“One day in the neighborhood of Dogo’s Temple of Chang-chou, death occurred in a certain home and Zen Master Dogo took his disciple Zengen to express their condolences to the family.” During the visit Zengen tapped the coffin and asked, “Is he alive or dead?”
Dogo answered, “I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead.” Zengen said, “Why don’t you say?” Dogo repeated, “I won’t say. I won’t say.” On the way back to the temple Zengen again asked, “Please tell me clearly, Master, whether he is dead or alive. If you don’t tell me, I’ll hit you.” The teacher said, “Hit me if you like, but I won’t say.” So Zengen hit him.
At length Dogo died and Zengen, still troubled by the question, went to see Sekiso, a well-known Zen teacher. He told Sekiso how years ago he had struck his old teacher because he would not answer his question on life and death. Then he repeated the same question to Sekiso. Sekiso said, “I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead. I won’t say. I won’t say.” At that Zengen came to realization.
Whereupon he left and then shortly returned with a spade on his shoulder and walked from east to west and west to east in the main room of the temple. When Sekiso saw him doing this he said, “What are you doing?” Zengen said, “I am searching for the relics of my old teacher.” Sekiso said, “There is a large river with huge waves filling the expanse of the universe. Your teacher’s relics are nowhere to be found.”
Setcho (Hsueh-tou in Chinese), the compiler of the Blue Cliff Record, adds his comment: “Alas, alas.” In Engo’s (Yuan wu in Chinese) commentary to the case, another Zen master, Taigen Fu, is recorded as saying, “Aren’t your teacher’s relics still there?”
Dogo’s Chinese name was Tao-wu Wan-chi, and he lived from 769 to 835, in the last of the great T’ang period. He was a dharma heir of Yakusan Igen.
Sekiso, by the way, shouldn’t be confused with Sekito, who was a great Zen master and better known than Sekiso. In Japanese he’s called Sekiso Soyen, and in Chinese Hsi-chuang Chi-huan. He lived from 986 to 1039 and became a monk in his early twenties. On hearing of Feng-yang Shan-chao, a sixth-generation descendant of the great Rinzai (Lin-chi in Chinese), he went to practice under him. Feng-yang recognized the potential of his new disciple and seems to have devoted special care to his training. For two years Sekiso was denied dokusan; that is, a private encounter with the master. Instead he was consistently driven away with verbal abuse.
How many of us today could stand that? It can take a lot of faith, desperation, and a yearning, truth-seeking mind to continue in the face of whatever the teacher- or life-thrusts our way. Sometimes it seems as if we’re always facing obstacles. Yet a real teacher is always trying to help the student face and work through blind spots and shortcomings so that they may awaken. Modern times can make this process much more complex. In the old days most of the serious students were monastics. They lived at the monastery and had made a life commitment to Zen practice, and were ready to take what the master dealt out. Practitioners today are likely to be laypeople and responsible for fulfilling all the normal demands of family life and careers. We have come out of a culture in which Zen and Buddhism can seem new and strange. For most of us, they are not the religion of our parents and extended family. What’s more, our culture, our technologies, and our educational system all foster intellectual and mental activities to the degree that self-doubt, mental reservation, anxiety and skepticism are the norm. People today need some sense of community as well, so the old, direct (and often, by our standards, extreme) methods of the past-except, perhaps, at certain crucial moments-are not likely to be useful.
One night Sekiso came yet again to dokusan. And again, as in the past, he was turned away. He began to complain bitterly, but before he could even finish, Feng-yang sternly scolded him and struck him. Sekiso cried out, but as he did, the master suddenly clapped his hand over his disciple’s mouth. With that Sekiso was enlightened.
Sekiso gratefully remained with Feng- yang for years after and eventually received both inka (formal acknowledgment that he had completed his training) and dharma transmission from him. He became a noted teacher with several temples under his direction. He died, however, at the relatively young age of fifty-four.
“One day in the neighborhood of Dogo’s Temple of Chang-chou, death occurred in a certain home and Zen Master Dogo took his disciple Zengen to express their condolences to the family.” In ancient China, monks did not usually hold burial services for people, as is common now. Such services are called okyo, meaning literally ’’reciting the sutras.” This kind of service would be performed only when a disciple had died, and so it is likely that the deceased had not just been a student of Dogo’s but a lay disciple. During the visit Zengen tapped the coffin and asked, “Is he alive or dead?”
What is Zengen really asking? Obviously he knows that the person in the coffin is dead. So what is his real question? Perhaps it is, What happens after death? or What is death? or What will happen to me after I die? or Is there really death? or If he lies here, dead, what is the Deathless? Perhaps his deep concern-for it is a heartfelt question, as his subsequent actions will prove-grew from, or was intensified by, reciting the Heart Sutra: “None are born or die. Nor are they stained or pure, nor do they wax or wane. There is no withering nor death, nor end of them.” What does that mean, really? We chant those profound words daily, as do Zen practitioners everywhere. Well, what do they mean?
Zengen was deeply troubled by this fundamental problem of life and death. Deep down, aren’t we all? Our culture, however, papers this anxiety over with endless distractions: movies, TV, videos, computers, magazines, newspapers, shopping. There are countless potentially addictive distractions available to us. Life’s existential anxieties are so very close today, so very clear, that perhaps we generate a wall of distractions to keep from feeling constantly insecure. The ancient belief in the harmony of the spheres has given way to one of violent and random catastrophe in deep space. Here on earth we are buffeted daily by reports of the dying of life forms, burning of the rain forests, pollution of the atmosphere and seas; of horrific ethnic cleansings, and the threat of massive political and economic destabilization brought on, in part, by the amazingly rapid evolution of new computer-based technologies. When we open the newspaper, impermanence hits us in the face. Our distractions multiply accordingly, making it hard to keep the real questions, the permanent, gnawing ones that grip our common humanity, in focus: Why was I born? Why must I die? Why is there so much suffering? Still, the questions are really there. Which is why sesshin is such a helpful practice. For a few days, at least, we can be out of the whirlwind and can let our real questions, the ones that persist lifetime after lifetime, generation after generation, arise and be faced head-on.
Zengen had a natural, spontaneously arising, full-time koan. Such a koan, growing out of our own life experience, can be the best koan of all. It raises an existential question and gives us no peace. It is a koan we must resolve. Obviously the master knew the depth of Zengen’s question, for he wouldn’t give in to it, wouldn’t placate Zengen with a reassuring answer. He didn’t say, “Don’t worry. It’s all right. You’ll be reborn according to your thoughts and deeds.” Rather, he said, “I won’t say alive. I won’t say dead.” Why not? His disciple was obviously sorely troubled by the whole subject of birth and death, specifically about what happens after one dies.
Once, one of the Buddha’s monks asked him, “What happens to the fully enlightened person after death? Does the fully enlightened person exist after death or not?” The Buddha refused to answer.
A fully enlightened person is one who has purified his or her mind at even the deepest levels of consciousness, freed it of all the ancient stains of greed, anger, selfishness and desire. So what happens to such a one after death? Is it the same as for others? The texts say the Buddha “held to a noble silence.” There’s a very good reason for such a response, as this koan makes clear.
On the way back to the monastery, Zengen is still very bothered. The question keeps gnawing at his mind. He’s just seen a stiff corpse. The image is vivid. Where is the owner of the corpse? “Why don’t you say?” he demands of his teacher. And Dogo emphatically repeats, “I won’t say! I won’t say!” Zengen begs, “Please tell me clearly. Master, whether he’s dead or alive!” Then, desperate, he cries out in all seriousness, “If you don’t tell me, I’ll hit you!”
In this we can see just how deeply he feels and what risks he is willing to take to resolve the matter. Hitting one’s spiritual teacher is a very serious matter, with profound karmic implications. A student might raise a hand as though to strike the teacher, for example, in demonstrating a response to a koan. But for a student to actually hit the teacher is rare and considered quite grave. Yasutani Roshi said that if a monk ever actually slapped the roshi it would have profound repercussions on the whole monastery. But Dogo, unperturbed by Zengen’s grave threat, merely answers, “Hit me if you like, but I won’t say.” Whereupon Zengen hits him.
Time went on. Dogo himself aged and finally died. Zengen, still troubled by his unanswered question-and probably also burdened, now that Dogo was dead, by remorse for having struck his teacher- went to see Sekiso, a well-known Zen master. He confessed to Sekiso how, years earlier, he had hit his old master because he would not answer his question on life and death. Then Zengen again blurted out his buried but still burning challenge: Please give me the answer-I must know! But instead of giving him what he asked for, Sekiso immediately responded, “I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead.” At that, Zengen came to realization.
© From Straight to the Heart of Zen by Philip Kapleau. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications.