November 18, 1979 Dharma Talk by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

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Why is there “no merit”? Katagiri Roshi covers one of the most famous stories in Zen Buddhism: Bodhidharma’s meeting with Emperor Wu. Along the way, he explains tanpankan (a “board carrying fellow”), the meaning of the inscription on Ranier Maria Rilke’s grave, and the space between silence and speech. He says that we may find the spirit of Zen, pointing directly beyond words and language, by studying the Blue Cliff Record. He concludes by saying that we have to understand our practice in terms of general Buddhism, beyond Mahayana and Theravada, and beyond the Rinzai and Soto denominations.


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Katagiri Roshi: I read the main subject of Case 1 already yesterday. This is a very famous story in Zen Buddhism, so I think most of you know it pretty well.

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.

In the history of Bodhidharma, it is said that he went to China in about 520 CE. Of course there are several different opinions about the definite year when Bodhidharma went to China, but anyway, about 520 he went to China to teach Buddhism. So that was the first time which the seed of Zen Buddhism was planted in China. That’s why this event was very important for Zen Buddhism. That’s why if you read the Zen koans, the Zen monks always bring up the question, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming to China to teach Zen Buddhism?” What for? Why did Bodhidharma go to China and teach? For many, many years, this question is very important in Zen Buddhism. Many monks discuss this. It looks like the same question in Christianity, for instance, “Why is it that God is incarnated as a human named Jesus?” Same question. I don’t want to explain this today. But, that’s why in Zen Buddhism, this is very important for a Zen teacher.

Anyway, Bodhidharma went to China in about 520, and met with Emperor Wu. This story is the discussion between Emperor Wu and Bodhidharma. The commentary by Engo Zenji says:

When Bodhidharma first met Emperor Wu, the Emperor asked, “I have built temples and ordained monks; what merit is there in this?” Bodhidharma said, “There is no merit.” He immediately doused the Emperor with dirty water. If you can penetrate this statement, “there is no merit,” you can meet Bodhidharma personally. Now tell me, why is there no merit at all in building temples and ordaining monks? Where does the meaning of this lie?

While this is a very natural question, his natural question has a lot of meaning; it’s natural, but it’s a deep question. If you practice zazen, most of you expect something particular: merit, or reward, or progress in practice. This is very natural. So what if Bodhidharma says, “No merit”? Why was Bodhidharma a “liar”? Because if you practice zazen, some of you can find merit or progress in practice; if it is true, you cannot say, “There is no merit.” There is merit; so why does Bodhidharma say “no merit”? That’s the question Engo Zen Master asks in his commentary: why?


In not only Zen Buddhism but in general Buddhism, the most important point is not individual understanding. Individual understanding or individual viewpoint is okay, but it’s not the most important. If you have individual questions and understanding or experience, the most important point in Buddhism is how you must be free from this individual experience and individual understanding. You have to break through the barrier of individual, personal understanding. That is a Buddhistic way of living; that is very important. Whatever it is, good or bad, whatever kind of understanding or viewpoint – or even if you believe you experience through zazen a religious state of divinity, or Buddha, or Avalokiteshvara – whatever you say, well that is [just] that. That is not important. The most important point is, you have to break through this barrier of personal, individual experience or understanding.

Because, there is always a language by which a world is established and understood. Without words, without language, there is no world you can understand. Only through language we can establish a [style] of human life, we can establish the human world, we can communicate with each other. Without words or language, there is no way to communicate.

From this point, what is your understanding? What is your experience? The individual experience, individual understanding, individual outlook on the human world, human life, is based on language, words. But the meaning that the language maintains is nothing but temporal promises and conventional prepossessions and images. That’s all. That is language. (Transcriber’s Note: Prepossession means “a preconceived opinion, a prejudice.”)

I told you before that our individual experience is going through maybe two or three stages. First, we can experience something through intuition. And then next, judgement and imagination, and we can form the human world, human life. Then finally, we can create words, language; and by the words we understand something.

In the realm of intuition there is no chance to discuss, because everything is accepted, before you dichotomize everything, before consciousness pays attention to particular things. This is intuition. But immediately after the experience of something with intuition, your consciousness starts to work and picks up something, and pays attention to it. At that time, there is a limitation. That is personal or individual experience. So, finally, if you pay attention to the desk, if you pay attention to the flowers, you completely forget the rest of the thing. But in intuition, you get something as a whole, before you say something, before consciousness starts working.

And then, consciousness starts to work, and judge, and then you create images, and conventions, and customs, and habits. If you have habits, if you have customs, if you have the temporal promises, there is very naturally regulation of the human world, human life, and human society. This is regulation and rules, et cetera.

Those customs, regulations, conventions, prepossessions, and images come from language. Language is something created by consciousness. Consciousness is characterized by dichotomizing something in two. So, simultaneously, you can say subject and object. There are lots of things, many kinds of sciences, through this. This is the usual thing which happens in the human world.

But if you do something, we immediately expect some reward, or merit, progress, according to prepossessions, images, conventions, promises – according to the law of causation. According to the law of causation, if you do something, probably there is something which will come as a result. It is very natural. But the law of causation is also something created by language, by which consciousness dichotomizes nature and the human world, and tries to find general laws.

Anyway, whatever you do in the human world, there is language. Without language, you cannot do anything.


Emperor Wu asks, “What is the merit?” Because he built lots of temples, educated monks; what is the merit?

If you do something good like Emperor Wu, of course, according to language, according to costumes and images and prepossessions, there will be something good as a result. But sometimes there’s not. Even though you do something good, sometimes a good result will not come, sometimes an evil result will come, because this is the reality of everyday life.

This is the human activity we do, the activity itself of building the temple and educating the people. “What do you mean, educating people?” I believe I educate people, I train you. “What do you mean, ‘I train you?’” Of course I am training, because I have a training system. But if we’re training according to the Buddha’s teaching, probably there must be something good as a result. It must be merit, because you must be trained. [Perhaps there’s merit.] How much do you believe that you have been trained? How much? How much are you training?

Reality is very complicated. You cannot pin down what it is. What is merit? What is the activity of building the temple and educating the people? What do you mean? What is education? Because this is language. By language we are discussing so much about something, and language can point out something which seems to be real. But language cannot point out something real. There’s a little gap between something real which exists from moment to moment, and something which language points out. If you see something real which exists, right now, right here, finally you cannot say anything by words.

For instance, I had bad news from Zen Center in San Francisco last night. Unfortunately this is very sad news: one of our friends died. I didn’t have much more information, except, they just died. Well it is said that he was murdered by somebody, but they didn’t know yet. But he was pretty young: twenty-one years old.

If you say, “I am twenty-one years old; that is young” – what do you mean, “young”? If you say, “I am 60 years old, I am 70 years; that is old age.” What do you mean? “Old man should die first; young man should live longer.” Of course, we hope so, but reality doesn’t agree with this understanding. Even though you believe, “I am young, so I can live long” – of course, but reality doesn’t agree with that. What is the reality where you, at twenty years old, live? What is reality? You can say you can live long, or you have to die tomorrow: maybe so, maybe not. You can live tomorrow, or even longer: maybe, maybe not. Finally, there is nothing to say. If you look at the reality itself, what could you say? This is the reality in which everyone is living, day to day. Whoever you are, young or old, it doesn’t matter. That’s why Buddha says that life and death, old age and sickness are suffering.

I told you before: without language, we cannot exist, we cannot understand the world, we cannot communicate with each other. So, we can come from language, and enter into your language. Through the language, I can come out myself; I can show myself through the language, and I can enter into your heart through the language. This is understanding each other. But what do you mean, understanding? Still there is a question. Finally, language disappears. It completely disappears. If you look at the reality, there’s nothing to say. “I am young,” “I am old”; you cannot put a certain label on yourself like, “I am young, I can live long.” No, you cannot say so. This is reality.


If you believe you’re young and live long (as above), such a person is what is called tanpankan in Japanese. Tan means to carry. Pan means a board, a long board. Kan means fellow, person. So tanpankan means a fellow who carries a board on his shoulder. If you carry the board on your shoulder, you can see just one side, but you cannot see the back (what’s on the other side). That is prejudice. That is a very narrow understanding. That is called tanpankan.

We are studying suffering according to the Four Noble Truths, but you don’t want to believe life is characterized by suffering, because you hate suffering. So that suffering is really suffering opposed to pleasure. Such suffering and pleasure, whatever you say, those are just words, apart from the reality itself in which you exist from day to day.

Of course, we are very lucky: we are living in a wonderful world, which is called modern civilization. Lots of food, lots of things we can have. Of course we are happy – but we cannot say we are always happy, or we cannot believe that life is characterized by suffering. If you look at the reality in which human beings exist, you know pretty well what’s going on in the human world. You cannot judge human life in terms of just pleasure, or in terms of just suffering, pain. If you see the pain, suffering, immediately there is pleasure. If you see the pleasure there is immediately suffering, because this is reality. Suffering and pleasure live in peace and harmony as good friends. You cannot separate them.

Then if you believe just human life according to pleasure, that is tanpankan.

I don’t mean you should ignore pleasure in the human world. We should see the reality in which we exist, that suffering and pleasure both exist simultaneously; we should be such a person. I don’t mean you should ignore or destroy someone who is pleased today.

How about young teenagers? Teenagers enjoy themselves very much. If you become Buddhist, Buddha says, “Life is suffering.” But if you are pleased to exist in this world, can you say you are wrong? If you say this to somebody, you are really a troublemaker.

So, don’t be tanpankan, okay? “Life is characterized by suffering” is not something like that. That’s why suffering must be true. If the suffering becomes true, that means completely the language which is called suffering disappears; there is nothing to say. Because even though you say in words that “life is perfect,” can you say, “life is happy?” No. There is pleasure; if it is true, can you say, “life is pleasure?” You cannot say so either. The usual words always point out the reality in which we exist, but there is some gap. And then reality itself, in which the pleasure and suffering both co-exist, makes the language completely disappear. There is nothing to say. Everything becomes a question mark; X.

Even though you believe about yourself, “I am a bad boy,” you cannot always believe, “I am a bad boy.” If you say to somebody, “I am a bad boy, I am a bad boy” – I don’t think you are exactly, actually. You are not a bad boy, because if you are really a bad boy, it is not necessary to say it to somebody. So keep quiet. Just “chill” yourself, okay? [Laughter.] How bad you are, how evil you are – nothing to say. Because if you continue to say to somebody, “I am a bad boy, I am a bad boy,” you enjoy yourself very much, showing the bad boy – because, behind the bad boy, there is a good boy! You see always the image of the good boy behind the bad boy, don’t you think so? That’s why you have to say to somebody, “I am a bad boy, I am a bad boy” – because people seem to believe you, that you are bad boy, but actually not, you believe about yourself in that way. That is prepossession: by your prepossession, you believe about yourself, “I am a bad boy.”

So finally, you cannot say anything. If you really believe you are a “bad boy,” you have nothing to say, nothing. Reality makes everything X, [a] question mark. Just, wonderful.


You know I’ve told you before in my lectures, the inscription on Rilke’s tombstone says:

Rose. Oh!
Pure contradiction.
Under layers of eyelids,
there is peaceful sleep, with joy.
No one touches.

This is the inscription on Rilke’s tombstone. [He repeats it.]

This is my translation; do you understand this?

[Someone says “no.” Laughter.]

(Transcriber’s Note: It took many listenings to get the words above, and it still might not be 100% right. A typical translation online reads, “Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy of being no one’s sleep under so many lids.”)

[There is some discussion about the words.]

[Much more laughter.]

This is language, okay? [Laughter.] You don’t understand, but I understand! [Laughter.] So that is my individual understanding, okay? But I understand pretty well. [Laughter.] But using my pronunciation, you don’t understand.

Question: [Inaudible.]

Katagiri: I don’t want to explain this poem, okay? You should just take it as is.

What I want to tell you is: it says “Rose” and next, “Oh!” The rose is really the being that you get right now, that you can see through the six consciousnesses. So that’s why he built up just, “Rose.” But next, “Oh!” means completely no words – because the rose blooms in reality from moment to moment, completely beyond human verbalization. Nothing to say. When language completely disappears, at that time you cannot say anything – just “Oh!” So, the language completely drops off, and then, at that time, you can see the really beautiful world, the beauty of existence. But you cannot say anything at all about the beauty of existence, because this is reality itself.

And then if you really want to explain this, you cannot stay there always, in the realm of the beauty of existence. Do you remember Vimalakirti? He kept silent when the Bodhisattva asked him, “What is the truth? Which is the one and undivided? What is it?” Vimalakirti kept silent. This silence is really the implication of glancing at the pure nature of existence, the beauty of existence. When language completely drops off, at that time, how can you say it? Just the sound, Oh.

But you cannot stay there always in the realm of silence, so finally you have to say something in words, coming from this silence. You have to say something, otherwise you cannot educate somebody.

So language must be dropped off, and finally language must come from silence again. That’s why the inscription says, right after Oh, “Pure contradiction.” This is a philosophical explanation. If you really want to explain oh as the beauty of existence, nothing to say, language drops off. And then language comes back again, explaining about this beauty of existence in terms of, you can say, pure contradiction. Or, in terms of poetry, you can say, “Under layers of eyelids, peaceful sleep with joy. No one touches.” This is poetry.

But this is still an explanation, which is told in terms of poetry, in terms of language, in terms of philosophy. Really, if you really see the reality of the rose, everyone should experience this point when language drops off. At that time, nothing to say.

That’s why when Bodhidharma first met Emperor Wu, the emperor asked, “I have built temples and ordained monks; what merit is there in this,” Bodhidharma says, “There is no merit.” The merit Emperor Wu understood is just the image of merit. Looking at his reality, looking at the image, coming from the image, coming from prepossession, coming from the conventional, coming from customs. But reality doesn’t agree sometimes. So Bodhidharma saying “no merit” means to lead him to open his eyes, to look at the beauty of existence when language drops off completely.

That’s why Bodhidharma said “no merit.” But the Emperor didn’t understand.


And then the main subject starts from this question:

Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?”

He didn’t understand no merit, because he took this no merit at face value. For instance, “Life is characterized by suffering.” Don’t fret. Because if you take this at it’s face value, you don’t want to accept it. Finally, you have to see the reality of something when words completely drop off. At that time, you can have a chance to glance at the beauty of suffering, completely beyond suffering or pleasure, whatever it is.

But Emperor Wu didn’t understand, that’s why Engo Zen Master says,

This dull fellow speaks up.


That note by Engo Zen Master is really picking on him, not the usual note in the Western style. (Transcriber’s Note: Katagiri says “picking him out”.) Sometimes he praises somebody very well, but he praises them in many ways, not always directly; sometimes [it’s] by looking down [on] somebody and [praising]. That’s why the notes in Blue Cliff Record are very interesting, really picking on people, piercing the human heart directly.

So when “Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma,” the commenter says, “This dull fellow speaks up.”



“What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?”

The note says,

What a donkey-tethering stake this is.

[He laughs along with the group.]

We are always tethered: your body and mind is tethered with what? Well, preconceptions, prepossessions, images, conventions, and customs, and heredity. Created by what? Form, perceptions, consciousness… Lots of things.

So what is the highest meaning of the holy truths? Holy truth is…

[Tape change.]

… that’s why he is completely tied up with rope. He is just like a donkey.

And then Bodhidharma says,

“Empty, without holiness.”

D.T. Suzuki translated it as, “Vastness and nothing holy.” This translation says, “Empty, without holiness.” Anyway, empty means vast. Nothing there, but it’s vast. Without holiness: nothing holy, nothing not holy. Completely nothing.

So, Engo Zen Master says [in the Notes],

Wu considered this answer rather extraordinary. The arrow has flown past Korea. Very clear.

Emperor Wu took [the previous] answer, “No merit,” at face value, so he didn’t understand. If there is no merit, do you believe there is no divinity, or God, or Buddha, or universal energy, which makes everything possible to exist? There is nothing? There is no truth, which is completely almighty, to help in your life? Et cetera. That’s why, next moment he asked, “What is the truth?”

Emperor Wu expected a wonderful answer from Bodhidharma about the truth. Maybe, “Truth is almighty, giving compassion to you always, wherever you may go, helping you in the compassionate time when we are always smiling, smile always!”

But, he doesn’t say that. “Nothing holy. Empty.”

The Emperor was completely confused.

And then, the note says, “The arrow has flown past Korea.” This is a very common expression in Zen. “The arrow has flown past Korea” means, we don’t know. [He laughs.] We don’t know when, how, where the arrow will fall down, or reach. Because: vastness, emptiness. His answer, “vastness and nothing holy,” is just like an arrow; shoot! The arrow is endlessly going in space, which is called vastness. Nothing holy. We don’t know where it goes. What is the target, where is the target? We don’t know.

So, Engo Zenji’s note says, “Hey, anyway the ancient Bodhidharma shot the arrow! Where? We don’t know where it goes!” It’s [a great] arrow.


And then, still Emperor Wu didn’t understand, so he asked,

“Who is facing me?”

If the essence of the truth – existence – is nothing, or empty, or nothing holy, completely beyond holiness, or the ordinary person [unintelligible]who are you, standing in front of me?

The note says,

Wu is filled with embarrassment, forcing himself to be astute. As it turns out, he gropes without finding.

According to the Emperor’s feeling, maybe he tried to be astute… because he trusts in himself; he has studied Buddhism for a long time, and building the temples, educating the monks; that’s why he’s so proud of himself. Still he is continuing to act, trying to be smart.

So, he says, “Who is facing me?” Bodhidharma replied,

“I don’t know.”

The note says,

Bah! His second reply isn’t worth half a cent.


Who is facing him? Bodhidharma says, “I don’t know.” And after this it says,

The emperor didn’t understand.

He didn’t understand. Engo Zen Master says,

Too bad! Still, he’s gotten somewhere.

Ah, too bad. Anyway, too bad. [Laughter.]

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.

Still he didn’t understand, so he brought up this question again to another Zen Master. The Engo Zen Master note says,

Oh, poor man. He thinks about an old debt.

[He chuckles.] This commentary note is very pithy! [Laughter.]

Well, if you don’t understand, you want to bring up the same question, and ask somebody. But he says it is not useful; it looks like remembering an old debt.

The bystander has eyes.

The Zen Master knows pretty well that he is just a bystander – but he knows pretty well.

Master Chih asked, ‘Does your majesty know who this man is?’ The Emperor said, ‘I don’t know.’”

[He laughs.] So this “I don’t know” seems to be the same answer Bodhidharma gave – “I don’t know”. When he was asked by Emperor Wu, “Who are you, standing in front of me?” he said, “I don’t know.” But Bodhidharma’s “I don’t know” is completely different from the “I don’t know” Emperor Wu said. His “I don’t know” is completely “I don’t know.” [Laughter.] Bodhidharma’s “I don’t know” is completely beyond “I don’t know” or “I know”. This is Bodhidharma’s way.

Well, Bodhidharma says “I don’t know” when he was asked who you are, but he is not “spooky”; he is not a ghost. He exists; he has a body and a mind. He knows pretty well, “I am existing, right now, right here.” But how can we understand? He is Bodhidharma? Or he is another person? Or he is a god? Or he is a bodhisattva? No. He is Bodhidharma. So he came to China to teach Buddha’s teaching as a what? Bodhidharma? No. Bodhisattva. So he is a bodhisattva. He is really a bodhisattva? No. Bodhidharma. He is really Bodhidharma? No, he is a bodhisattva. So finally, language completely drops off; what or who he is. That’s why he said, “I don’t know.” But “I don’t know” is really looking at the direct reality, the reality in which Bodhidharma really exists from day to day.

Why he comes to China to teach Buddhism – at that time, there is a purpose of activity. Well, if you do something with a purpose, there must be some profit, or result, or reward, very naturally. This is a very systematic understanding of human activity. Of course, we should know this; but we cannot judge reality in that way. [For example,] even though you teach for a long time, how many people understand Buddha’s teaching? It’s pretty rare. I believe I have given instruction of zazen for 15 years. I don’t know how many people I have given instruction. But remind me, how many people come back after that? Clearly, one or two.


Master Chih said, ‘He is the Mahasattva Avalokitesvara, transmitting the Buddha Mind Seal.’”

[He laughs.] Really Zen Master Chih was treating Emperor Wu badly. [Laughter] Because this Zen Master knew that Emperor Wu believed very strongly in Avalokiteshvara. So completely expressing his respect to Avalokiteshvara, the Zen Master teased Emperor Wu: “He is Mahasattva Avalokiteshvara.” [He laughs.]

Mahasattva means Avalokiteshvara is not the usual Avalokiteshvara that seems to be a “god” or “divinity”, which has sort of a strong power to control human beings. Maha sattva means great being – completely beyond the discussion of whether Avalokiteshvara has the strong power of the almighty or not, [simply] this is Avalokiteshvara. So that’s why he put the Mahasattva to Avalokiteshvara.

So, Mahasattva Avalokiteshvara: Bodhidharma is not Bodhidharma, Bodhidharma is Avalokiteshvara! All of you really want to see how surprised Emperor Wu was to hear that, immediately as the great Zen Master Chih expressed it.

The Emperor felt regretful, so he wanted to send an emissary to go invite Bodhidharma to return.

So, he was [like], “Oh! Oh, Avalokiteshvara? Oh, I missed it!” [Laughter.] So he tried to send an emissary to invite him again.

So, the Zen Master says,

“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.”

Because, the Zen Master knows pretty well that is Emperor Wu’s understanding of Buddhism: the essence of the truth is always somewhere apart from his life. Building up the temples? “Oh, there is merit, Buddha’s merit, there! Buddha and Avalokiteshvara exist there.” And educating the monks? “Oh, I did something good.” Always something good, or merit, or result – always outside.

So that’s why the Zen Master said, “Bodhidharma is not Bodhidharma, Bodhidharma is Avalokiteshvara!” The Emperor was very surprised: “Oh, I missed it!” So he immediately tried to send someone to get him back. But the Zen Master said, “Don’t do that. Don’t do that.” Because if you do this, you are looking for the truth outside. The truth never comes back; never goes away.

[This is true] even though you say, “I don’t want the truth.” When I became a monk, for a while I felt good as a monk, because everyone offered food, and respected me, and it was wonderful. The more I was in the middle of the monks, and everyone looked at me as a monk, the more I realized a lot of criticism, and the more I found [the custom of the] Buddhist temples in Japan. And I had to see the death of people, and performing funeral services; I really hated that. And also my master didn’t teach me anything, and my master said, “You should do this, you should do that.” Many things: you have to be a good speaker, you have to be a good calligrapher, you have to be a good listener, you have to be a good understanding person. Lots of things. Well, how can I know all things? So I thought I had made a big mistake. I really wanted to give up being a monk. Because, we are always looking at something outside, okay?

So, that’s why the Zen Master says, “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.” Truth doesn’t come back again. Truth doesn’t go away. Even though you don’t like it, truth is truth.

Engo Zen Master says, in his notes again,

Master Chih deserves thirty blows. He doesn’t know that the great illumination shines forth from under his own feet.

Really thirty blows. Truth is always shining under our own feet, always, but we don’t understand. That’s why even though Emperor Wu really wanted to get Bodhidharma back again, the Zen Master has to say, “No, don’t do that.” That is a very big blow.


If you study the Blue Cliff Record, you understand the Zen spirit … pointing directly beyond the human words, language. I told you before, that everyone should experience the world which is completely dropped off. You have to go out from the language, from the words; otherwise you can’t communicate. But that is not all that you have to do. Next, your language must completely drop off; nothing to say. And then, if you experience this, you cannot keep silent always, because without silence there is no way to communicate, so from the silence you have to say something. Even though you want to keep silent, you cannot keep silent. Reality pushes you to say something.

For instance, Zen stories; there are lots of Zen stories like this. A Zen Master puts a picture on the board, and says to the monk, “This is not a picture.” This is a picture. Well, you cannot say this is a picture, or you cannot say this is not a picture… You cannot say either. How can you say this? And then the Zen Master picks up somebody, holding him here (by the collar?), and says, “Say something about this!” Can you say something about this? He’s put the picture here, and then asks the monks, “You cannot say this is picture; you cannot say this is not picture. Don’t use your words: say something!” And he’ll pick up somebody and shake him, like, “Say something!” Can you say so?

This is the Rinzai Zen way, okay? Rinzai always attacks somebody, and says “no words.” If you realize the truth, then nothing to say; but Rinzai doesn’t want you to stay there, so immediately, you have to say something. But Soto Zen is a little different. We know pretty well, “You have to say something here, say something,” shaking him, “Say something, say something!” – even though you say something, it doesn’t connect; it has nothing to do with your daily living. [He laughs.] Your daily living is very stinky, even though, “I pass the koan.” Demonstrating, kicking out the picture, breaking it, and then the Zen Master says, “You pass the koan.” And then, you will be given a [certificate], which is called [kenshō]. You passed one koan. Well of course, it’s very nice, it’s very nice. We know this pretty well; Dogen Zenji knows it pretty well. But it has nothing to do with this man who is right in the middle of reality! Nothing! Even though I pass the koan, kicking out the picture, and then show my truth in front of the Zen Masters… what is that? Am I completely enlightened, then? Maybe so! But reality doesn’t agree with me. Still Katagiri is Katagiri. So in a sense, Katagiri is a person who passed the examination of a koan – but reality doesn’t agree with this. Katagiri is still Katagiri.

So, again: you have to keep silent; then, just do it. “Just do it” is also expression in words, even though you cannot say anything. Then Dogen says, “This silence not merely silence; silence is one of the expressions in the world.” There are, I told you, three things. Speech: this is to manifest yourself in words. But, if you [just] manifest yourself in words, it doesn’t make sense. No one is impressed by your speech, because your speech is completely apart from your physical actions, mental actions, psychological actions – no relation. If there is no mind with your speech, it doesn’t make sense. To manifest yourself in words must be your life itself: your actions, and also the verification of the truth. It must be something coming from the truth. So three things: speech, [unintelligible] (impulse? action?), and verification of the truth. So, finally, we have to just do.


Dogen says in Shobogenzo Zuimonki, in “Nansen Kills The Cat”: [Nanquan says,] “Give a word of Zen; I let the cat go” – [finally Dogen says that he] would let go of the cat, because the monk didn’t say anything, just kept silent. Silence is already an answer, a real answer. Silence is not silence, silence is a real answer: expression, manifesting yourself in the world. That’s why Dogen Zenji says, “I would let go of the cat.”

It’s not necessary to kill the cat. But in a sense, to kill the cat is great [unintelligible] – experience – to awaken the monk, because it’s very powerful to help somebody say something. “This is a picture. You don’t say the picture, you don’t say not picture, you don’t use real worlds, I mean say something about it.” It’s very powerful. Completely you come to a dead end, but you have to say [something]. So finally, you can say [something].

Even in shikantaza, just doing the sitting doesn’t mean that you ignore such experience of Zen Buddhism. That’s why we have to study; we have to understand the Blue Cliff Record. Not understand it, we have to… This Blue Cliff Record, there are hundreds of stories that penetrate your skin and muscles and bones. And then sometimes we have to say something. Sometimes we cannot say anything – but this silence is not silence. We can show.

That’s why Zen always denies the words, always points out the world beyond verbal explanation. But it doesn’t mean ignoring the words, because it’s not necessary to be bogged down with words. Without words, we cannot exist. So, what do you mean, the negation of the words, language? Because we are pretty easily caught by words – because we get use out of understanding ourselves pretty easily through the words. But anyway, we have to come to our experience of no words. At that time, nothing to say. You have to experience it.

And then, nevertheless, you cannot stay there. You have to say something, because you cannot exist alone; you have to communicate with people. How can you communicate? Just using the words in the usual way, that sometimes makes trouble. Sometimes it’s making trouble. So, we have to communicate in a deep way. That is always what Zen emphasizes.

If you study the Blue Cliff Record, maybe you can grab that real spirit of Zen Buddhism. Beyond denomination: Rinzai or Soto. Anyway, out of general Buddhism, we have to understand Zen practice. We’re not comparing with Rinzai or Soto, et cetera, or the other schools. We have to understand our practice of zazen in terms of general Buddhism mentioned by Buddha.



Question: Roshi? The commentator was saying that the Zen Master who was talking to Emperor Wu deserved 30 blows. Did he mean that he deserved thirty blows because he didn’t point out to Emperor Wu that the truth is always shining under our feet?

Katagiri: Mmm hmm.

Same person: That’s why.

Katagiri: But thirty blows doesn’t mean that the Zen Master gave the thirty blows actually.

Same person: Well, no, but the commentator thought he deserved it. Isn’t that what this was?

Katagiri: Oh yes, he has to deserve thirty blows. Otherwise, you cannot open your eyes. For instance, I told you before, when I was at the temple, I had a strike for two weeks [after I had attended] a week or so … because I hated the monks’ life and temple life. Finally my teacher says, coming into my room, “Dainin, get up. When the time comes, when everyone gets up, you get up. Everyone having breakfast; why don’t you have breakfast? When the time comes to get up, please get up.” Well, that is these thirty blows. [He laughs.] I actually deserved thirty blows. That’s why I couldn’t stay there; I felt shaky, my body and mind is shaky, anyway. But I gave up; I didn’t strike. Next day, I did it, anyway; get up in the morning, and chanting, fixing meals. Still I hated it, [laughter] but anyway, I did it. But this is monk. So that is really thirty blows. But if you’re not ready to open your eyes, even though what he’s suggesting is very gentle – he didn’t scold me. “Dainin. When the time comes for everyone to get up, please get up. If you feel sick, after that you can go to bed again.” That’s it. Very simple. If you’re not ready to accept this as thirty blows, well, that’s a pretty usual answer, suggestion. But anyway, that was really thirty blows for me.

Well, I don’t know if Emperor Wu accepted thirty blows. I don’t know, but anyway, that is Engo Zen Master’s comment.

Same person: Excuse me, I thought that the commentator was saying that the Zen Master who was speaking to Emperor Wu deserved the blows. That’s what I thought it meant; isn’t that right?

[Some crosstalk.]

Katagiri: Master Chih. Oh oh - Master Chih deserved thirty blows. Oh, right! [Laughter.] Opposite, huh? [He laughs.]

And he doesn’t know that the great illumination shines forth from under his own feet. This is Engo Zen Master really playing with Zen Master Chih. Saying the opposite, completely opposite. He’s really playing. Do you understand?

Same person: When he says he deserves thirty blows for his phrase?

Katagiri: Yes. [He laughs.] Because he says, “Ridiculous. You cannot get him back, get Bodhidharma back again.” But if we go there and ask Bodhidharma, “Please come back again” – maybe so, don’t you think so? But he says, don’t go there. That is a little bit against the human speculation. That’s why he said he should deserve thirty blows. But actually not, it is really great. Do you understand?


Question: What you’re saying… Why didn’t Bodhidharma in the first place, you know, explain to Emperor Wu what he was saying, if the Emperor didn’t understand, wouldn’t that have benefited …

Katagiri: [cackles]

[Everyone laughs.]

Thank you very much. [Laughter.] I appreciate your imagination of creating a beautiful scene around the conversation between Emperor Wu and [unintelligible].

Well, that is one way of understanding, but sometimes there is no way to discuss, don’t you think so? For instance, even though I explain it again and again; if you don’t understand, can I continue to explain again and again? Well, stop it! And then – [tap tap tap tap] – if you are here, you can understand, okay? Even though I stop it.

Of course we should explain, but sometimes, the time comes to [unintelligible].

Well, for Emperor Wu it is very hard to stand up in no explanation. And also, for Bodhidharma, it’s very hard for him to stand up in front of such a person. He becomes impatient; he really wants to give compassion to him, tries to stand up, but… no way. Do you experience such a thing in your human life? Maybe you can experience [this], sooner or later.

[Long pause.]

It’s because the explanation is Bodhidharma’s explanation, not the Emperor’s explanation. So my explanation is mine, not yours. You should find your explanation, through my explanation. That’s all. So sometimes, even though my explanation is going again and again, if you’re not ready to accept my explanation, well you don’t understand. Don’t you think so?

Is that okay?


Question: When you tell the story about picking up the teacher, was that the story from your house, was that your experience?

Katagiri: Well it’s a Zen story, such a case happened.


Question: Why is it wonderful that Master Chih deserved thirty blows?

Katagiri: Don’t take this at face value, okay?

Same person: Is it like a joke?

Katagiri: It’s not a joke. It’s not a joke. It’s very true. But, it means that Engo Zen Master indirectly praised Zen Master Chih. Because, you cannot say his way is good, or his way is bad. According to common sense, his way is good, but in a sense it’s not good, because he suggested Emperor Wu shouldn’t send anybody to get him back. According to this, this is not a good way. But broadly speaking, in a sense, his way is pretty good, because his way is directly to let Emperor Wu show Chih where the truth is. So finally, nothing to say. How great his way is, completely beyond human explanation; that’s what he says, very easily. He plays [intellectually], saying that his way is against the common way. So, from this point he should deserve thirty blows. But, this is wonderful. That’s why he says he doesn’t know the great illumination shines from under his own feet.

The commentary is very helpful for you, so if you have time, read the commentary. From now on, if I have time, I would like to explain the Blue Cliff Record cases one by one.

1:18:32 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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