The Zen of Master Bassui

The Zen of Master Bassui

One of the few places that I actually practiced Buddhism in a formal setting was at the Soto Zen temple Chuo-ji in Sapporo, Japan.  Before this I had heard about Zen but had no idea that there were different flavors of Zen or what the differences were.  Being relatively new to Buddhist practice the simplicity of Zen seemed attractive at first.  Also since I was in a foreign country and my Japanese was initially pretty minimal this added to the appeal.  Since Zen shied away from “words” or scriptural study I did not need to worry as much about not understanding the teaching intellectually.  So translations of what was being taught were not going to be a problem. Since this was a Soto Zen temple they followed the teachings of the great Zen master Dogen.  In each sesshin we would recite the Fukan Zazengi (Universal Promotion of the Principles of Zazen).  This gave the instruction of how you were supposed to practice Zazen.  Luckily I had an English version of this that I brought along with me for reference.  It was relatively simple and straight forward:


“For the practice of Zen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Cast aside all involvements, and cease all affairs. Do not think good, do not think bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha. The practice of Zen (sanzen) has nothing whatever to do with the four bodily attitudes of moving, standing, sitting, or lying down. At the place where you regularly sit, spread out a layer of thick matting and place a cushion on it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus posture. In the full-lotus posture, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, you simply press your left foot against your right thigh. You should have your robes and belt loosely bound and arranged in order. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left palm facing upwards on your right palm, thumb-tips touching. Sit upright in correct bodily posture, inclining neither to the left nor the right, leaning neither forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open. You should breathe gently through your nose. Once you have adjusted yourself into this posture, take a deep breath, inhale, exhale, rock your body to the right and left, and settle into a steady, unmoving sitting position. Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.”

 Fukan Zazengi, Zen Master Dogen;_ylu=X3oDMTEyZWdnMHZnBGNvbG8DZ3ExBHBvcwMyBHZ0aWQDQjQ3NzVfMQRzZWMDc3I-/RV=2/RE=1511012763/RO=10/


So that sounds simple, right?  Just sit in this position and “think of not-thinking”!  Well if that sounds like simple instruction sit down right now and try it!  Hum, not so simple eh?  Well it wasn’t for me either.  What I thought would be a plus, the lack of a bunch of complicated words and subjects to understand, turned out to be a paradox.  I didn’t know what to expect or where to begin even though Master Dogen was pointing the way. What exactly am I supposed to be doing?  How do I know if I am doing it right?  Isn’t something special or mystical supposed to happen? Why does he talk about not-thinking when I have a constant stream of thoughts that only gets louder the more I try to quiet it down? Is everyone else having this same problem?  So my first reaction was to open my eyes and look around at everyone else to see what they were doing.  They were all just sitting there not doing anything!  They all appeared to be doing exactly what Dogen said to do. What was wrong with me? Well that was no help!  Boy, that clock sure is ticking slow!!!!


So my second reaction was to try to find some books on Zen to see what this was all about.  This was obviously exactly the opposite from the practice beyond words that Dogen was talking about.  But being the ignorant westerner this was the way I was used to learning.  If you were learning to do something new first you would learn about it and then you would do it.  That is completely opposite from my initial foray into the wonderful world of Zen.


This was in the early 1990’s so it was pre-amazon.  Living in Japan there were very few English books available but luckily out of the English books they had books on Buddhism accounted for a fair amount of them.  One of the first books I found just by chance was “Mud and Water” a collection of talks by the Zen Master Bassui.  Bassui as it turns out is a relatively unknown Zen master in the west.  His direct and often humorous style was very interesting to read.  Up to now I was familiar with the basic core teachings of Not-self, Impermanence, Dukkha and Dependent origination but had not realized how they were so interconnected.  So while I knew that Bassui was saying something very important I didn’t know exactly what it was.  I will give a sample of some of Bassui’s teachings to give you a sense of his understanding.  The book “Mud and Water” was a series of questions and answers between Bassui and his disciples that one of them recorded.


If you have been following along with my posts and you read “Mud and Water” hopefully you will get more out of what Bassui says then I did at first.  Bassui was not your everyday common ordinary monk.  He was very practical and did not believe in a lot of the superstition that was common during his time.  He also did not follow all the rules and never stuck with one teacher through his whole life.  In both ways I feel a special kinship to him and ever since I first read this book he has been very special to me.  Here is a short story of when he first became a monk.


“There was a monk from Bassui’s home town by the name of Tokukei Jisha who had cut himself off from the world, retiring to the mountains, practicing religious austerities for many years.  Hearing of this monk, Bassui decided to pay him a visit. Tokukei, seeing Bassui with head shaven and in layman’s clothes, ask suspiciously, “Why don’t you wear monk’s robes?”

Bassui: I became a monk to understand the great matter of life and death, not to wear Buddhist robes.

Tokukei: I see.  Then are you looking into the koans of the old masters?

Bassui: Having become a monk, I want to clarify the source of the great Dharma handed down by the Buddhas and the Patriarchs.  After attaining enlightenment, I want to save the bright and the dull, teaching each according to his capacity.  My true desire is to relive others of their pain though I myself may fall into hell.”

Mud and Water, A Collection of Talks by the Zen Master Bassui, Translated by Arthur Braverman


As I mentioned Bassui was not a conventional monk.  He shaved his head when he first became a monk but for years he did not wear a monks robe.  He did not follow a single teacher as was the custom at this time but went from teacher to teacher.  He also did not stay at one monastery or temple until toward the end of his life.  He did not care for all the Buddhist trappings but was a very serious student of the Zen way.


Bassui usually had a very direct no non-sense way of teaching which always emphasized understanding the true nature of the “self”.  This was of the utmost importance to Bassui.  If you have been reading my posts up to now you can see this topic constantly coming up in them as well.  As I mentioned before after reading these posts if you go back and read scriptures that you have read before you will also notice now that this subject comes up in most of them.  You may not have noticed it before but I believe the teaching of Not-self and the idea of understanding the true self permeates all of the Buddha Dharma.  To get at the true understanding of the “self” Bassui stressed the practice of Zazen.  This is because people can misunderstand the teaching by words because words are pregnant with meanings based on the teaching an individual received and their own life experience.  So it is easy to end up totally misunderstanding the true intent of the written or spoken word because of our various attachments to them.


“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 teachings did that yes come?”

The layman then 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 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.

……From the beginning everyone is complete and perfect. Buddhas and ordinary people alike are originally the Tathagata.  The leg and arm movement of a new born baby 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 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 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.”

Mud and Water, A Collection of Talks by the Zen Master Bassui, Translated by Arthur Braverman


 Lastly Bassui had that sense of humor that is so characteristic of Zen.  They have a way of saying something that is funny or shocking with it still containing a important meaning or lesson.  This is something that I came to love about Zen.  Reading Buddhist scripture is not always the most exciting thing to do.  So if you are in a rut with your Buddhist study pick up a book on Zen and it will put you right back on track!


Bassui”: “In the sutra of the Perfect Enlightenment it is written: ‘Virtuous men, even those minds which realize the wisdom of the Tathagata and verify the pure unstained Nirvana are all aspects of ego.’”

Questioner: “Then if you attain an empty mind straight away, will you advance on the fundamental path toward enlightenment?”

Bassui: “Though students of the way attain an empty mind and remain tranquil, when it comes to seeing with the true Dharma eye their empty mind takes them even deeper into a hole.”

Questioner: “What about passing directly through the ten thousand barriers and going beyond the empty mind?”

Bassui: “A cloud above Godaisan mountain, rice streaming, a dog in front of the old Buddha hall urinating in heaven.”

Mud and Water, A Collection of Talks by the Zen Master Bassui, Translated by Arthur Braverman


 You will come across many Buddhist teachers or practitioners that take the Buddha Dharma in a overtly literal righteous way.   There is something special and refreshing about comparing understanding your true nature or Enlightenment to “a dog urinating in heaven”!


I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in Zen. You can find Bassui’s “Mud and Water” on Amazon at the following link:

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