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Is That You?

March 26, 2013

by Stephen Damon

Keichu, the great Zen teacher of the Meiji era, was the head of Tofuku, a cathedral in Kyoto. One day the governor of Kyoto called upon him for the first time.
His attendant presented the card of the governor, which read: Kitagaki, Governor of Kyoto.
“I have no business with such a fellow,” said Keichu to his attendant. “Tell him to get out of here.”The attendant carried the card back with apologies. “That was my error,” said the governor, and with a pencil he scratched out the words Governor of Kyoto. “Ask your teacher again.”
“Oh, is that Kitagaki?” exclaimed the teacher when he saw the card. “I want to see that fellow.”

Some Zen stories, like koans, take a while to digest fully. Often, after I read a story I have to sit with it in my daily meditation practice and think about it for a while until its meaning gradually appears. If I’m having difficulty I search my bookshelves for a commentary to see how others have responded. While I do this I keep the story in the back of my mind as I go about my daily chores and activities. Doing this, the story becomes the context for my life and my practice. I become aware of how my understanding of things changes as the story slowly sinks to deeper levels of my consciousness.
But when I read this story I immediately said, “Yes, that’s right.” And so, without any further contemplation I’d like to offer my initial thoughts on Keichu’s remarks to his attendant. Perhaps when you read the story you had an initial reaction as well. If you did, I invite you to share it with the readers of this blog.

When I read the story I realized that I always have a few business cards in my wallet. I have two kinds: one for my day job as an owner of a bookstore and one for my other job as a priest in a Zen sangha. But of course, I have many other titles for which I have no cards that I use all the time: father, husband, friend, boss, and so on. uchiyamaAll of these titles come from a sense of “I” that stands out in relief only in contrast to some “other.” In Opening the Hand of Thought, Uchiyama Roshi offers a simple diagram to illustrate this.

He goes on to say that we wear these distinctions like clothes, forgetting that we come into this world naked and poor and leave this world naked and poor (Rousseau in Emile). We concern ourselves only with the clothes we wear in our lives—the self that is determined from outside in opposition to others. He warns us that to rely on external circumstances is to be unstable as these change constantly. He concludes that we can’t find true peace of mind until we live out the reality of the life of the self, since the foundation of the self is only the self.

I am reminded of the seventeenth century Zen master, Bankei who directed his students to identify with Buddha nature, which he called the Unborn or Fu-shō. He told his students, you have received the Buddha-mind from your mothers when you were born, and nothing else. This inherited Buddha-mind is beyond any doubt unborn, with a marvelously bright illuminative wisdom. He told his students “to abide as the unborn,” to “not get born.” Don’t become anything—not a “me” nor a “Buddhist,” nor “enlightened.” Buddha Nature has existed from beginningless time, before there were any external circumstances with which to identify.

Bankei was an expert in showing people how to make contact with the life that exists before it is defined by relationships to external conditions. No matter how a person would define himself, Bankei would ask, “what were you before you became [that].” I remember reading that a student once asked Phillip Kapleau if a Jew could be a Zen Buddhist. Kapleau responded, “What were you before you were a Jew?”

And so, this morning I ask myself is there a way for me to go about my day without any titles, without exchanging business cards with the people I meet. The Dalai Lama often says that he is just a simple monk. Can I walk down the street with the sense that I am just a simple human being. Or maybe even that is too much. Maybe I should just walk down the street. As Suzuki Roshi once told a student at Sokoji, “Just to be alive is enough.”


From → Zen Buddhism

  1. Insightful post and very pertinent on many levels. “Just to be alive is enough”. Love that 🙂

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