November 17, 1979 Dharma Talk by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

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Katagiri Roshi introduces a long-running series of talks on the Blue Cliff Record, a renowned collection of one hundred koans (or “public cases”) in the Zen tradition. The first case is the famous story of Bodhidharma’s encounter with Emperor Wu. In Talk 1 of 2 on this case, Katagiri Roshi focuses on the pointer (or introduction). To explain it, he tells some stories about his training as the anja or jisha (attendant) at Eiheiji monastery, where the “everyday food and drink” of a monk is to pay attention to everything and flow with events like a stream of water. This is a way of “cutting off the myriad streams,” so that a harmonious, wonderful life can bloom. If there is anything “showy” about it, if there is something to be gained, it is not the real practice of Zen. But say, at just this moment – whose actions are these?


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Katagiri Roshi: I have not studied the Blue Cliff Record with you since I moved to Minneapolis. We studied Shōyōroku (the Book of Equanimity) which is pretty similar to the Blue Cliff Record (Hekiganroku in Japanese). But the Blue Cliff Record is a little different, and pretty unique, from Shōyōroku we studied. Particularly Rinzai Zen uses this Blue Cliff Record so much.

Blue Cliff Record consist of five parts. The main subjects are [a collection of one hundred very] short stories, in question and answer style, or in conversation style, or usually, in short story style. And second, each story has a verse of its own, by Setchō Zen Master, who lived 980-1052 (CE). (Setchō Jūken is the Japanese name for the Chinese ancestor Hsueh Tou Ch’ung Hsien, or Xuedou Chongxian, 雪竇重顯, who compiled the cases of the Blue Cliff Record.) Also, later, Engo Zen Master, who lived from 1063-1135, added the introductions to the main subjects, and also the notes – D.T. Suzuki used the term “pithy remarks”. Engo Zen Master added the notes to each phrase, and also the commentary to the main subject and the verses by Setchō Zen Master. (Engo Kokugon is the Japanese name for ancestor Yuan Wu K’e Ch’in, or Yuanwu Keqin, 圓悟克勤.)

So each case in the Blue Cliff Record consists of five parts. In this book, the introduction to each case is represented as Pointer. So there is the Pointer, and the Case, or main subject, and Notes, Commentary, and Verse, and Commentary – the verses’ commentary, and also the main subjects’ commentary.

This translation of the Blue Cliff Record by Dr. Thomas Cleary is the best, a very nice translation.


The first case: “The Highest Meaning of the Holy Truths.”

The Pointer:

When you see smoke on the other side of a mountain, you already know there is a fire; when you see horns on the other side of a fence, right away you know there is an ox there. To understand three when one is raised, to judge precisely at a glance — this is the everyday food and drink of a patchrobed monk. Getting to where he cuts off the myriad streams, he is free to arise in the east and sink in the west, to go against or to go with, in any and all directions, free to give or to take away. But say, at just such a time, whose actions are these? Look into Hsueh Tou’s trailing vines.

(From The Blue Cliff Record translated by Thomas Cleary.)

That is the introduction, which is called Pointer, to the main subject. Let me read the main subject:

Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?” Bodhidharma said, “Empty, without holiness.” The Emperor said, “Who is facing me?” Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know.” The Emperor did not understand. After this Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtse River and came to the kingdom of Wei.

Later the Emperor brought this up to Master Chih and asked him about it. Master Chih asked, “Does your majesty know who this man is?” The Emperor said, “I don’t know.” Master Chih said, “He is the Mahasattva Avalokitesvara, transmitting the Buddha Mind Seal.” The Emperor felt regretful, so he wanted to send an emissary to go invite (Bodhidharma to return). Master Chih told him, “Your majesty, don’t say that you will send someone to fetch him back. Even if everyone in the whole country were to go after him, he still wouldn’t return.”

(From The Blue Cliff Record translated by Thomas Cleary.)

That is the main subject. And the introduction or Pointer is – I’ll read it again. [He reads it again.]


In a Zen monastery, a very important position is the sort of attendant to the old monks, old priest, or your teacher. This is the attendant, or we call it anja; the other attendant position is represented as jisha in Japanese. The anja is a kind of attendant, but this attendant is a person who takes care of many things: sort of a house maid, food maid, and kitchen maid – lots of things that you have to do. Washing the clothes, cleaning the rooms, and the temple: that is the anja for a particular old monk or old priest.

When I was at Eiheiji monastery, I was anja or jisha for almost a year for the famous Zen Master Hashimoto Roshi. I learned a lot from this position, because… well, I was very surprised, because I learned a lot which was completely different from usual life. When you live in the usual life, the usual house, in relationship with your parents, and brothers and sisters, and friends – at that time, we always emphasize ourself first. But in the monastery, when you become attendant or anja, or jisha, all you have to do is to devote yourself to take care of him, first.

So, when a guest comes, when a guest visited him, the anja and jisha has to know what to do next, what will happen next. When the visitor gets to his room, next, what should we do? Should we wait for the teacher, the old priest to call you? “Dainin. Come here, Dainin. Serve tea, and give a hot towel, and a cold towel in summer.” Should I wait? Or, before he calls me, should I go? Even though he doesn’t say anything, should I start to do something initiatively? This is very important.

So, in Eiheiji Monastery, I learned a lot from this position, because there is no excuse. I have to always pay attention to him first; I am second to him. So I have to always pay attention to what happens around him. When the visitor gets to his room, immediately I have go to his room, open the door, and serve the tea. Before serving the tea, in summer, I gave a cold towel for cleaning the hands and face, and then after that, served the tea. I always took care of him and guests in that way.


One day, a guest came, and immediately I went to his room, and gave the cold towel in summer, and started to serve tea. By that time, very naturally I had got used to serving tea, because I had had this position for six months, so I’d got used to taking care of everything. So I served tea – that is green tea, the tea ceremony. At that time, the cleaning cloth should be always on the tray, but that time I didn’t pay careful attention to the cleaning cloth, I was interested in talking with the guest, and the talk between the guest and the Roshi. That was very interesting, because even in the chatting you can find very wonderful conversation there. Even the “chat” is wonderful: you become peaceful and joyful. Very nice. There is no fighting and such things; it’s really paradise. All movements in the room are completely peaceful. So in this room I was completely caught by their conversation. But my hand was moving like this. [Laughter.] And then I put the cloth on the floor. [The roshi] immediately said [disapprovingly], “Mmmph.” [Laughter.] The cleaning cloth shouldn’t be on the floor. It should be on the tray.

At the monastery, even though you get used to doing something, always there is careful attention. Compassionate attention penetrates everything. But if you are completely caught by something, well, your body is moving but your mind is completely taking a trip. So at that time, that is not the real thing you are doing. You have to do something with your body, but simultaneously you have to do something with your body and with the mind. Mind must be present there. That’s why the master immediately pointed it out.

And also, your behavior, your actions, are not necessarily rapid behavior. Not slowly, not rapidly – I don’t know how to do it, but anyway, your mind and your body are going just like the flow of a river. Your compassionate attention penetrates every inch of your behavior, and also others: teachers, and guests, and the whole room. So when something happens, you have to do something immediately.

One day I served the tea, and I tipped over the teacup, and the tea spilled on the floor. At that time, I tried to find some rag, sort of a mop. But one monk who sat next to me, immediately he took the towel for cleaning your face and cleaned the spill. I didn’t do this. I noticed the cleaning towel there, but I didn’t take it; I tried to find the right thing, which is called rag, for cleaning the floor, not for cleaning of face, cleaning of table. And then the Zen Master scolded me: “What are you doing?” [He chuckles.] Well, of course it’s very clear what I am doing, because I want to clean the tea spilled on the floor. But he scolds me, “What are you doing?” After the other monk had cleaned it already, he scolded me. I didn’t understand.

According to the intellectual sense, it’s very clear, the towel is not something for cleaning the floor. So if you want to clean the floor, you have to get the right thing, which is called rag or mop, and clean. This is the intellectual understanding, but sometimes there is no chance to find the right thing, because it is an emergency. So you have to act, just like an emergency. So according to the common intellectual sense, he was wrong; the other monk did something wrong and I was doing something right. But the Zen Master scolded me and he praised the other monk, because he did it already. So that is a pretty important thing. Do you understand this sense?

But I don’t think you should do things always just like an emergency. For instance, the rain is leaking from the ceiling, but that rain is just like a shower in summer. The rains immediately come in leaking from the ceiling, and what should you do? Should you take the time to find the right thing?

Or, for instance, if a fire starts, what should you do? That is really an emergency. So maybe you should find some mops or the fire extinguisher, then you should put it out, but sometimes there is no time, so sometimes you have to take off your clothes and cover the fire. Maybe that is okay.

So in the emergency, there is something you have to do. There is no discussion of “it is right, it is wrong”; we have to do it. That’s why the Zen Master scolded me, “What are you doing?” The other monk did it immediately; that’s wonderful. But according to common sense, it’s wrong.

That’s why in the introduction, Engo Zen Master says, “When you see smoke on the other side of the mountain, you already know there is a fire.” It’s very clear. When the Zen Master is leaving the temple, at that time I have to do something, even though he doesn’t ask me: put the shoes in order at the gate.


He could arrange his sandals himself very easily in the zendo. Do you know the sandals? When you come down from the sitting platform to the floor, if you put the sandals like this, the toes are pointing away from you. And then when the teacher comes down, his feet immediately slip into his sandals, and he gets up. But if you put sandals like this (turned inward), he has to turn them first, and then put the feet there. I did that once; at that time he scolded me. “So what should I do?” I asked. He said, “You should put the sandals like this.” So I did it. This is a very important thing, how you should put the sandals for him. So, you have to think. You have to think how he is going down to the floor, and putting his feet on the sandals. As much as possible, you should take care of him, so he is not wasting his energy too much. Take care of it, so immediately he puts his feet on the sandals, pretty easily.

Or, before he is leaving the temple to go out to the people to perform a Buddhist service, et cetera, I put out the tabi socks for his feet, even though he didn’t ask me. Put the sandals and socks there; when it’s raining, get the umbrella. When it’s cold, get the coat. That is really just like a “maid”; the house maid, and kitchen maid, many things. That is really lots of “miscellaneous” jobs there. [He chuckles.] So you have to open your eyes carefully to take care of everything. If you miss something, the teacher scolds you.

So that is the duty of an anja and jisha. That’s why in the introduction he said, “When you see horns on the other side of a fence, right away you know there is an ox there. To understand three when one is raised, to judge precisely at a glance…” Immediately you have to know, okay? We have to know. When you have such a position as attendant for a certain period of time, you understand what he is feeling, what he is wanting next. I knew pretty well what my teacher was wanting next, so always before that, I did it: give, or offer, or help.

“To understand three when one is raised, to judge precisely at a glance. This is the everyday food and drink of a patch-robed monk.” This is really everyday the food and drink of a monk, this is not a particular behavior, not a particular attitude. If that’s the way of life, we shouldn’t be a “snob”. You shouldn’t be “showy” in order to get praise and reward from teachers and from your practice itself. Not showy, not snob – just do it, and this is just like everyday life, everyday food and drink; it’s not particular “behavior”.

So, when the teacher gets up in the morning, immediately we have to go to his room and put his bed into the closet. We used a different bed from the Western style, so every morning we had to put the bed into the closet. And next, we have to serve the tea. And before we serve the tea, we have to prepare for his washing his face; so hot water – not too hot, not lukewarm, not too cold, you have to adjust. And put out the paste and the cup, and many things. Just like taking care of a baby. [He chuckles.] But he doesn’t say anything like “thank you”; just do. So always there is a stream of water: next, next, next. There is no chance to think. Even though he doesn’t say “I hate it,” why doesn’t he say “thank you”? There is no time to discuss about that. Always the teacher’s life is going on just like a stream of water, and the anja’s life is going just like a stream of water. So very naturally there is a harmonious life, a wonderful life, blooming. I didn’t realize that at the time, but [I felt it]. Intellectually I didn’t know it, but feeling, I could know it. There is a wonderful “mood”, just like a flower blooming. And then through this, there is a big world, it is interconnected. So there is communication between the teacher and my life, and I can learn a lot from this situation.

But if you behave in even a slightly “showy” way, it’s not real Zen practice – because there is an egoistic sense, so it doesn’t fit to the Zen practice. So that’s why he said, “This is the everyday food and drink of a patch-robed monk.”


“Getting to where he cuts off the myriad streams” – the myriad streams means the worldly affairs. Getting up in the morning, and wash your face, and go to work, and going to zazen, and performing the Buddhist service, and the washing of clothes, and having breakfast; lots of streams there.

So, “Getting to where he cuts off the myriad streams, he is free to arise in the east and sink in the west, to go against or to go with, in any and all directions, free to give or to take away.” That means, I already told you, getting to where he cuts off the myriad streams. How can you cut off that sort of cause of creating new karma for the future? Well, there is no particular way. All you have to do is, just like the anja’s duties. When he is leaving the temple, you should take care of him. It’s not necessary to think, “he is an adult,” “he is a baby,” “he is my boss,” or “I am the student”; there is no chance to discuss about that. What happens very often in the myriad streams, in the human world, is that you are taught, “Why don’t you put on the socks by yourself? You have two hands. So do it by yourself.” [Laughter.] If you think that, you cannot take care of him in that way. There is always some argument or complaint, don’t you think? That’s why it’s pretty hard. But if you do this always, there is no way to cut off [the myriad streams].

How can you cut off the myriad streams? Well, just that you have to tune into the teacher’s life and the teacher’s behaviors and the teacher’s feelings, and then you can understand pretty well what he is wanting to do. So serve it, and help him, and take care of it. At that time, his life is going very smoothly, and also your life is going very smoothly, without any gap. So that is the best way to cut off the myriad streams. Because in the myriad streams, there are lots of things that come up: complaints, troubles, and arguments, and right or wrong, good or bad. So the Zen teacher scolded me when I was looking for the right thing, a rag, because in common sense that was right, but it’s not right. You have to pay careful attention to reality. Is it urgent or emergent, or is it a very regular occurrence? At a glance, you have to judge it, and you have to do it.

“Getting to where he cuts off the myriad streams, he is free to rise in the east and sink in the west.” Any time, anywhere, you can go to the east, you can go to the west. That means, pick up the towel and clean the spill, because it is emergent. So anytime, anywhere, you can go west, you can go east. But according to common sense, when you go to the west, “that’s wrong,” he says. If you pick up the towel, it’s “wrong”. At that time it’s very difficult; you cannot take care of the emergent occurrences. So, you have to do something when emergent things happen. Within the emergent occurrences, we have to do something.

(Transcriber’s Note: It is possible that Katagiri Roshi means emergency instead of emergent above, or vice versa. Emergent means “emerging”: “in the process of coming into being or becoming prominent.” It is not exactly the adjectival form of emergency. But emergent might actually work better in this context.)


“He is free to arise in the east and sink in the west, to go against or to go with”: Sometimes it’s against, it’s wrong. I am not recommending to you to do something wrong. As much as possible, you should do something right. But sometimes there is no time to discuss whether it is right or it is wrong; just do it. We have to take care of reality. So to go against, or to go with, in any and all directions: we have to do it. Wherever you may go, whatever the teacher or the old monks do, you can catch it, and do it, helping.

When I was at Tassajara, Tatsugami Roshi (probably Sotan Ryosen Tatsugami: see this article) talked about something like this. When the teacher is suffering from something, you should immediately help him; you shouldn’t look at him without doing anything. For instance, if the older monk is sweeping the yard, that is a very hard job. Then the young monks are standing around looking at him, and saying, “Oh, he’s working hard.” [He laughs.] That is not good, so he said, “Why don’t you do it, instead of looking at him?”

And then at that time […] I was the translator, interpreter, sitting on the platform. A student came up and stood in front of me, and said, “Shall I help you?” Well, I didn’t understand what he wanted to help with. [Laughter.] He said, “I want to help you translating.” Oh, wonderful! But I knew, he could not speak any Japanese. [Laughter.] So I said, “Thank you. Please sit down.” [Laughter.] Do you understand? This is not… well, it is an emergency, it is helping somebody, but – you should know the situation, okay? [More laughter.] But, the feeling – I really appreciated his kind, gentle, compassionate mind; that’s why I said, “Thank you.” Anyway, “Please, sit down.” It is not helping the teachers and the old monks.

So, “To go against or to go with, in any and all directions, free to give or to take away.” Sometimes, the teacher scolds you, completely takes you away. Even though you are doing something right, he takes you away, and he makes you pay attention to what you are doing. Intellectually, you say, “I am doing it right,” but it’s not right, because that “right” doesn’t fit the situation. So at that time it doesn’t make sense, don’t you think so?

For instance, somebody is immediately on the verge of life and death on the street – what should you do? There isn’t time to think, “Shall I go, or shall I stay?” or “Shall I move? Shall I take just one step toward him? Or shall I help?” “I am Buddhist,” or “I am Christian” – there is no chance [to think this]. Whoever you are – you’re Christian, you’re Buddhist, or whatever happens – you immediately rush into it and take him away.


“… free to give or to take away. But say, at just such a time…”

This is a Zen term, “at just such a time,” or sometimes, “at this very moment.” “At this very moment” means right in the middle of the unstructured, lively activity. “At that time,” that is, “at this very moment,” there is no chance to discuss it verbally or intellectually. Before you “feel” something, you have to do. That is emergent – emergency? That is reality. Your body, your mind must fit to the reality, before the reality is dichotomized in two: “I” and “someone”.

“At just such a time” as this very moment, “whose actions are these?” Who acts? I act? Or, “my action should be accepted by my teacher”? No way. There is no I. There is no “my object” which is called “my teacher”. All you have to do is, with your whole body and mind, just fit in, tune in to his mind, and always be just like a turning wheel, a spinning top. At that time you become one with somebody. This is “at this very moment”: before the reality is dichotomized in two.

Well, always we have the five skandhas. We say…

[Tape change.]

… so what you can see, what you can hear, all things, that is form. Form is something which is formed. By what? Feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness – simultaneously. This is form. So before the reality is formed – before you take the reality in a position of form – you have to do. That is “at this very moment”. That is reality. Reality is not a certain time, it’s not a certain place, it’s not something a person does. It is the unity of a person, place, and time, opportunity. It is not dichotomized between time and person and occasion and place. All things are unified perfectly, and work; at that time, this is reality.

In the reality there are three things, at least: person, opportunity, and place. But according to the five skandhas – that means our body and mind – immediately reality is dichotomized in two: I and my teacher. “He is an old man, not a baby. I am a young man, his student.” That is dichotomized. Immediately we dichotomize, and we are stuck there. That is a problem. Even dichotomization is also something which is going on in the stream of life, constantly changing and moving. So, when you dichotomize, put it aside. All you have to do is pay attention to reality, unified by time, person, and place. Just do it. At that time, your compassionate attention really penetrates from the top of your head to the tip of your toes, and you can handle it. Even though at that time you [aren’t] satisfied, still it’s great [mud], which will [shoot] in the future. This is the best [way].


That’s why, “Whose actions are these? Look into Hsueh Tou’s trailing vines.”

Vines are always growing with pine trees, and other trees. But, sometimes trees die by vines, because they are too much. The vines mean the dichotomies we can always do: words, feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness.

But when you do zazen, you’re aware of feelings, or perceptions, consciousness, and your experience. [You may ask,] “What do you mean? We have to be aware of our feelings and our emotions in zazen, on purpose?” This is already nothing but something dichotomized by your five skandhas. If you do this, your zazen is really deluded. Even though you feel good, that good doesn’t last for long, because it’s pretty easy to stumble by it in the next moment. Even though you say, “Oh, that’s good concentration,” it is already stumbling by it. If you really see good concentration, saying “I experience good concentration,” that is awareness, don’t you think? But such awareness is not real awareness. Real awareness is no trace of awareness – when you become one completely with full concentration on your zazen, on breath, et cetera. That is perfect awareness. So there is no chance to dichotomize by your five skandhas – “I did it,” “I concentrate pretty good,” or “I concentrate badly.” There is no chance. That is reality. The you, and your object, and place: all things must be unified, and function.

Sometimes with trailing vines, there is something interrupted, so sometimes trees die. On the other hand, the vine is also one of the beings, so it grows. When vines grow with pine trees and other trees, it is beautiful, because it is one with nature. But if it grows too much, it’s very dangerous, because it kills the tree. Do you know that happens in California? In California, a family of vines sometimes kills the trees.

53:44 end of recording

This talk was transcribed by Kikan Michael Howard. Audio recordings of Katagiri Roshi are being used with permission of Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

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