Mud and Water

The quote included in this entry, a discussion between Zen master Bassui and a lay student, recorded by another student, emphasizes that everyone can realize their own original nature without dogmatically following any teaching.

Bassui. Mud and Water. Translated by Arthur Braverman.

A layman asked: “Though Zen is said to be transmitted outside the scriptures and not through words, there are many more incidents of monks questioning teachers and inquiring of the Way than in the teaching sects. How can Zen be said to be outside the scriptures? And can reading the records of old masters and seeing how they dealt with koans ever be considered outside the realm of words? What is the true meaning of the statement, ‘Outside the scriptures, not through words’?”

The master called to him at once: “Koji” (a term for lay students).

He responded immediately: “Yes?”

The master said: “From which teaching did that yes come?”

The layman lowered his head and bowed.

The master then said: “When you decide to come here, you do so by yourself. When you want to ask a question, you do it by yourself. You do not depend on another nor do you use the teachings of the Buddha. This mind which directs the self is the essence of ‘the transmission outside the scriptures and not through words.” It is the pure Zen of the Tathagata. Clever worldly statements, the written word, reason and duty, description and understanding, cannot reach this Zen. One who looks penetratingly into his true self and does not get ensnared in words, nor stained by the teachings of the Buddhas and patriarchs, one who goes beyond the singular road which advances toward enlightenment and does not let cleverness become his downfall, will, for the first time, attain the Way.

“This does not necessarily mean that one who studies the scriptures and reads in the words of Buddhas and patriarchs is a monk of the teaching sects, and one who lacks knowledge of the scriptures is a monk of Zen –which is independent of the teaching and makes no use of words. This doctrine of nondependence on the scriptures is not a way that was first set up by the Buddhas and patriarchs. From the beginning everyone is complete and perfect. Buddhas and ordinary people alike are originally the Tathagata. The leg and arm movements of a new born baby are also the splendid work of its original nature. The bird flying, the hare running, the sun rising, the moon sinking, the wind blowing, the clouds moving, all things which shift and change are due to the spinning of the right dharma wheel of their own original nature. They depend neither on the teachings of others nor on the power of words. It is from the spinning of the right dharma wheel that I am now talking like this, and you are listening likewise through the splendor of your Buddha nature. The substance of this Buddha nature is like a great burning fire. When you realize this, gain and loss, right and wrong, will be destroyed, as will your own life functions. Life, death, and nirvana will be yesterday’s dream. The countless worlds will be like foam on the sea. The teachings of the Buddhas and patriarchs will be like a droop of snow over a burning furnace. Then you will not be restrained by dharma, nor will you rid yourself of dharma. You will be like a log thrown on a fire, your whole body ablaze, without being aware of the heat.”


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