting, ask yourself "What is my own Mind?" looking into the source from which your thoughts arise. What is this subject that right now perceives, thinks, moves, works, goes forth, or returns? To know it you must intensely absorb yourself in the question. But even though you do not realize it in this life, beyond a doubt you will in the next because of your present efforts.

In your zazen think in terms of neither good nor evil. Don't try to stop thoughts from arising, only ask yourself; 'What is my own Mind?" Now, even when your questioning goes deeper and deeper you will get no answer until finally you will reach a cul-de-sac, your thinking totally checked. You won't find anything within that can be called "I" or "Mind." But who is it that understands all this? Continue to probe more deeply yet and the mind that perceives there is nothing will vanish; you will no longer be aware of questioning but only of emptiness. When awareness of even emptiness disappears, you will realise there is no Buddha outside Mind and no Mind outside Buddha. Now for the first time you will discover that when you do not hear with your ears you are truly hearing, and when you do not see with your eyes you are really seeing Buddhas of the past, present, and future. But don't cling to any of this, just experience it for yourself!

See here, what is your own Mind? Everyone's Original-nature is not less than Buddha. But since men doubt this and search for Buddha and Truth outside their Mind, they fail to attain enlightenment, being helplessly driven within cycles of birth-and-death, entangled in karma both good and bad. The source of all karma bondage is delusion, i.e., the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions (stemming from ignorance). Rid yourself of them and you are emancipated. Just as ash covering a charcoal fire is dispersed when the fire is fanned, so these delusions vanish once you realize your Self-nature.

During zazen neither loathe nor be charmed by any of your thoughts. With your mind turned inward, look steadily into their source and the delusive feelings and perceptions in which they are rooted will evaporate. This is not yet Self-realization, however, even though your mind becomes bright and empty like the sky, you have awareness of neither inner nor outer, and all the ten quarters seem clear and luminous. To take this for realization is to mistake a mirage for reality. Now even more intensely search this mind of yours which hears. Your physical body, composed of the four basic elements, is like a phantom, without reality, yet apart from this body there is no mind. The empty-space of ten quarters can neither see nor hear; still, something within you does hear and distinguish sounds. Who or what is it? When this question totally ignites you, distinctions of good and evil, awareness of being or emptiness, vanish like a light extinguished on a dark night. Though you are no longer consciously aware of yourself, still you can hear and know you exist. Try as you will to discover the subject hearing, your efforts will fail and you will find yourself at an impasse. All at once your mind will burst into great enlightenment and you will feel as though you have risen from the dead, laughing loudly and clapping your hands in delight. Now for the first time you will know that Mind itself is Buddha. Were someone to ask, "What does one's Buddha-mind look like?" I would answer: "In the trees fish play, in the deep sea birds are flying." What does this mean? If you don't understand it, look into your own Mind and ask yourself: "What is he, this master who sees and hears?"

Make the most of time: it waits for no one.


Your Mind-Essence is not subject to birth or death. It is neither being nor nothingness, neither emptiness nor form-and-color. Nor is it something that feels pain or joy. However much you try to know (with your rational mind) that which is now sick, you cannot. Yet if you think of nothing, wish for nothing, want to understand nothing, cling to nothing, and only ask yourself, "What is the true substance of the Mind of this one who is now suffering?" ending your days like clouds fading in the sky, you will eventually be freed from your painful bondage to endless change.


You are meeting him face to face, but who is he? Anything you say will be wrong. And if you hold your tongue, you will be equally wrong. Who is he, then? On top of a flagpole a cow gives birth to a calf. It you come to Self-realization at this point, you need do nothing further. If you cannot, look inward to behold your Buddha-nature. Everyone is perfectly endowed with this Buddha-nature. Its substance is the same in ordinary human beings as in Buddhas, with not the slightest difference in degree. But because man can't bring himself to believe this, he binds himself to delusion with the rope of unreality by saying: "The realization of my Self-nature is beyond me. It is better that I recite sutras, bow down before Buddhas, and enter the Way gradually through the grace of all Buddhas." Most of those who hear this accept it as true. It is as though one blind man were leading many blind men in the wrong direction. These people do not really believe sutras and Buddhas - on the contrary, they set no store by them. (For if they truly accepted them, they would know that) merely reciting the sutras is no more than looking at them from the outside, and speaking of "Buddha" but another way of speaking of the essence of Mind. A sutra says: ''Mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, these are not to be discriminated from one another." Accordingly, a man who does not believe in the reality of his own Mind but says he believes in Buddha is like one who puts trust in a symbol while spurning the real thing. How then can he realize this Mind? One who wants only to recite sutras is like a hungry man who refuses food offered in the belief that he can allay his hunger by merely looking at a menu. Each sutra is but a catalogue of the Mind-nature. One of the sutras says: "The teachings of the sutras are like a finger pointing to the moon." Can the Buddha have intended that you acknowledge the finger and not perceive the moon? Everybody contains within himself the (substance of the) sutras. If you catch even a glimpse of your Self-nature, it is the same as reading and understanding all the sutras simultaneously, none excepted, without so much as holding one in your hand and reading a word. Isn't this real sutra-"reading"? Look, that green bamboo grove over yonder is precisely your own Mind, and this mass of yellow flowers is nothing less than the supreme wisdom of the universe!

As for the practice of bowing down before Buddhas, this is merely a way of horizontalizing the mast of ego in order to realize the Buddha-nature. To attain Buddhahood one must come to Self-realization through his own efforts no matter what his talents or capabilities may be. Unfortunately, most who understand this and practice zazen begin to dawdle along the way and thus never come to complete realization. Then there are those who take the state of no-thoughts and no-awareness, where all reflection and discrimination stop for a time, to be true realization; others think it sufficient Zen practice to remember every single koan; still others insist that the true way of the Zen devotee is not to violate the precepts, or else to dwell in forests to escape from the problem of good and evil in the world; while still others maintain that the right way is to avow that there is no truth to be realized, or that there is no other truth to grasp than that of drinking tea when tea is offered or eating when food is served, or of shouting "Katsu!" when asked about Buddhism, or of leaving suddenly with a flourish of the kimono sleeve, pretending to repudiate everything, while calling anyone who practices zazen seriously and seeks out accomplished Zen masters a bore. If such individuals can he called truth-seekers, then a child of three can be said to understand Zen. Again, there are those who think that when one's mental functions have ceased , leaving one like a decayed tree or cold stone, one has attained no-mindness; while still others maintain that in the practice of Zen a decisive point has been reached when one feels a deep void with awareness of neither inner nor outer, the entire body having become shining, transparent, and clear like a blue sky on a bright day.

This last appears when the True-nature begins to manifest itself, but it cannot be called genuine Self-realization. Zen masters of old would call it the "deep pit of pseudo-emancipation." Those who reach this stage, believing they have no more problems in (the study and practice of) Buddhism, behave haughtily through lack of wisdom; engage eagerly in debates on religion, taking delight in cornering their opponents but becoming angry when cornered themselves; appear perpetually discontented while no longer believing in the law of causation; go about telling jokes in a loud, jabbering voice; deliberately disturb and ridicule those who study and strive earnestly. calling them clods whose practice is not Zen. This is as though a lunatic were to laugh at a sane person. The conceit of these idiots knows no bounds and they fall into hell as quick as an arrow. The first Patriarch, Bodhidharma, said: "One who thinks only that everything is void but is ignorant of the law of causation falls into everlasting, pitch-black helL" These would-be teachers sometimes sound like Zen masters, but they are unable to free themselves from their delusive feelings and perceptions. Most beginners mistake the barest manifestation of truth for Self-realization. An ancient Zen master (Rinzai) said: "`The body of the True-nature`and `the ground of the True-nature,` these, I know for certain, are shadows (i.e., concepts). You must find the subject that casts the shadows. It is the very source of all Buddhas."

Certain people say: "In the practice and study of Zen we acquire various ideas about it,8 and such notions (we are told) are a kind of mind illness; for this reason Self-realization through Zen is difficult. But what if we don't realize our Self-nature, or understand (the Truth) through reading the sutras? Need we fear retribution if we don't sin? What if we never attain Buddhahood? As long as we don't tread the Three Evil Paths, why need we strive for Buddhahood?"

Answer: The source of all sin is delusion. Without Self-realization it can't be destroyed. In the bodies of human beings are six sense-roots, in each of which lurks a seducer.9 These six seducers each carry three kinds of poison: greed, anger, and folly. There are no human beings free from these three poisons. They are the causes of which the Three Evil Paths are the effects. Necessarily the effects flow from the causes. One who says "I am free of sin" is ignorant of this law. Even one who commits no sin in this life has these three poisons a priori. What, then, of those who add new transgressions?

Question: If all human beings are heir to these three poisons, is it correct to say that even Buddhas, Patriarchs, and holy sages cannot avoid treading the Three Evil Paths?

Answer: When one realizes his Self-nature the three poisons are transmuted (in such a way that greedy actions turn) into observance of the precepts, (anger into) mind stability, and (folly into) wisdom. Buddhas, Patnarchs, and holy sages are all enlightened, so how could they possibly sin (i.e., act with greed, anger, or folly)?

Question: Granting that through enlightenment the three poisons are transmuted (in such a way that greedy actions turn) into observance of the precepts, (anger into) mind stability, and (folly into) wisdom, how can one rid the mind of the malady of delusion?

Answer: Realization of the Self-nature is the sole cure for all (mind) illness. Do not rely on any other remedy. Have I not already quoted to you: "Find the subject which casts the shadows, it is the very source of all Buddhas"? Your Buddha-nature is like the jewel-sword of the Vajra king: whoever touches it is killed.10 Or it is like a massive, raging fire: everything within reach loses its life. Once you realize your True-nature, all evil bent of mind arising from karma extending over innumerable years past is instantly annihilated, like snow put into a roaring furnace. No thought of Buddha or Truth remains. How, then, can any mind illness persist? Why can't the karmically begotten delusions and the manifold discriminative thoughts and notions of the unenlightened mind be quelled? Simply because true Self-realization has not taken place. You can no more stop yourself from being driven within the Six Realms of ceaseless change without (first) realizing your Self-nature than you can stop water from boiling without quenching the fire beneath it.

Fortunately, you believe there is a truth specially transmitted outside the scriptures and scholastic teachings. Then why bother about the meaning of these scriptures? Renounce forthwith all such reflections and see the master directly. What is the master who at this very moment is seeing and hearing? If you reply, as most do, that it is Mind or Nature or Buddha or one's Face before birth or one's Original Home or Koan or Being or Nothingness or Emptiness or Form-and-Color or the Known or the Unknown or Truth or Delusion, or say something or remain silent, or regard it as Enlightenment or Ignorance, you fall into error at once. What is more, if you are so foolhardy as to doubt the reality of this master, you bind yourself though you use no rope. However much you try to know it through logical reasoning or to name or call it, you are doomed to failure. And even though all of you becomes one mass of questioning as you turn inward and intently search the very core of your being, you will find nothing that can be termed Mind or Essence. Yet should someone call your name, something from within will hear and respond. Find out this instant who it is!

If you push forward with your last ounce of strength at the very point where the path of your thinking has been blocked, and then, completely stymied, leap with hands high in the air into the tremendous abyss of fire confronting you - into the ever-burning flame of your own primordial nature - all ego-consciousness, all delusive feelings and thoughts and perceptions will perish with your ego-root and the true source of your Self-nature will appear. You will feel resurrected, all sickness having completely vanished, and will experience genuine peace and joy. You will be entirely free. For the first time you will realize that walking on water is like walking on ground and walking on ground like walking on water; that all day long there is speaking, yet no word is ever spoken; that throughout the day there is walking, yet no step is ever taken; that while the clouds are rising over the southern mountains their rain is falling over the northern range; that when the lecture gong is struck in China the lecture begins in Korea; that sitting alone in a ten-foot-square room you meet all the Buddhas of the ten quarters; that without seeing a word you read the more than seven thousand volumes of the sutras; that though you acquire all the merits and virtues of good actions, yet in fact there are none.

Do you want to know what this Mind is? The layman Ho asked Baso: "What is it that transcends all things in the universe?" Baso answered: "I will tell you after you have swallowed all the water of the West River in one gulp." Upon hearing this, Ho became deeply enlightened. Now, how do you swallow all the water of the West River in one gulp? If you grasp the spirit of this, you will be able to go through ten thousand koans at one time and perceive that walking on water is like walking on ground and walking on ground like walking on water. If you imagine I am describing something supernatural, you will one day have to swallow a red-hot iron ball before Yama-raja. But if it is not supernatural, what is it? Face up to this!


In my boyhood this question perplexed me: Aside from this physical body, what replies "I am so-and-so" when asked "Who are you?" This perplexity having once arisen, it became deeper year by year, resulting in my desire to become a monk. Then I made this solemn vow: Now that I have determined to be a monk, I cannot search for truth for my own sake. Even after winning the supreme Truth I will defer full Buddhahood11 until I have saved every sentient being. Furthermore, until this perplexity has been dissolved I will not study Buddhism or learn the rituals and practices of a monk. So long as I live in the human world I will stay nowhere except with great Zen masters, and in the mountains.

After I entered a monastery my perplexity increased. At the same time a strong resolve arose from the bottom of my heart and I thought: Shakyamuni Buddha has passed already and Miroku, the future Buddha, has not yet appeared. During this period12 when authentic Buddhism has declined to the point where it is about to expire, may my desire for Self-realization be strong enough to save all sentient beings in this Buddha-less world. Even should I suffer the pangs of everlasting hell as a result of this sin of attachment (to saving), so long as I can shoulder the sufferings of sentient beings, I will never become discouraged or forsake this eternal vow. Furthermore, in practicing Zen I will not idle away my time thinking of life and death or waste even a minute in trifling good works. Nor will I blind others to the truth by trying to minister to them so long as my own (spiritual) length is insufficient to lead them to Self-realization.

These resolutions became part and parcel of my thinking, bothering me to some extent in my zazen. But I coujd not do otherwise. I constantly prayed13 to Buddhas for strength to carry out these resolutions, which I made the standard of my conduct in both favorable and unfavorable circumstances, under the watchful but friendly eyes of heavenly beings.14 Thus it has been up to the present.

It is really pointless to tell you about these delusive states of mine, but as you make bold to ask I write here of my aspirations as a novice.


You have wntten me that the object of Zen practice (you believe) is the manifestation of Mind-in-itself. But how does it manifest itself? What can be seen with the eyes or be known by reason cannot be called Mind-in-itself. You must begin your zazen by looking into your own mind. As your thoughts diminish you will become aware ot them, but it is a mistake to struggle to stop them from arising. Neither loathe nor cherish your thoughts, only realize the source from which they stem. By constantly questioning whence thoughts arise, the time will come when your mind, unable to answer, will be free of even a ripple of thought. Yet even now you will find no answer. But still ask "What is this Mind?" to the very rock bottom and the questioning mind will suddenly vanish and your body feel as though it were without substance, like the empty-space of the ten quarters.

This is the first stage to which Zen beginners attain and they are encouraged to some extent. Bui if they mistake this for the manifestation of Mind-in-itself (or Truth-in-itself), they are like one who takes fish eyes for pearls. Those who persist in such error become haughty, malign Buddhas and Patriarchs, and ignore the law of causation. So they have to struggle with evil spirits in this life and tread thorny paths in the next. But with favorable karmic relations they will eventually attain enlightenment. Men, however, who cannot perceive the truth of all this, who do not believe their own Mind is Buddha and who look for Buddha, or Truth, outside this Mind, are infinitely worse off than non-Buddhists who attach themselves to the phenomenal world.

As I have already written you. when some insight comes to you go to a competent Zen master and openly demonstrate to him what you have perceived, exactly as it came to you. If it is faulty and needs to be dissolved, let it be done like boiling water destroying ice. At last, like a bright moon shining in an empty sky through clouds that have broken open, your Face before your parents' birth will be revealed, and for the first time you will understand what is meant by "the saw dances the Sandai." Now, Sandai is the name of a dance. Just consider: a saw dances the Sandai! What does this mean? Tackle it resolutely but without reasoning, for it has no meaning in the usual sense. You will be able to comprehend it only upon Self-realization.

You next mentioned that you are going to fast. Fasting is a non-Buddhist practice. Don't ever do it! Renunciation of your wrong views which discriminate gain from loss, good from bad - this is true fasting. Relinquishment of delusion in the wholehearted practice of Zen - this is self-purification. To desire abnormal experiences15 is as misguided as wanting to appear different from ordinary people. You have but to keep your mind steadfast yet flexible, concerning yourself with neither good nor evil in others and not obstructing them. If you remind yourself that this world is but a dream in which there is no grief to avoid and no joy to look for, your mind will become visibly serene. Not only this, but your illnesses will disappear as your delusive feelings and perceptions fall away. You must even discard whatever you realize through enlightenment. What is more, you must not attach yourself to or be repelled by visions of any kind. for they are all illusional. Don't involve yourself in such fantasies but only inquire: "What is the master who sees all this?"

I have fully answered the questions you have raised. Should you not realize your True-self in this lifetime even though you practice Zen exactly as I now advise you, you will unquestionably meet a perfectly enlightened Zen master in your next life and attain Self-realization a thousand times over through one Sound [of Truth].

I dislike writing you in such detail, but since you have written me from a sickbed to which you have long been confined, this is the only way I can answer so you will readily understand.


I have read your presentation at length, but it misses the point of the koan. The Sixth Patriarch said: "The flag doesn't move, the wind doesn't move, only your mind moves."16 To realize this clearly is to perceive that the universe and yourself are of the same root, that you and every single thing are a unity. The gurgle of the stream and the sigh of the wind are the voices of the master. The green of pine, the white of snow, these are the colors of the master, the very one who lifts the hands, moves the legs, sees, hears. One who grasps this directly without recourse to reason or intellection can be said to have some degree of inner realization. But this is not yet full enlightenment.

An ancient Zen master (Rinzai) said: "You should not cling to the idea that you are Pure-essence." And again: "Your physical body, composed of the four basic elements, can't hear or understand this preaching. The empty-space can't understand this preaching. Then what is it that hears and understands?" Meditate fully and directly on these words. Take hold of this koan as though wielding the jewel-sword of the Vajra king. Cut down whatever appears in the mind. When thoughts of mundane matters arise, cut them off. When notions of Buddhism arise, likewise lop them off. In short, destroy all ideas, whether of realization, of Buddhas, or of devils, and all day long pursue the question "What is it that hears this preaching?" When you have eradicated every conception until only emptiness remains, and then cut through even the emptiness, your mind will burst open and that which hears will manifest itself. Persevere, persevere - never quit halfway - until you reach the point where you feel as though you have risen from the dead. Only then will you be able to wholly resolve the momentous question "What is it that hears this preaching?"

I am afraid it may be inconvenient for you to write me often, so I am writing you this (kind of detailed) letter. After you have read it drop it into the fire.


I have read your letter carefully.

Having long admired you for your determination to come to Self-realization, I was highly gratified to learn that you have not forgotten the great question. Your answer has been noted in all respects. Here I want to tell you to make this your koan: ''What is the substance of my fundamental nature?" In your search for the master that hears and speaks, though thousands of thoughts arise don't entertain them but only ask "Whal is it?" Every thought and all self-awareness will then disappear, followed by a state not unlike a cloudless sky. Now, mind itself has no form. What is it, then, that hears and works and moves about? Delve into yourself deeper and deeper until you are no longer aware of a single object. Then beyond a shadow of a doubt you will perceive your True-nature, like a man awakening from a dream. Assuredly at that moment flowers will bloom on withered trees and fire flame up from ice. All of Buddhism, all worldly concerns, all notions of good and evil, will have disappeared, like last night's dream, and your fundamental Buddha-nature alone will manifest itself. Having come to such inner understanding, you must not then cherish the notion that this Mind is fundamentally Buddha-nature. If you do you will be creating for yourself annther thought-form.

Only because I regard your desire for Self-realization so highly do I write in such detail.17

Thank you for sending the five hundred packets of caked rice and the pound of tea.


I have read your Ietter with particular care. I am much pleased to hear about your Zen practice. But if I answer you at any length, you are bound to make your own interpretation of what I write and that will become somewhat of a hindrance to your Self-realization.

Try to perceive directly the subject that is presently inquiring. Buddhas and Patriarchs say that this subject is inherently Buddha-mind. Yet this Mind is without substance. In your physical body what can you call Mind or Buddha? Now intensely ask yourself, "What is this which can`t be named or intellectually known?" If you profoundly question "What is it that lifts the hands, moves the legs, speaks, hears?" your reasoning will come to a halt, every avenue being blocked, and you won't know which way to turn. But relentlessly continue your inquiry as to this subject. Abandon intellection and relinquish your hold on everything. When with your whole heart you long for liberation for its own sake, beyond every doubt you will become enlightened.

With the passage of time one's thoughts are stilled and one experiences a void like that of a cloudless sky. You must not, however, confuse this with enlightenment. Putting aside logic and reason, question yourself even more intensely in this wise: "Mind is formless, and so right now am I. What, then, is hearing?" Only after your search has permeated every pore and fiber of your being will the empty-space suddenly break asunder and your Face before your parents were born appear. You will feel like a man who abruptly awakens from a dream. At such time go to a reputable Zen master and ask for his critical examination. While you may not come to Self-realization in this life, you will surely become enlightened in your next, Zen masters have taught, if on your deathbed your mind is barren of every thought and you only ask "What is this Mind?" dying unconcerned like fire expiring.

I have written as you have asked me to, but reluctantly. Once you have read this letter burn it. Don't reread it but only search deeply for the one hearing. My words will seem like so much nonsense when you experience enlightenment yourself.


I am glad to learn how ardently you are practicing zazen. What you have reported to me is a little like a Zen experience, but it is essentially what you have understood with your intellect. The Great Question cannot be resolved by the discursive mind. Even what becomes clear through realization is delusion of a kind. In a previous letter I wrote you that only when you have come back from the dead, so to speak, will that which hears manifest itself. Your persistent inquiry "What is it that hears?" will eventually lead you to awareness of nothing but the questioning itself. You must not, however, be misled into thinking this is the subject which hears.

You say that in working on this koan you feel as though you have taken hold of a sword and cut away every idea in your mind, including the impression of emptiness, and that questioning alone remains. But what is doing all this? Delve to your inmost being and you will discover it is precisely that which hears.

Even though you experience your Self-nature again and again, and understand Buddhism well enough to discourse upon it, your delusive thoughts will survive, inevitably precipitating you into the Three Evil Paths in your next life, unless their root is severed through perfect enlightenment. If, on the other hand, still unsatisfied, you persevere in your self-inquiry even to your deathbed, you will unquestionably come to fuil enlightenment in your next existence.

Don't allow yourself to become discouraged and don't fritter away your time, just concentrate with all your heart on your koan. Now, your physical being doesn't hear, nor does the void. Then what does? Strive to find out. Put aside your rational intellect, give up all techniques (to induce enlightenment), abandon the desire for Self-realization, and renounce every other motivation. Your mind will then come to a standstill, and you won't know what to do. No longer possessing the desire to attain enlightenment or to use your powers of reason, you will feel like a tree or a stone. But go further yet and question yourself exhaustively for days on end, and you will surely attain deep enlightenment, cutting away the undermost roots of birth-and-death and coming to the realm of the non-self-conscious Mind. The undermost roots ot birth-and-death are the delusive thoughts and feelings arising from the self-conscious mind, the mind of ego. A Zen master (Rinzai) once said: "There is nothing in particular to realize. Only get rid of (the idea of a) Buddha and sentient beings."18 The essential thing for enlightenment is to empty the mind of the notion of self.

To write in such detail is unwise, but as you have written me so often I feel obliged to reply in this way.

12 / TO A NUN /

I have read your letter carefully. It is gratifying to see how eagerly you are practicing Zen, putting it before everything else.

You say you once thought you ought to have gone west to the capital but that you now see it was a mistaken idea, that the capital is everywhere, and that therefore you need do no more than question yourself one-pointedly "What is it?" But this is not enough, for though you have found the capital to be everywhere you have not seen the Ruler face to face. The Ruler is your Face before your parents were born.

When you "pierce" the question somewhat, your mind becomes like the void; (ideas of) Buddhas, sentient beings, past or present, are no more. A tranquility not unlike the serenity of moonlight flooding the countryside suffuses the heart, but this can't be put into words. Such serenity is the outcome of some Zen practice, yet the mind is still sick, for the Self is still topsy-turvy, and this inversion is the root-source of delusion. What is meant by cutting away the root is breaking through this serene state of mind.

One who lacks a genuine thirst for Self-reaiization digs up old koans and, reasoning out "answers," considers himself enlightened. You must not become attached to anything you realize, you must only search directly for the subject that realizes. Thus like something burnt to a crisp or slashed to bits, your preconceived notions will all be annihilated. You will perceive the master only after you have probed "What is it?" with your last ounce of strength and every thought of good and evil has vanished. Not until then will you feel like one who has actually been resurrected.

Tokusan said: "Even though you can say something about if, I will give you thirty blows of the stick. ..."19 Can you avoid the stick? If you can, you understand the import of "The East Mountain strides over the water."20

I am afraid I have written too much, but I have done so because I admire your determination to become enlightened. These ideas are not mine but what I have learned from the teachings of the ancient Zen masters.


1 Jizo has always occupied a special niche in the hearts of Japanese Buddhists, and perhaps that is why Bassui, rather gratuitously it would seem, singles out this Bodhisattva.

2 Namely, that the sutras say that they themselves are not truth but are like an arrow pointing to the truth.

3 What is implied in this and the following sentence is that the plane of existence or state of consciousness called hell is excruciatingly painful, and that it is the dread of falling into such a miserable life which gives rise to a deep yearning for Self- realization. For it is enlightenment that takes the terror out of hell.

4 Kannon is a simplification of Kanzeon, which means "hearer (or receiver) of the voices (cries) of the world.“ Sometimes Bassui uses the term Kanzeon and sometimes Kannon. To avoid confusion we have adhered throughout to Kannon.

5 That is, asking: "What is the true substance of my Mind?"

6 Namely, solids (earth), liquids (water), heat (fire), gas (air)

7 The West River is a large river in China. Another version of the koan states: "Ho replied to Baso: '1 have already drunk up the waters of the West River in one gulp.' 'Then I have already told you!' retorted Baso."

8 That is, conceptions about satori, Mu, ku, etc.

9 Our sense impressions are called seducers because until we have learned to control our minds and realized the Truth, we are prey to their never-ceasing seductions, i.e., to their efforts to tempt us away from our True-nature through alluring sights, sounds, and other distractions. Greed, anger, and folly are the inevitable outcome of attachment to the objects of the senses. (See also "Six Realms of Existence" and "ego" in section x.)

10 Compare with this statement attributed to God in the Old Testament: "For there shall no man see me, and live." (Exodus, 33, 20)

11 That is, the highest perfected state. (See "Buddha" in section x.)

12 Like many others of his time, Bassui believed he was in the beginning of the period of the destruction of the true Law as prophesied by the Buddha himself. The Mohasannipata Candragarbha sutra quotes the Buddha as saying that in the first five hundred years after his Nirvana his disciples would attain emancipation according to the right Law; in the second five hundred they would only be sure of attaining samadhi; in the third five hundred of reading and reciting the sutras; in the fourth five hundred, of building temples and pagodas; and in the fifth five hundred, of the destruction of the Law. If the date of the Buddha's Nirvana is accepted as around 476 B.C., Bassui's birth, in 1327, would have been within the fourth period.

13 Petitionary prayer is not unknown in Zen. Beginners often pray to Buddhas and Patriarchs for strength to purge themselves of evil and delusion so they may carry on their spiritual practice successfully. Dogen's Hotsugammon contains a number of such applications.

14 This is, those in the Sixth Realm of Existence.

15 That is, hallucinations or fantasies, arising from prolonged fasting.

16 Mumonkan No. 29

17 At first blush this statement may seem to be a variance with others in these Ietters wherein Bassui says it is unwise to write in detail. Bassui is always afraid of saying too much, of burdening his corrrespondents with ideas which may hang in their minds and thus prove a hindrance to enlightenment. At this point Bassui is implying that he is so moved by Priest Iguchi's ardor that, despite his better judgement, he has written him this type of letter.

18 In other words, of a Buddha as opposed to sentient beings.

19 The koan in its entirety reads: "Even though you can say something about it, / I will give you thirty blows of the stick. / And if you can`t say anything about it, / I will also give you thirty blows of the stick."

20 This is from Ummon Collected Sayings. A monk asked Ummon: " Where do Buddhas come from?" (i.e., What is the Buddha-mind?) Ummon replied: „The East Mountain strides over the water."