Zen Master, Sokei-an

Some Insights of Sokei-An

Sokei-An (one of the first Japanese Zen adepts to teach Zen in America) was, in my view, one of the greatest Zen masters of the 20th century. His spiritual insights were profound and, while not 100% in conformity with Tathagatagarbha Buddhism, clearly issued from an understanding of Dharma that is remarkably consonant with the doctrine of the Buddha-dhatu.

    Here, taken from the superb and invaluable books, The Zen Eye and Zen Pivots, edited by Mary Farkas (Weatherhill Publications, 1994 and 1998 respectively), are some of Sokei-An’s observations on Buddhist practice:

“Everyone thinks that Buddha is different from everyday human beings. Some Buddhists believe that Buddha has been living for a million years in the Western Sky. We [i.e. the practitioners of Rinzai Zen] have no relation to such a Buddha. We have nothing to do with the Buddha living in the Western Sky. Our own Buddha nature is Buddha. Of course, sentient beings are like orphans who never know their own home …

“Once in a long while, man realizes Buddha nature within himself. Then, suddenly, he realizes that his hand is the hand of Buddha – the Lotus Hand. He realizes that he himself is Buddha. There is no other Buddha in the world.” (The Zen Eye, “Buddha Nature”, p. 4).

Comments: While Tathagatagarbha Buddhism would not say that we, as afflicted unawakened egos, are already Buddhas as we stand at this ignorant moment (because our Buddha-dhatu is obscured by numerous negative mental and behavioural tendencies), we are in essence Buddha. That is our core Reality – and that is the home into whose bosom we Buddha-seeking “orphans” need to return, as Sokei-An indicates.

He further writes:

“… you think that your soul is your own soul, different from my soul, and that God created each soul individually. We do not think so. We think all existence is soul, an ocean of soul, and we are the waves. This is the Buddhist’s basic concept of the universe.” (The Zen Eye, “The Universe is Another Name for Infinite Consciousness”, p. 31).

Comments: This is the understanding of Dharma that one will find in the Mahayana treatise, The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana. It is also the teaching of the Tathagatagarbha sutras. The essence of each being is one and the same – the “one taste” (eka-rasa) or Single Principle (eka-dhatu – according to the Angulimaliya Sutra) of the Buddha-Self. If we attach to our minuscule ego as separate and isolated, we will fail to see the Wholeness. Apart from that boundless, all-equal ocean of Truth, there is nothing. But because there is that limitless ocean of Truth – there is a supernal and ineffable Everything. That is the Buddha. And each person, each animal and each sentient entity enshrines the Buddha within his or her mind. It is impossible for the Buddha actually to be separate from what we truly are. The Buddha-dhatu is the being, and the being is the Buddha-dhatu – as the Mahaparinirvana Sutra so crucially teaches (Dharmakshema version).

The Mahaparinirvana Sutra instructs us to purify our heart of the kleshas (mental and moral negativities) and to “enter this Self” of the Buddha – the Buddha-dhatu. Sokei-An indicates something similar when he says:

“When your mind is purified, the outside ceases to exist and you enter the world of pure mind, of soul only. Your footsteps draw near to the great cosmic mind, and you enter. Do not be afraid. You will not lose your physical body, but will return and look at your physical body and realize this body is not your own. When you experience this in meditation, it is the first step of realization in Buddhism.” (The Zen Eye, “Meditaiton”, p. 57).

Comments: When the mind is freed from the tarnishing smuts of wrong thinking and feeling, the outside world falls away while one is in the state of deep meditation and one is immersed in the sanctity, the holy refuge, of the Buddha Mind or Buddha Self. This is the teaching of the Tathagatagarbha sutras. The first step is to realise that we are not this limited, conditioned and death-bound physical body. The “body” of the Buddha is without borders or barriers or mortality, and is present in all beings, equally. It is this Buddha-body (the Dharma-kaya) which we have to seek out in the stillness of our purified heart.

Speaking on the “empty” nature of Nirvana – that is, that Nirvana is not something which is made up of lifeless “things” that can be physically grasped and labelled – Sokei-An comments:

“There is no dead emptiness in Nirvana, as your philosophers think. So those of you who drop into the dead emptiness of Buddhism don’t know Buddhism.

“In deep samadhi [meditation], when our mind ceases to exist, our mind is switched to the Great Universe. Its rhythm is not coarse, like our usual thinking, but this state of nothingness is not dead; it is living. Then, for the first time, the individual ego makes contact with the Great Ego of the Universe, and the small ego surrenders before this Great Ego.” (Zen Pivots, p. 111).

Comments: what Sokei-An here calls the “Great Ego” might more suitably be translated as the “Great Self” (maha-atman, as the Nirvana Sutra terms it): the Great Self of the Buddha. This is the Soul of the universe  – bhuta-tathata– the living, knowing Reality of all that is, was, and ever shall be. This is the identity of the Buddha with the “boundless Dharmadhatu ” (as the Buddha calls it in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, or the “Great Universe”, as Sokei-An likes to refer to it). Although from a worldly perspective this Great Self seems to be “empty” and “nothing” (because it is invisible, without graspable substance and beyond conceptual obtention) – from within, it is the highest living. It is, in contrast, samsaric life that is truly dead, which is the denial of genuine life. When our Reality-divorced mind touches even the hem of this Truth, that screening and concealing mind falls away on contact with the Real and the Buddha within is able to emerge. Sokei-An instructs his students on how to make such contact:

“… when you practice meditation, sit down, cross your legs, fold your hands, and clear up your mind, you enter into the Great Universe, and the Great Universe enters into you. There is no distinction between you and the Great Universe – you are one. Thoughts vanish from your mind, and you enter into boundless existence. It is the beginning of Zen; it is not yourself. From that truth you will emerge as THAT –  Tathagata – the one who comes exactly as THAT.” (Zen Pivots, pp. 133-134).

Comments: it is to be noted that the mind is stilled and freed from thought when samadhi of such a nature is attained; constant ratiocination, reasoning, logic-chopping and analysing have no place here. They find themselves beyond their scope. They are inherently limited. But that of which Sokei-An speaks is the limit-less – the open expanse of Buddhic freedom. This is not a realm circumscribed by the puny ego and its flitting thoughts. It is the “Tathagata” (“Tathagata” is the term the Buddha constantly uses of himself). Much foolishness has been written about what “Tathagata” actually denotes and connotes (with some “scholars” thinking that it simply refers to the way the Buddha walked!) – but Sokei-An surely intuits the heart-meaning: it is the utterly mysterious THAT-ness (Tathata) with which the Buddha is infused and with which he is inseverably united. The earthly Buddha is merely a projection of that one incomprehensibe Buddha (some call it the Adi-Buddha or Primal Buddha) beyond all reckoning. The Tathagata is the supernal being who has transformatively entered into THAT which is beyond the reach of the coarse net of names and concepts and who has returned to the world to infuse Nirvana’s liberative power into the cosmic manifestation. The “Tathagata” is the one, lasting, sole and only Reality. All else is vain and empty. The “emptiness” of the Buddha is his freedom from all defects, ephemerality and falsehood, and by contrast the fullness of the deathless immutable wondrous Buddha-Truth which he embodies (the eternal, all-benevolent Truth that is Buddha, and the Buddha who is that deathless Truth). This is the core teaching of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and of the other central Tathagatagarbha sutras. All other interpretations and interpreters who seek to evade or distort this revelation of the Buddha’s unchangingness and eternity and who insist that even the Buddha and Nirvana are strings of mutating, conditioned phenomena are doing their followers a grave disservice by providing students of Buddhism with mud rather than jewels.

© Dr Tony Page 2004