Who is it that hears, sees and understands?

Bassui Tokusho Zenji was born on this day in 1327. He was a priest in the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism whose teachings attracted a large number of followers despite his eccentric lifestyle.

When Bassui was young, he was concerned with such questions as “What is this thing called a soul?” and “Who is it that hears, sees and understands?” At age twenty he began training at Jifukuji Temple where he studied with a Zen master named Oko. He was ordained as a priest some nine years later, although he had reservations about taking that step. Bassui was not comfortable with the formal and ritualistic aspect of Zen. For much of his life he traveled from hermitage to hermitage, preferring the life of a wanderer to that of residing in a monastery.

He earned such a reputation as a great teacher that during the last ten years of his life, it was not possible for him to live as he liked. He settled in one place, Enzan, and founded the temple Kogaku-an, where he stayed for the remainder of his life.

It’s said that when he died, Bassui was sitting in meditation with his students and he turned to them at the last moment and shouted, “Look directly! What is this? Look in this manner and you won’t be fooled.”

Arthur Braverman, who has translated Bassui’s dharma talks, Enzanwadeigassui-shu (“A Collection of Mud and Water from Enzan”, or simply Mud And Water), tells us that “According to Bassui, all the teachings [Bassui’s] can be reduced to a single precept: Seeing into one’s original nature is Buddhahood.

Here are excerpts from Bassui’s dharma talk on “One Mind”:

“If you would free yourself of the sufferings of the Six Realms, you must learn the direct way to become a Buddha. This way is no other than the realization of your own Mind. Now what is this Mind? It is the true nature of all sentient beings, that which existed before our parents were born and hence before our own birth, and which presently exists, unchangeable and eternal. So it is called one’s Face before one’s parents were born. This Mind is intrinsically pure. When we are born it is not newly created, and when we die it does not perish. It has no distinction of male or female, nor has it any coloration of good or bad. It cannot be compared with anything, so it is called Buddha-nature. Yet countless thoughts issue from this Self-nature as waves arise in the ocean or as images are reflected in a mirror . . .

What is termed Zazen [meditation] is no more than looking into one’s own mind. It is better to search your own mind devotedly than to read and recite innumerable sutras and dharani every day for countless years. Such endeavors, which are but formalities, produce some merit, but this merit expires and again you must experience the suffering of the Three Evil Paths. Because searching one’s own mind leads ultimately to enlightenment, this practice is a prerequisite to becoming a Buddha. No matter whether you have committed either the ten evil deeds or the five deadly sins, still if you turn back your mind and enlighten yourself, you are a Buddha instantly. But do not commit sins and expect to be saved by enlightenment. [Neither enlightenment] nor a Buddha nor a Patriarch can save a person who, deluding himself, goes down evil ways . . .

[One] who realizes that his own Mind is Buddha frees himself instantly from the sufferings arising from [ignorance of the law of] ceaseless change of birth-and-death. If a Buddha could prevent it, do you think he would allow even one sentient being to fall into hell? Without Self-Realization one cannot understand such things as these . . .

What kind of master is it that this very moment sees colors with the eyes and hears voices with the ears, that now raises the hands and moves the feet? We know these are functions of our own mind, but no one knows precisely how they are performed. It may be asserted that behind these actions there is no entity, yet it is obvious they are being performed spontaneously. Conversely, it may be maintained that these are the acts of some entity; still the entity is invisible. If one regards this question as unfathomable, all attempts to reason [out an answer] will cease and one will be at a loss to know what to do. In this propitious state deepen and deepen the yearning, tirelessly, to the extreme. When the profound questioning penetrates to the very bottom, and that bottom is broken open, not the slightest doubt will remain that your own Mind is itself Buddha, the Void-universe. There will then be no anxiety about life or death, no truth to search for.

In a dream you may stray and lose your way home. You ask someone to show you how to return or you pray to God or Buddhas to help you, but still you can’t get home. Once you rouse yourself from your dream-state, however, you find that you are in your own bed and realize that the only way you could have gotten home was to awaken yourself. This (kind of spiritual awakening] is called “return to the origin” or “rebirth in paradise.” It is the kind of inner realization that can be achieved with some training. Virtually all who like Zazen and make an effort in practice, be they laymen or monks, can experience to this degree. But even such [partial] awakening cannot be attained except through the practice of Zazen. You would be making a serious error, however, were you to assume that this was true enlightenment in which there is no doubt about the nature of reality. You would be like a man who having found copper gives up the desire for gold.

Upon such realization question yourself even more intensely in this wise: “My body is like a phantom, like bubbles on a stream. My mind, looking into itself, is as formless as empty-space, yet somewhere within sounds are perceived. Who is hearing?” Should you question yourself in this wise with profound absorption, never slackening the intensity of your effort, your rational mind eventually will exhaust itself and only questioning at the deepest level will remain. Finally you will lose awareness of your own body. Your long-held conceptions and notions will perish, after absolute questioning, in the way that every drop of water vanishes from a tub broken open at the bottom, and perfect enlightenment will follow like flowers suddenly blooming on withered trees.

With such realization you achieve true emancipation . . .

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


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