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Bassui Tokusho Zenji
Talk on One-Mind

Original guidance for zazen practice by Bassui Tokusho Zenji from the book “The Three Pillars of Zen” by Roshi Philip Kapleau. The main self-addressing questions are marked.

If you would free yourself of the sufferings of samsara, you must learn the direct way to become a Buddha. This way is no other than the realization of your own Mind. Now what is this Mind? It is the true nature of all sentient beings, that which existed before our parents were born and hence before our own birth, and which presently exists, unchangeable and eternal. So it is called one’s Face before one’s parents were born. This Mind is intrinsically pure. When we are born it is not newly created, and when we die it does not perish. It has no distinction of male or female, nor has it any coloration of good or bad. It cannot be compared with anything, so it is called Buddha-nature. Yet countless thoughts issue from this Self-nature as waves arise in the ocean or as images are reflected in a mirror. To realize your own Mind you must first of all look into the source from which thoughts flow. Sleeping and working, standing and sitting, profoundly ask yourself, “What is my own Mind?” with an intense yearning to resolve this question. This is called “training” or “practice” or “desire for truth” or “thirst for realization.” What is termed zazen is no more than looking into one’s own Mind. It is better to search your own Mind devotedly than to read and recite innumerable sutras and dharani every day for countless years. Such endeavors, which are but formalities, produce some merit, but this merit expires, and again you must experience the suffering of the Three Evil Paths. Because searching one’s own mind leads ultimately to enlightenment, this practice is a prerequisite to becoming a Buddha. No matter whether you have committed either the ten evil deeds or the five deadly sins, if you turn back your mind and enlighten yourself, you are a Buddha instantly.

But do not commit sins and expect to be saved by enlightenment [from the effects of your own actions], for neither enlightenment nor a Buddha nor a patriarch can save a person who, deluding himself, goes down evil ways. Imagine a child sleeping next to its parents and dreaming it is being beaten or is painfully sick. The parents cannot help the child no matter how much it suffers, for no one can enter the dreaming mind of another. If the child could awaken itself, it could be freed of this suffering automatically. In the same way, one who realizes that his own Mind is Buddha frees himself instantly from the sufferings arising from ignorance of the law of ceaseless change of birth-and-death. If a Buddha could prevent it, would he allow even one sentient being to fall into hell? (1) Without Self-realization one cannot understand such things as these.

What kind of master is it that this very moment sees colors with the eyes and hears voices with the ears, that now raises the hands and moves the feet? We know these are functions of our own mind, but no one knows precisely how they are performed. It may be asserted that behind these actions there is no entity, yet it is obvious they are being performed spontaneously. Conversely, it may be maintained that these are the acts of some entity; still the entity is invisible. If one regards this question as unfathomable, all attempts to reason [out an answer] will cease and one will be at a loss to know what to do. In this propitious state deepen and deepen the yearning, tirelessly, to the extreme. When the profound questioning penetrates to the very bottom, and that bottom is broken open, not the slightest doubt will remain that your own Mind is itself Buddha, the Void universe. There will then be no anxiety about life or death, no truth to search for. In a dream you may stray and lose your way home. You ask someone to show you how to return or you pray to God or Buddhas to help you, but still you can’t get home. Once you rouse yourself from your dream state, however, you find that you are in your own bed and realize that the only way you could have gotten home was to awaken yourself. This [kind of spiritual awakening] is called “return to the origin” or “rebirth in paradise.” It is the kind of inner realization that can be achieved with some training. Virtually all who like zazen and make an effort in practice, be they laymen or monks, can experience to this degree. But even such [partial] awakening cannot be attained except through the practice of zazen. You would be making a serious error, however, were you to assume that this was true enlightenment in which there is no doubt about the nature of reality. You would be like a man who having found copper gives up the desire for gold. Upon such realization question yourself even more intensely in this wise: “My body is like a phantom, like bubbles on a stream. My mind, looking into itself, is as formless as empty space, yet somewhere within sounds are perceived. Who is hearing?” Should you question yourself in this wise with profound absorption, never slackening the intensity of your effort, your rational mind eventually will exhaust itself and only questioning at the deepest level will remain. Finally you will lose awareness of your own body. Your long held conceptions and notions will perish after absolute questioning, in the way that every drop of water vanishes from a tub broken open at the bottom, and perfect enlightenment will follow like flowers suddenly blooming on withered trees.

With such realization you achieve true emancipation. But even now repeatedly cast off what has been realized, turning back to the subject that realizes, that is, to the root bottom, and resolutely go on. Your Self-nature will then grow brighter and more transparent as your delusive feelings perish, like a gem gaining luster under repeated polishing, until at last it positively illumines the entire universe. Don’t doubt this! Should your yearning be too weak to lead you to this state in your present lifetime, you will undoubtedly gain Self-realization easily in the next, provided you are still engaged in this questioning at death, just as yesterday’s work half done was finished easily today.

In zazen neither despise nor cherish the thoughts that arise; only search your own Mind, the very source of these thoughts. You must understand that anything appearing in your consciousness or seen by your eyes is an illusion, of no enduring reality. Hence you should neither fear nor be fascinated by such phenomena. If you keep your mind as empty as space, unstained by extraneous matters, no evil spirits can disturb you even on your deathbed. While engaged in zazen, however, keep none of this counsel in mind. You must only become the question “What is this Mind?” or “What is it that hears these sounds?” When you realize this Mind you will know that it is the very source of all Buddhas and sentient beings. The Bodhisattva Kannon [Avalokitesvara] is so called because he attained enlightenment by perceiving [that is, grasping the source of] the sounds of the world about him.

At work, at rest, never stop trying to realize who it is that hears. Even though your questioning penetrates the unconscious, you won’t find the one who hears, and all your efforts will come to naught. Yet sounds can be heard, so question yourself to an even profounder level. At last every vestige of self-awareness will disappear and you will feel like a cloudless sky. Within yourself you will find no “I,” nor will you discover anyone who hears. This Mind is like the void, yet it hasn’t a single spot that can be called empty. Do not mistake this state for Self-realization, but continue to ask yourself even more intensely, “Now who is it that hears?” If you bore and bore into this question, oblivious to anything else, even this feeling of voidness will vanish and you won’t be aware of anything—total darkness will prevail. [Don’t stop here, but] keep asking with all your strength, “What is it that hears?” Only when you have completely exhausted the questioning will the question burst; now you will feel like a man come back from the dead. This is true realization. You will see the Buddhas of all the universe face to face and the patriarchs past and present. Test yourself with this koan: “A monk asked Joshu: ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China?’ Joshu replied: ‘The oak tree in the garden’ (2). Should this koan leave you with the slightest doubt, you need to resume questioning, “What is it that hears?”

If you don’t come to realization in this present life, when will you? Once you have died you won’t be able to avoid a long period of suffering in the Three Evil Paths (3) What is obstructing realization? Nothing but your own half-hearted desire for truth. Think of this and exert yourself to the utmost.

(1) What is implied here is that Buddhas are not supernatural beings who can prevent one from falling into hell by conferring enlightenment, but that enlightenment, through which alone one can be saved from the sufferings of such a fate, is attainable solely through one’s own efforts.
(2) Mumonkan No. 37.
(3) According to Buddhist teaching, enlightenment can be attained only with a human body. What is meant here and in the preceding passage is that if one loses his human form, and with it the opportunity for enlightenment and higher states of consciousness, one will have to undergo long suffering in subhuman states of existence.