Skip to the content.

Home | List | Previous | Next


What happens when we unexpectedly come face-to-face with real life, such as being paralyzed, or having cancer? Katagiri Roshi discusses “the big trap,” “one-finger Zen,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Sun-Moon-Light Tathagata, Adam and Eve, and how to educate children. Also: “Please, sit down.”


Listen to this talk on

0:00 start of recording

The twenty-fifth case of the Blue Cliff Record:

The hermit of Lotus Flower Peak held up his staff and showed it to the assembly saying, “When the ancients got here, why didn’t they consent to stay here?”

There was no answer from the assembly, so he himself answered for them, “Because they did not gain strength on the road.”

Again he said, “In the end, how is it?” And again he himself answered in their place, “With my staff across my shoulder, I pay no heed to people — I go straight into the myriad peaks.”

(From The Blue Cliff Record, translated by Thomas Cleary & J.C. Cleary.)

The Hermit of Lotus Flower Peak: according to the commentary, this Zen Master lived on the top of the mountain Lotus Flower Peak. He built his own hut on top of the mountain, and he constantly showed his teaching, holding up his staff and saying, “When the ancients got here” – ancients means the Buddhas and ancestors – “why didn’t they consent to stay here?”

The staff implies, in this case, what is real life, what is the real thing of life. We say “truth.” What is the ultimate, real thing of human life? There is a staff, anyway. Staff means this (short) kind of stick, or a long stick which is used by monks or Zen priests when they walk. Long one or short one, whatever it is, anyway that is a staff.

And in his whole life, he answered any kind of questions like this. Just like Gutei Zen Master: Gutei Zen Master always just showed one finger, without saying anything, whenever people asked him a question. Or another Zen Master named Roso (Luzu Baoyun) always sat in zazen whenever someone visited him to discuss some aspect of Zen Buddhism; he didn’t say anything, he immediately sat in zazen facing the wall. He carried that way in his whole life, without change. That’s fascinating. It’s pretty hard to do that, because human beings are pretty noisy, you know? If you always show one thing whatever anyone asks, people put a certain label on you: “He’s crazy.” Don’t you think so?

You can have a good zazen; [but] if you are constantly doing zazen without any reward, you don’t believe this. So naturally, it is very hard for a teacher to stand up before people who really are spiritually greedy. People are greedy spiritually, so the teacher gives them some candy, et cetera, in order to satisfy them. That is a very common type of so-called religion.

Well from now on, anyway, I don’t think that is real religion. I don’t want to call it religion, either. I don’t know what to call it, but forget the word “religion.” If I use “religion,” you really sort of consciously or unconsciously resist, don’t you think so? [He chuckles.] You resist immediately. So forget it, forget that term. For the future, the important point is that real religion is to realize what is real life. What is it? Regardless of whatever kind of religion you believe or not, you have to understand this, you have to research it forever. That is the point from now on.

So you don’t understand very well a person who uses just one thing in his whole life to answer any kind of question. That is fascinating; it’s a wonderful thing. For instance, if you just take care of your daily routine, without stumbling [around]: just wake up and wash your face, go to zazen, just work, and come back. If you can do this your whole life, believe it or not [he laughs], it’s wonderful. Regardless of whether you believe in any kind of divinity, et cetera, if you can do this in your whole life, it’s great. But you cannot do this, don’t you think so?


In the Lotus Sutra, the Sun-Moon-Light Tathagata was born in this world as a Buddha named the Sun-Moon-Light Tathagata… and the next generation, he was born as a Buddha named the Sun-Moon-Light Tatagatha. And in the next generation, there was a Buddha named the Sun-Moon-Light Tatagatha. For century after century, Buddha was born in this world, but the same person, same name.

This is very important for us. What is real life? Real life never changes, from generation to generation. Life was born in this world, named Life Tathagata. And in the next generation, life was born, and it was named Life Tathagata. The same thing, generation after generation. Exactly the same, wonderful thing.

The famous French thinker and writer Rousseau says, “One is born with nothing, one dies with nothing.” It means we are born with nakedness, we die with nakedness. This is very nice, very nice. This [means] the same thing: whatever generation comes, it is exactly the same.

I don’t know how much Rousseau searched this real picture of human existence through and through. I don’t know; it’s still questionable. But he says wonderful things. So more or less, even though they don’t study Buddhism, some human beings feel in this way. They don’t want to research it, because there is nothing to excite them, but more or less they feel this way.

We are born with nakedness, we die with nakedness: this is not something pensive or sad, this is the real picture of human existence. We have to be – not have to be, we are already. Without exception, everybody, or trees, birds, whatever it is. Before you are born in this world, generation after generation, everybody is born and dies in that way. Maybe in your previous life, you did the same things. But this is very close: there is no gap between you and this real picture of life, they are exactly the same. You were born with nakedness, you die with nakedness. This is a very close thing. It is too close to understand.


Also in the Lotus Sutra, Manjushri said to Maitreya Buddha, “You had practiced meeting myriad Buddhas in your past life, and your life is exactly the result of practicing in that way in your previous life. And then when you were born in this world, you completely forgot what you did.” I told you before, this is a wonderful thing, but it is not always wonderful. This means, briefly speaking, it is too close to understand or too close to think. This is completely beyond you should think of it or you shouldn’t think of it, because it is always with you.

For instance, your stomach is completely perfect; it’s not necessary to think about it, it’s not necessary to say “you should” or “you shouldn’t.” If the stomach is perfectly becoming one with you, it is completely beyond “you should think” or “you shouldn’t think.” That is what is called real reality: completely beyond your thinking or not thinking. According to Buddhism, maybe we call that “absolute” reality.

“When you are born in this world, you completely forget what you did” means you already have the real picture of human existence which is very close to you. That is birth is coming with nakedness, death comes with nakedness.

For instance, “primitive” people. Maybe a thousand years ago, primitive people lived in nature, seeing and meeting the rhythm of nature: the sun coming up in the east, setting in the west. It was not something strange, or something they should think or they shouldn’t think. Primitive people completely accept and then live with it, without thinking – completely beyond they should think or they shouldn’t think, because it is very close to their life.

So for many, many years, for century after century, it was not necessary for people to think or not to think: they were just face to face with the rhythm of nature, the rhythm of life. Because it is one. That rhythm of nature is exactly the rhythm of primitive peoples’ lives, so there is no gap. Century after century, we did it in that way.

And then after many centuries, human beings “grew” very much, physically and psychologically, and then they started to think: “What is that? What do you mean, ‘The sun rises in the east’? Or ‘the sun sets in the west’? What do you mean?” And they started to think, “What is the purpose? What is the moon? What is the sun? How does the earth operate in relationship with the sun?” And then very naturally, they created lots of myths. And then with the development of human knowledge, human thinking, then they researched what the earth is. That is physics, [et cetera].

So for many centuries we didn’t notice this, just being one with the rhythm of nature, because that rhythm of nature was exactly one with the rhythm of our lives, so it was not necessary to think, just right on. But when civilization grew, we started to think, “What is this?” Then we created culture, so-called myths, and also sciences, and religions – lots of things.

That’s why in the Lotus Sutra Manjushri says to Maitreya Buddha, “When you were born in this world, you forgot completely what you did.” It means for century after century what we did was just to be one with the rhythm of nature, that’s all, beyond you should think or you shouldn’t think, just like this.

If you read the Bible, the Bible also says Adam and Eve didn’t think anything, just lived, with nakedness. And also finally they started to think, “What is this?” And then they finally … well, you know that pretty well, huh? This is really true. It’s not a “myth,” it’s really human life.

And then we completely forget the real picture of human life. The real picture of human life is exactly the same as the rhythm of nature, beyond you think or you shouldn’t think. It’s just life. This is the real or absolute reality your life is present in. And then you forget, and you start to live in your own way. And for many, many years, so far, we don’t know yet the real picture of human existence. And then finally we start to think, “What is this?” And then we think about our life. And then according to religion, physics, psychology, or the I Ching, and many things, we can think of human life.

But when you think about the real picture of life, and create many things – physics, psychology, religions – endlessly you can create many kinds of myths. So far we have created many myths, and from now on we could create more myths, the more human civilization is developed, more or less.


One of the Zen Teachers in Japan lived [his own] way, practicing zazen and studying Buddhism. And finally he got a degree, and a Ph.D., and he got the position of professor at a university, and finally he became Dean, and finally he became President of the University, and also he came to the United States and became Archbishop of Soto Zen. And then finally he was invited by many people to come back to Japan, and they put him in as the abbot of Eiheiji monastery. So his life was going very well. But… finally, half of his body was completely paralyzed. He couldn’t get up, so he was always in his bed. And he said, “This is my karma.”

“This my karma.” Well, he can say so, because he was a Zen Buddhist teacher and also he was Abbot of Eiheiji monastery, so he couldn’t scream.

This is a very good example; I always think of this one. Whatever kind of position you have, whatever kind of knowledge you have – let’s imagine if you go to school so you can get lots of knowledge, and then your head is big. And people respect you: “You know lots! Great! How did you learn?” Many, many years you went to school, and you got knowledge. But your life is what? In real life, there is lots of mess.

What I want to tell you is, if you want to get knowledge from school, fine, you should get it. But the important point is what this real life is. Real life is to live with people, trees, and birds – as much as possible, you try to live in peace and harmony instead of interrupting others. That is the important point. If you can educate somebody like this, that’s great religious education, instead of giving knowledge of philosophy or psychology.

If you want to educate children, you immediately ask, “How can I teach Zen Buddhism to children?” Wow, it’s pretty hard. You can teach it, but even in family life, why don’t you teach with your body, with your words, with your behavior, with your actions? And then people catch your life.

Let’s live. This family life is exactly a small scale of society; what’s the difference between them? Why don’t you live with people without interrupting or hurting others? Why don’t you think about others’ life, and live in peace and harmony? If the children have this sense of feelings in their life, that’s wonderful, great. We believe education is to send children to school to get lots of knowledge; of course, that is important. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t do that; we should. But it is not all we have to do.

So I always think of this real case. I know him very well, that’s why I criticize sometimes. And then a friend of mine said, “You are wrong. Why don’t you respect his position, his reality, because he became abbot of Eiheiji monastery.” So, great. Invited by many people – it’s great. Whatever reason he has, anyway. But I always think of this. He got very good positions: Professor, and Dean of the University, President of the University, and also Archbishop of American Zen Buddhism, and finally, Abbot of Eiheiji monastery. That is the highest position for a Zen priest, for Soto Zen anyway. If you become abbot of Eiheiji monastery, you’re really proud of yourself. “Oh, good boy,” you know?

But right before this, his body was paralyzed. Let’s imagine: If you were him, what would you do? You’d scream, don’t you think so? If I were him, I would like to scream.

What is life? We always depend on lots of myths, and positions, and philosophy and psychology we have created. After we have knowledge to think enough, we create lots of things. And then finally we depend on this position, because we want to be happy. But already we forget what we did in the past, just like the Lotus Sutra says.

So all we do is, try to create wonderful myths, and philosophy, psychology, building the big mansions. And people come together, looking at this, and then completely forget what they did in the past. That means we completely forget what is the real picture of life.


I read another example. During the Second World War, a person was in the highest positions of the army in Japan. During the war, the army officers lived pretty well; they had food and clothes. But most people were very poor, with no food, no clothes. And then [after the war] the situation was completely inverted: he lost his official army position, and also the atmosphere in Japan was completely messed up. If you were the army officers, people didn’t like you. So it was very difficult for him to find a job and to support his life. He tried to find a job, and finally he found one, but that job was self-employment, so-called I Ching.

If you go to Japan, standing or sitting in front of every railroad station you can see lots of fortune tellers. In the evenings in Tokyo, more than ten fortune tellers sat in front of the stations, asking people to see their hands, to predict their life. This man was pretty smart and sharp, so he studied this, and he got the happy life he had expected. And he lived wonderfully, for many years. And finally – he was also paralyzed. One of the Zen Teachers visited him in his home, because he knew him, and the man said: “I didn’t know there was such a big trap.” Do you understand?

Let’s look at when you were born. When you were born, completely you forgot what you did; that means you forgot what is the real picture of human life. It is not necessary to think, or it is not necessary not to think, because that is the real picture of your life. Your life is completely becoming one with the rhythm of nature, so it’s not necessary. So that’s why Lotus Sutra says you forgot.

Century after century, you didn’t think. And then after your birth still you don’t think, because it’s already there. Recently you started to think. But already human beings have created lots of myths, et cetera.

We start to think, “What is the real picture of human existence?” And then we explain the real picture of existence. That is myth, that is philosophy, psychology. If you depend on this kind of stuff, you build up huge mansions. But remember, you still forgot what you did, which means what is the real picture of your life. You completely depend on this explanation of human existence, and then you believe, “I got a happy life.” But this happy life is what? There is still a big trap. The man has to be paralyzed.

It’s not just to be paralyzed. Let’s look at modern human life: cancer is exactly the same. More or less everyone is threatened by cancer, because there is no guarantee such as “I am immune from cancer.” And then when you get cancer, what do you do? It’s a real big trap, because we don’t believe this.

[Tape change.]

Well at that time, this is human life. You really want to scream. Because to be paralyzed is not something you can think; you understand paralyzed in your body. It’s not a matter of understanding or discussion, it is a real thing you have to experience directly. When you become paralyzed, right in bed every day, what do you do? Can you accept your life, saying, “This is my karma”? Words are beautiful. But behind the karma, still we are screaming, burning. Mind, emotions – lots of burning here.

So you look at what you did, believing in your [great] position: happiness, or whatever it is. What is this?

That’s why this Zen Master asks, “When the ancestors and the ancients got here, why didn’t they consent to stay?” It means, what are you seeking for? What is the purpose of your living? To live is what? You say, “To live is to live for all sentient beings.” Beautiful; but still idealistic. Real “to live” is what? It’s really something tactile. You have to be face to face with reality, completely beyond “you think” or “you shouldn’t think.” At that time, it’s pretty hard. To be paralyzed is not something you have expected. Cancer is not something you have expected. You don’t expect it; it comes up. It’s reality. This reality is completely beyond you should think, or you should escape, or you shouldn’t think – completely there. And then you have to be face to face with this. That’s pretty hard. It’s really hard.

That’s why Buddhas and ancestors don’t consent to stay with a certain stage of spiritual experience, or mental experience, or physical experience. Whatever it is, constantly they have to come back to the real picture of life and death. That is very close. You have to be born with nakedness, you have to die with nakedness.


There was no answer from the assembly,

“When the ancients got here, why didn’t they consent to stay here?” That is a question to you, to everybody. Why does Buddhism always teach us not to stay with a certain stage of human experience, or sweet candy, or emotions, whatever it is? “Be free from this, go forward, take a step further, day by day”: why does Buddhism emphasize this?

It means not to stay. It doesn’t mean you should ignore a certain experience of human existence. You have to experience it, but you cannot stay with it. If you become a doctor, you should have the experience of having a Ph.D., et cetera. But you cannot stay with the position, so-called doctor. You have to be free from it, that is real reality. You have to help people, understanding people completely, because people will bring up various kind of cases which you have never thought of, which you have never studied at school. Day by day, different cases occur. So you should forget the Ph.D.; you have to keep your eyes open to see each case.

So that’s why this Zen Teacher always questions like this. But unfortunately there was no answer from the assembly.

so he himself answered for them, “Because they did not gain strength on the road.”

“On the road” means the practice. They didn’t get strength in the practice. [Practice] means when you were born, and since your birth, and then what you have done, after having enough capability to think for a human being. What is the real picture of human life? What do you mean by living? And then when we try to explain about this, from century after century, we create myths, philosophy, psychology. And then we depend on this. “Are you happy?” Is that the final goal we have to depend on? Well… [He pauses.] Even though you are not paralyzed, right before you die, still you are not satisfied.

So “because they didn’t gain strength on the road” [means it is] because finally you have to die. You have to march toward the grave with nakedness, [without] your position, money, parents, siblings, whoever they are. It’s pretty easy to say so in words. But when you are face to face with the naked situation of life and death, you really scream. Because there is nothing to depend on.

But we don’t believe this. That’s why century after century we have to say so, we have to give a question to you, like this Zen teacher, to answer the way to live.


Again he said, “In the end, how is it?”

Finally, what is a human life? What is it?

And again he himself answered in their place, “With my staff across my shoulder, I pay no heed to people — I go straight into the myriad peaks.”

“With my staff across my shoulder”: a staff means the truth, the real picture of your life. Being born with nakedness, dying with nakedness. This is absolute reality, which is called truth. Beyond you have to think or you shouldn’t think, beyond you like or you dislike.

That real picture of life, where is it? Across your shoulder. Carry it, because whether you are conscious of it or not, with your staff across your shoulder, “I pay no heed to people.”

“I pay no heed to people”: What is the purpose of living? What do you mean by to live? Is to live to get a certain good position? Is it being concerned about people? Or paying careful attention to how people feel about me, or always thinking about that? Is this the real purpose of living in this world? Of course it is part of your life, but it’s not the real picture – because you forgot already. But sooner or later, you have to remember this. That’s why Buddha tells you, “You have to recall what you did.” That means you have to recall what is the real picture of your life, what is the real problem of life and death. Because sooner or later, [that is] your whole life.

All we have to is to come back to the original nature of life and death.

“I go straight into the myriad peaks”: That is exactly the real picture. I go straight toward this real picture of life and death. At that time, there are myriad peaks; that means lots of things come up, in your knowledge, in your mind, in your consciousness. Lots of mountain peaks exist. And also “myriad peaks” means vastness, [great] vastness, which causes human beings to be free. “I go straight into the myriad peaks,” and then you can understand that there are myriad aspects of human life, including trees, birds, et cetera.

So all we have to do is experience the dualistic world: after your birth, having a job, taking care of your daily routine, and taking responsibility for your job, and whatever it is. Go to school, and get a position. Work with people. This is important for us. But this is nothing but the explanation of the real picture of life and death. We cannot stay with a position we have got. That is something that you have to take responsibility for for a certain period of time; you have to take responsibility for what you do. But you cannot stay with it, believing this is the final goal we have to depend on completely.

So you should get the position, or happiness, or whatever it is you are aiming at. But you must be free from it. And you have to recall what you did: that is, you have to recall what is the real problem of life and death. You have to recall, otherwise your life becomes very “realistic”: no dreams, no hope, no communication with the trees and birds. So then you just exist separately; you don’t want to live with people. You live with people, but you never think how to live in peace with people, and trees, birds. Even though you are [interrupting] and hurting others, tree, birds, nature, you don’t realize, you don’t awaken to it. That is ignorance; we call that ignorance. You still believe your selfishness: “This is my way. This is the final goal I should depend on.”

That’s why this is a wonderful teaching, just like Gutei Zen Master showing one finger. It is not imitating somebody’s teaching. It is not a matter of the philosophical world, not a matter of the metaphysical world, not a matter of the psychological world. [It is] in relation with human life, showing one thing that is something real. You have to return.


But we don’t understand it.

That’s why we have to practice zazen. In zazen you can directly experience this nothing to depend on. Just taking care of your breath.

But what do you mean, to “take care of your breath”? In the end, how is it? Can you see the good concentration? No way. That is a label which is called “good student.” In the world of “good student,” there is a trap, so-called paralyzed. We are paralyzed. When you are paralyzed, there is no way to take care of your life. You become crazy, scream, but no one helps. So still you have to take care of paralyzed in your life, by yourself. That’s pretty hard.

That’s why zazen is not a means. Zazen is returning home, and sitting in peace and harmony. That is zazen itself. If by zazen you try to attain enlightenment, the enlightenment you try to attain is exactly the same as social status, or positions, or, well, “spiritual” social status. [Laughter.] For me, it’s not ridiculous, it’s fine, it’s wonderful; but people believe that spiritual social status is the best thing we should depend on, and it is the purpose of zazen. I don’t think so.

[He chuckles.] I’m sorry for you. But this is the real picture. There is nothing to depend on. Well, there is one thing you can depend on: so-called nothing to depend on. [Laughter.] Who is thinking this? This guy? This guy is thinking it. So I say, “Don’t think.” You say, “I don’t think.” But who’s thinking that one? [Laughter.]

So finally, there is reality, principal, so-called self. Maybe I can say something about self tomorrow, but anyway, self is not the egoistic self. See the self as real reality, completely beyond “I should think self” or “I shouldn’t think self,” or “I should think not-thinking” or “I should think of thinking,” or “I shouldn’t think of between.” But how can I say so? Whatever you think, there is real reality, so-called self.

That’s why Descartes says, “I am thinking, therefore I exist.” [He chuckles.] But this is… well, that’s up to you. How much do you understand this one? Of course it’s a wonderful teaching, but be careful, okay? Thinking this, “I am thinking therefore I exist” – Buddhism doesn’t throw it away, [only] halfway. Particularly Zen Buddhism takes care of this through and through, with sharp insight, with a bright glance.

That is real zazen. It’s very hard for you, for all you can see is pain and boredom. Finally you think, “I should think something, because it’s pretty boring. In order to be free from boredom, I should think something.” So if I see your zazen, I can see you in that way. Some of you are thinking something; at that time your zazen is very “jellyfish”. [Laughter.] Your posture is still, but your zazen is up in the air, just like a butterfly. This is not zazen. I don’t want to hit you [he laughs], but I don’t want [you to] let go. That’s why I have to say constantly, “Do zazen with your body!” Or, “Without expecting anything at all, just sit down there.” Because this is returning to the real picture of life and death: being born with nakedness, dying with nakedness.

But we don’t understand this, because we have forgotten already. Right after you were born in this world, you forgot! Well, fine – it’s lucky for you. That’s why you can create lots of myths, et cetera. But in a sense it’s crazy, dangerous. So sooner or later, you have to recall what you did. That is the real picture of life and death. Recall, what is real life?


Certain individuals are always saying to you, “Believe in God.” It’s wonderful, in a sense – but watch out! What is “God”?

I saw a news program: recently we’ve had Christian people creating Christian education. It’s wonderful in a sense, but in a sense it’s a little bit – be careful. I don’t mean Christianity is something wrong, but this is a human problem. You know, children are very straightforward. So [you are told,] “Our God says you should believe this, and you should study this.” And then day by day, lots of questions come up, and you have to answer these questions, and fill big thick notebooks with lots of answers about religion. [He laughs.] And then finally, you believe it! But at that time, it’s very difficult to see directly what is the real problem of life and death, because you already see life and death in terms of certain ideas. So that’s why your life becomes very stiff. You cannot move an inch.

And also, when you come to Buddhism, you don’t feel stable, because there is nothing! But your background is somebody always giving you something you can depend on: divinity, or spiritual social status, you know? Spiritual candies you can depend on. And then you feel good. But in Buddhism, it’s different! It’s not Buddhism; real life is different. Because, who dies? Who was born? How were you born? How are you dying? Can you be born in Heaven? Who gives a guarantee [of going to Heaven]? You? Or a priest? Or God? Jesus? Or Buddha? Who predicts that? Well, Buddha predicts [he laughs] – but who is Buddha? Buddha is not somebody. You yourself have to predict. Can you trust in your predictions? How do you know? Finally, nothing.

So real death is, please, go ahead. That’s all you have to do. If you want to scream, please scream. If you want to smile, please smile, as you like. But the real picture of life and death is please go ahead. That’s all.


That’s why a Zen Teacher always tells students, “Please sit down.”

“I got a good experience of zazen!”
“Oh, good. Please sit down.”

The next day he says: “My zazen is terrible.”
“Please sit down, anyway.”

The next day: “How can I be free from delusions, because I have lots of delusions?”
“Oh, fine. Please sit down.”

And then someday finally he attains enlightenment: “I got enlightenment!” He rushes to see the teacher and tell his experience.
“Wonderful. Please sit down.”

“Just sit down” is just like [the hermit of Lotus Flower Peak raising his staff]. It is really to let you be right in the rhythm of life and death. Rhythm is not something you have to catch, rhythm is something you have to live. You have to be there.

Just like a music concert. Many beings exist in this world, but [as one], it must be rhythm, music.

1:12:09 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.

Home | List | Previous | Next