The Teachings of Zen Master Bassui

Excerpts from Mud & Water: The Collected Teachings of Zen Master Bassui
Translated by Arthur Braverman – Wisdom Publications


The fourteenth-century Zen master Bassui was recognized as one of the most important Zen teachers of his time. Accessible and eloquent, these teachings cut to the heart of the great matter of Zen, pointing directly to the importance of seeing our own original nature and recognizing it as Buddhahood itself. Bassui is taking familiar concepts in Buddhism and recasting them in an essential Zen light.

Though he lived centuries ago in a culture vastly different from our own, Zen Master Bassui speaks with a voice that spans time and space to address our own modern challenges-in our life, and in our spiritual practice. Like the revered Master Dogen several generations before him, Bassui was dissatisfied with what passed for Zen training, and taught a radically reenergized form of Zen, emphasizing deep and direct penetration into one's own true nature. And also like Dogen, Bassui uses powerful and often poetic language to take familiar Buddhist concepts recast them in a radically non-dual Zen light, making ancient doctrines vividly relevant.


A layman said: "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 the old masters and seeing how they dealt with k6ans ever be considered outside the realm of words? What is the true meaning of the statement, 'Outside the scriptures, and not through words'?"

The master [Bassui] called to him at once: "Layman!"

He responded immediately: "Yes?"

The master said: "From which teachings 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, discrimination 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 ancestors, one who goes beyond the singular road which advances toward enlightenment
and who 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 revels in the words of the buddhas and ancestors 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 ancestors. From the beginning everyone is complete and perfect. Buddhas and ordinary people alike are originally the Tathagata. The movement of a newborn baby's legs and arms is 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 that shift and change are due to the spinning of the right Dharma wheel of their own original nature, depending neither on the teachings of others nor on the power of words, it is from the spinning of my right Dharma wheel that I am now talking like this, and you are all 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 ancestors will be like a drop of snow over a burning red furnace. Then you will not be restrained by Dharma, nor will you rid yourself of Dharma. You will be like a log thrown into a fire, your whole body ablaze, without being aware of the heat.

"When you have penetrated the truth in this manner and do not stop where practice and enlightenment show their traces, you will be called a Zen practitioner. One who comes into close contact with a Zen master is likened to one entering a burning cave--he dies and is reborn. The cave of ignorance is burned out, giving rise to the great function that goes beyond ordinary standards. It is as though a burning forge were applied to a dull piece of steel converting it instantly into a sacred sword. This is the most important point for a Zen practitioner who meets a master and inquires about the Dharma."


Someone asked: "The buddhas and ancestors used so many methods and means in their teachings, how can there be nothing outside of seeing into your own nature is Buddhahood? Please elaborate on this."

Bassui responded: "I became a monk in my later years, never learning the sutras. You tell me what Dharma there is other than seeing into your own nature is Buddhahood."

Questioner: "According to the sutras, the World-Honored One attained Buddhahood after mastering the Six Perfections. How can this be called seeing into your own nature?"

The master replied: "What are the Six Perfections?"

The questioner said: "They are giving (dana), keeping the precepts (sila), patience (ksanti), effort (virya), meditation (dhyana), and wisdom (prajna). Giving one's possessions to all without discrimination is called dana. Keeping all the precepts strictly without exception is called sila. Treating animosity and kindness impartially, not getting angry when slandered or beaten, is called ksanti. Moving forward in the performance of good deeds without a break in one's journey and carrying out one's vow to completion is called vitya. Sitting meditation [zazen] is called dhyana. It means sitting in the correct posture in a quiet place and stilling the mind. Learning the sutras and teaching extensively and understanding completely the important aims of the Dharma without any hindrance is called prajna."

Bassui responded: "All of these bring you fortune for which you can secure a life in the world of humans or heavenly creatures. Performing these acts is commendable when compared to the acts of evil people–people with minds that covet, harm others, are immersed in hatred, are lazy, lack faith, are unstable in thought and action and ignorant of the Way–who fall into the three evil paths. But one cannot expect to attain Buddhahood from them. The Six Perfections that the Buddha practiced are themselves the right Dharma of seeing one's Buddha-nature. The true light of one's original nature lights up ten thousand precious qualities and distributes this light equally in all directions to people in accord with their needs. This is called dana. Buddha-nature is pure from the beginning, the master of the six sense organs, yet not stained by the six pollutants. The mind and body of one who realizes this will naturally be in harmony. He will not go out of his way to take the appearance of one keeping the precepts, nor will he generate evil thoughts. This is called sila. Since the constancy of Buddha-nature doesn't make any formal distinction between self and other, one in harmony with this will neither be angered when chastised nor rejoice when revered. This is called ksanti. Buddha-nature is originally possessed of considerable benefit; it brings all merit to its completion, developing myriads of dharmas. It passes into the future, having no limits. This is called virya. Buddha-nature is unchanging, detached from all phenomena, goes beyond sects, forsakes rules, doesn't distinguish between saints and ordinary people, and is not confined by words or colored by values of good and bad. This is called dhyana. Buddha-nature is clear in itself, lighting up ten thousand human qualities. It is the eyes of saints and ordinary people alike, lighting up the world like the sun and moon. It is the light that sweeps across the past and present--the boundless truth of pure light. This is called prajna.

"The wonder of this true nature of ours is limitless. It is like the great ocean with its waves large and small. The six wondrous func-tions6 contained in one attribute of this original nature are called the Six Perfections of the Buddha. Hence one of the old masters said: 'As soon as you understand the Tathagata's Zen, the ten thousand deeds of the Six Perfections fill your body with tranquility.''


A questioner said: "Even if one practices the Way, if he doesn't know how to read one word surely he will enter an evil path. Even though he were, for example, to attain enlightenment, without wisdom he could not save people. There are those who say one should practice meditating on mind after studying the sutras. Then there are those who say extensive knowledge and broad studies are the many particles of dust of delusion, which form the seeds of interference to enlightenment. Which of these two statements should I believe?"

Bassui responded: "Enlightenment is one's inherent nature; this inherent nature is Buddha; Buddha is the Way, and the Way is wisdom. Everyone possesses this wisdom; it gives each individual perfect harmony. It is the natural beauty of the true ground and original face of all buddhas and ordinary people. Awakening to this depends only on your aspiration. It makes no difference whether you can read or not. Even if, for example, one cannot remember his own name, and being a man of low intelligence cannot read at all,
if he believes this principle he is considered a brilliant man. One of , the ancients said:25 'The heretics are clever but not wise; they are fools, they are childish ones.' One who sees into his own nature arouses the great wisdom for which there is no teacher, penetrates the ashes of the buddhas and the ancestors, and, in an instant, realizes the principal Dharma teaching of the thousand distinctions and ten thousand divisions, the teachings of the scholars of the Hundred Houses, and the causes for birth as gods and men. What could be hidden from him? Even if, for example, one studies the teachings of the Eight Sects and the Three Schools, or performs wonderful miracles, compared with the original wisdom it is like a solitary light under the sun–or, worse, like comparing a firefly to the light of the moon."


Did you know that Master Tokusan was a great scholar at first? Carrying commentaries on the Diamond Sutra when he went on a pilgrimage, he met an old woman on the road selling deep-fried rice cakes. He put down his commentaries and decided to buy some to satisfy his desire for something light to eat. The old woman said to him: "What is that you are carrying?"

Tokusan responded: "Commentaries on the Diamond Sutra."

The old woman then said: "I have one question. If you can answer it, I will give you some deep-fried rice cakes as an offering. If you cannot, go and buy them somewhere else."

Tokusan said: "Go ahead and ask."

The old woman then asked: "It says in the Diamond Sutra that it is impossible to catch hold of past mind; it is impossible to catch hold of present mind; it is impossible to catch hold of future mind. Revered monk, with which mind will you satisfy your desire for something light to eat?"

Tokusan had no answer. The old woman thereupon mentioned the name Ryotan, telling Tokusan to visit him. Tokusan went to Ryotan's temple as he was told, performed the proper salutations, and then left. That evening he went to the master's room and stood there awaiting counsel until night set in. Ryotan then turned to him and said: "Why don't you leave?"

Tokusan was about to leave when he noticed that it was dark outside. He returned to the master's room and said: "It is dark outside."

Ryotan took a paper torch and offered it to him. Tokusan was about to take it when Ryotan blew out the flame. Tokusan suddenly experienced great enlightenment. He then prostrated himself and said: "From this day on I will never doubt the words of all the old masters under heaven." Ryotan immediately certified his enlightenment. Tokusan then took his commentaries, placed them before the Dharma hall, took a torch in his hand, and held it out saying: "Even the many mysterious teachings I have studied are like a strand of hair in the open sky; even if one masters all the essential knowledge in the world, it is like throwing a drop of water into a great ravine." Then he burned them.

So you see, though this Tokusan was a scholar surpassing others, a man so advanced in letters, still he did not have the power to answer the one question put to him by an old woman selling rice cakes by the side of the road! To the contrary, it was the old woman who had the greater power. Nevertheless, because he met a teacher of right views, it was not difficult for him to become enlightened. If understanding the scriptures could make enlightenment possible, why hadn't he become enlightened before this? And if writings could save people, why would Tokusan have burned the commentaries on the Diamond Sutra?

What's more, though the sixth ancestor could not read, it did not interfere with his attaining supreme enlightenment. More than half of the seven hundred monks studying under Obai were learned men. Yet among them not one could equal the sixth ancestor. He received certification in a short time and spread the Right Law to the world from then on. Right up to this day the Five Schools and Seven Sects all trace their lineage to him. Can we say there is no benefit if one doesn't know letters? In ancient times a monk called Zensho could recite the twelve sections to the sutras, yet he still couldn't see into his own nature. Consequently he slandered the Right Law of the World-Honored One and fell into the hell of incessant suffering while still alive. Though there were many great teachers in China during the Tang dynasty such as Bodairushi Sanzo and the priest Ruyaku, they did not have the wisdom to understand the true teaching of Bodhidharma. Not believing this true teaching, one of them tried to poison Bodhidharma. How could one of them having even a little power to understand the Right Law ever try to harm Bodhidharma? Reflecting upon this, I feel these people were more ignorant than country folk of today. How could they have ever obtained the enlightened Way? You should realize that wide learning and extensive knowledge for one who has not seen into his own nature are enemies of the Right Law.

On the other hand, if the uneducated were fit for the Buddhad-harma, wouldn't every farmer in the country realize it? Thus you should realize that awakening to the Way depends only on one's aspiration and not on whether or not one is educated. When the aspiring heart is shallow, lack of knowledge becomes an obstacle to the ignorant, and knowledge becomes an obstacle to the educated. When the aspiring heart is deep, knowledge becomes the basis for understanding the Way for the learned, and lack of knowledge becomes the basis for understanding the Way for the uneducated. The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Just abandon everything, return to yourself, and look within. Who is this? Spare no time. It waits for no one.


Bassui said: "Sago saw fifty-six levels of karmic activities that sent their perpetrators to hell. The Buddha said that these were all people who had become ordained at the time of the Buddha Kasyapa. He said they had fallen into hell at the time of Kasyapa's parinirvana, experiencing pain which continues up to the present. Here [above] I have just presented thirteen cases in summary. With these examples you should be able to surmise the others."

The monk to whom the master [Bassui] had just responded said: "I truly understand the danger of committing these small offenses." He then continued: "According to this sutra there are few laypeople and many monks residing in hell. From this one dearly surmises that these are monks merely in form, who live in temples but break the precepts, straying from the Buddha path. They think they should receive the same benefits as full-fledged monks since they, being monks, are no different. They end up despising and abusing the austere monks. Truthfully, I am one of this former type. How can I avoid the karma of being born in hell? I implore you to show me the means."

Bassui said: "There are no expedient means other than simply looking directly into your inherent nature and stopping the flow of birth and death. One phrase of this sutra says: 'If you perform evil, you will experience hell; if you do good, you will receive the pleasures of heaven; if you meditate on emptiness, you will exhaust delusion and see proof of nirvana.'"


Another monk stepped out and said: "I have already been able to meditate on emptiness."

Bassui responded: "Tell me how you meditate on emptiness." The monk said: "During meditation I have complete control over scattered thoughts, and mind and body become one like a clear sky. At this time I have no doubt that my body and mind are originally empty."

Bassui replied: "That's not meditating on emptiness. It's merely the first view of emptiness aroused by all students of the Way. If students arousing this point of view do not meet a good teacher, they will ignore the law of cause and effect and, like an arrow heading for its target, go directly to hell. In meditating on emptiness, you see clearly into your own nature, the five skandhas--form, feeling, thought, activity, and consciousness--are all empty, all delusions become extinct, personal views are forgotten, the activity of making distinctions is exhausted, and the various demons have no place to perpetrate their acts. Even with the eyes of a Buddha it cannot be seen, this world of peace and intimacy, this whole reality; it manifests as it is."


A monk said: "All teachers everywhere give medicine in accord with the illness. You, master, give this one medicine to everybody. Wouldn't this cause people to descend into a cave?"

Bassui replied: "There are an infinite variety of medicines that can be given in response to illnesses. The poisons that kill people do not discriminate between those of slight and considerable ability. If one actually consumes this poison and loses his life, who will have descended into a cave?"

Questioner: "When we listen to all kinds of sounds, we are supposed to look penetratingly into the one who is listening. What if there isn't even one sound?"

Bassui: "who is it that doesn't hear?"

Questioner: "I have no doubt as to the one who is listening to the Dharma. "

Bassui: "What is your understanding?"

The monk was silent.

Bassui spoke reprovingly: "Don't spend your life sitting in a ghost cave..32

Questioner: "Neither the buddhas nor the ancestors can understand the 'one who listens to the Dharma.'"

Bassui: "Put the buddhas and ancestors aside for a moment. What about you?"

The monk responded: "I too do not understand."
Bassui: "What is the reason behind the buddhas' and ancestors' lack of understanding?"

The monk said nothing.

Another monk said: "This one who listens to the Dharma is clearly before your eyes."

Bassui: "Don't get caught by Rinzai's three noncomprehensions.~ Speak! What is it that hears the Dharma right before your eyes?"

He, too, said nothing.


If you want to avoid the suffering of life and death, you must know the way to Buddhahood this very moment. The way to Buddhahood is to realize your own mind. Your own mind is the original face before the birth of your parents; consequently before your own birth. It is the original nature of all beings that has remained unchanged up to the present.

This mind is originally pure. It was not born with this body and does not die with its extinction. What's more, it cannot be distinguished as male or female, or shaped as good or bad. It is beyond any comparison so we call it Buddha-nature. Moreover, like waves from the ocean, the many thoughts arise out of this original nature. They are like reflections from a mirror. That's why you must first see where thoughts come from if you want to understand your mind. So whether asleep or awake, standing or sitting, you must question deeply, "What is this mind?" The deep desire to realize this is called religious practice, training, aspiration, or the Way-seeking mind. Questioning your mind in this manner is also referred to as zazen.

Seeing your own mind even once surpasses reading incalculable sutras and dharanis every day for countless years. These formal practices serve merely to bring about good fortune. But when the good fortune is spent, you will again incur suffering of the three evil paths.1 Since this practice [of seeing into your own mind] will ultimately lead to enlightenment, it is the seed of Buddhahood. Even one who commits any of the ten evil deeds or the five cardinal sins, for example, upon realization through self-reflection can become a Buddha instantly.

But don't think then that you can commit sins while relying on the prospect of enlightenment. If you delude yourself and fall into hell, neither Buddha nor ancestors can save you. Take the example of a young boy sleeping next to his father. If the boy dreams that someone is beating him or that he has become sick and he calls out to his father and mother for help, since they can't enter his dream world they can't help him. Even if they wanted to give him medicine, they couldn't do it without waking him from his dream. If he were to awaken himself, he would escape the torment of the dream without the help of anyone. In a similar way when you realize that your own mind is Buddha, you immediately escape [the painful world of] birth and death. If the Buddha could have saved them, would even one sentient being have fallen into hell? You will never understand this if you don't wake up yourself.

When you ask yourself who the master is who this very moment sees with the eyes, hears with the ears, raises the hands, moves the feet, you realize that all these operations are the work of your mind. But you don't know why it works this way. You may say it doesn't exist, but it is clear that something is freely functioning. You may say it does exist, but then you can't see it. Now when this [inquiry] feels insurmountable and you are unable to understand anything, when you have exhausted all ideas and don't know where to turn, you are proceeding correctly. Don't let yourself fall back at this time. As you pursue this inquiry more deeply, your piercing doubt will penetrate to the depths, ripping through to the bottom, and you will no longer question the fact that your mind is Buddha. There will be no [world of] life and death to despise and no truth to seek. The world of the great void will be the one mind.

If you dream, for example, that you have lost your way and can't find the road home, though you may ask people and pray to the gods or to the Buddha, you still won't be able to find your way back. But if you wake from that dream, you will realize that you are in your own bed. Then you will see that in order to return from your dream travels, all you have to do is wake up~and there is no other way. This is called returning to your roots, going back to the source. It is also referred to as being born in the world of peace. It is obtained as a result of the power from a certain degree of religious practice.

One who enjoys practicing zazen and who takes part in religious practices, whether it be as a lay follower or clergy, is endowed with the ability to understand this. But one who doesn't practice will never understand. However, if you think that this degree of realization is true enlightenment, in which you no longer doubt your understanding of the true nature of reality, you will be making a great mistake. It will be like giving up hope of finding gold because you discover copper.

If you feel yourself giving up in this way, you must gather your courage and inquire deeply, seeing your body as a phantom, as a reflection of foam on water. See your mind as the empty sky, having no form. Ask who is the master that hears voices and recognizes echoes within this emptiness---never letting up even for a moment, questioning deeply and relentlessly. In the end, understanding through reason will completely disappear and you will forget your own body. Then your previous ideas will cease and the depth of your questioning mind will be sufficient. Your realization will be as complete as when the bottom falls out from a barrel and not a drop of water remains. It will be like a flower blooming on a dying tree. Then you will be a person who has attained freedom through the Buddhadharma; you will be a liberated person.
~86 mud and water

But even though you may have realized in this manner, you must have this kind of realization many times and throw it out, returning to the one who realizes. When you return to the source and guard it mightily, exhausting discriminating feelings, your own true nature will come to life. Like a jewel getting brighter with repeated polishing, [constantly return to the one who realizes and] the brilliance of your realization will increase, and in the end you will brighten the whole world in the ten directions. Never doubt this!

If your aspiration for the way is not deep enough and you don't attain realization in this lifetime, if you die while in the middle of your practice, you will easily attain realization in your next life as surely as one who today executes work that was planned yesterday.
When you practice zazen, neither despise nor delight in thoughts that arise. Simply look into their source and know that everything that appears in your mind or is seen through your eyes is illusion, devoid of reality. Don't fear it, don't revere it, don't love it, and don't hate it. When you keep your mind unmarked like the empty sky, at the time of your death you won't be harmed by demons. But don't hold any of this teaching in your mind when practicing, just continue to inquire into [the nature of] your mind. Also when you realize who the master is that hears all voices this moment, your mind is the source of all buddhas and ordinary people.

Because Kannon attained realization by hearing the [source of] voices, she was named, "The Bodhisattva Perceiver of Sounds." When standing or sitting, see what it is that hears voices--while doing this you will lose sight of the hearer. While continuing to pursue this, you will reach an impasse and lose your direction. At that time, while sounds can still be heard, look more deeply into what it is that hears. In this state continue to exert yourself to your limit and you will be like a clear, cloudless sky.

At this time there will be nothing you can call the self. You will see the one who hears. Your mind will be one with the vast empty sky. But, in fact, there will be nothing you can call the empty sky. You will think this is realization, but here too you should seriously question! Who is it now that hears sounds?

When you cease creating thoughts, skillfully proceeding so that even the understanding of an objectless empty sky vanishes, you shouldn't retreat in the face of this darkness, but rather ask yourself again what it is that hears sound. When you have exhausted all your energy, amply doubting, you will break through your doubts like a dying person being revived at the last moment. This is realization.

Now for the first time you will become one with the buddhas and ancestors. If you have gotten to this point, look at the following:

A monk asked Joshu, "What is the meaning of the ancestor coming to the West?

Joshu responded, "The oak tree in the garden."

If you hesitate for a moment, return to inquiring as to the one who hears sounds. If you don't clarify this in your present life, when will you? If you lose this human birth, you may not escape the eternal pain from the three evil paths. What is obstructing realization? Understand that obstruction will only result from your lack of aspiration for the Way. Practice with vitality!


sPrevious installments of Wisdom of the Week

Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness: Walking the Buddha's Path – Bhante Henepola Gunaratana s
Ordinary Wisdom, Sakya Pandita’s Treasury of Good Advice – Sakya Pandita (John Davenport, translator) s