Just Say Hai!

The essence of Zen practice, says Eido Shimano Roshi, can be condensed into one word: Hai! (Yes!) The difficulty is learning to say Hai! without adding “But, but…”

Eido T. Shimano Roshi
1 March 2009

Case No. 8 from the Joshu Roku
(The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu)

When Nansen came back from the bathhouse, he saw the monk in charge of the bath stoking the fire. Nansen asked, “What are you doing?”
The monk answered, “I am making the bathwater warm.”
Nansen said, “Don’t forget to invite the water buffalo to take a bath.”
The monk said “Hai!” [“Yes!”]
In the evening, the monk came to Nansen’s quarters. Nansen asked, “What’s up?”
The monk said, “Venerable Water Buffalo, the bath is ready.”
Nansen asked, “Did you bring a leash or not?” The monk had no reply.
When the Master [Joshu] came later to greet Nansen, Nansen mentioned what had happened. The Master said, “I have something to say.”
Nansen said, “Fine, but have you brought a leash with you?”
The Master dashed forward and grabbed Nansen by the nose.
Nansen remarked, “Okay, but it is too coarse!”

As you probably know, Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China during the thirteenth century. There were originally twenty-four different roots. Some of them were brought by Chinese monks to Japan, and some roots were developed by Japanese monks who went to China to study and practice, and then came back. Among the twenty-four lineages, or roots, there are only two that survived to this day: Rinzai and Soto. As for Rinzai’s root, it was continued by Nampo Shomyo Zenji, Shuho Myocho Zenji, and Kanzan Egen Zenji. This is the only Rinzai lineage that is still active today.

The Rinzai branch was welcomed by the government and samurai in those days and overly protected by them. There is a group of famous monasteries in Japan known as Kyoto Gosan, which means “Five Mountains of Kyoto.” These monasteries were protected and supported by the government, and consequently the abbots and monks left behind a legacy of religious texts known as the “Five Mountain Scriptures.” But the living practice of these monasteries has been discontinued. Ironically, Myoshin-ji and Daitoku-ji, which are now among the biggest Rinzai temples in Kyoto, are not among the “Five Mountains.” They were neither protected nor supported by the government, and because of that they had no choice but to continue their practice. Thanks to their diligence, they survived to the present day. The legacy of Rinzai Zen was carried on by these unsupported Zen masters. Hakuin Ekaku Zenji is a descendent of this lineage as well.

The key point that I would like to convey today is for us to march on. This is the most essential aspect of our practice, whether it is easy for us or not. History has proven that the only way to let true dharma continue is to just continue our practice.

Earlier I mentioned Hakuin Zenji. I’d like to share a story with you. When Hakuin was a young monk, he read many books on the history of Zen Buddhism in China. He learned of a Chinese Zen patriarch known as Ganto who had spent many years practicing zazen and was known to have some clear insight. One day a thief came into Ganto’s monastery and cut off his head with an axe. According to the story, Ganto emitted a scream that could be heard several miles away. Upon reading that story, Hakuin was deeply disappointed that such an enlightened Zen master could be subject to misfortune. Even more disturbing to Hakuin was Ganto’s loud scream of pain. He began to doubt that zazen was the best way to become free from suffering and attachments and decided to take a break from his practice for a while.

One day, Hakuin happened to fall upon a book called Zenkan Sakushin, in which a monk called Jimyo did zazen for hours every night with a gimlet in his hand. When he became sleepy, he used the gimlet to pierce his own thighs, which enabled him to stay awake. Reading this, Hakuin felt ashamed of his own halfhearted efforts and for becoming so easily discouraged. Inspired with renewed dedication, he resumed his practice. Later, investigating the story of Ganto from a different point of view, he eventually understood Ganto’s scream and remarked, laughing out loud, “Ganto is truly alive and in good health!”

Similarly, in our own lives, we all experience ups and downs, joy and sorrow. Yet all we have to do is continue our practice—no matter what—marching on straight ahead.

Regarding zazen, I have heard some people say that one must sit down, erect the spine, regulate the breath, and clarify the mind. Then zazen can begin. However, I feel that the moment one sits down, erects the spine, regulates the breath, and clarifies the mind, this is zazen itself.

When you listen to my talk, do not expect me to analyze the text sentence by sentence. As I often say, Zen koans go to the essence first, and what you hear is a mere manifestation of this essence. You can stay with branches and leaves (the details and particulars), or you can see through the words and hear nothing but your own koan: “What is my true face before my parents were born?” or “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “Mu” or “What is this?” or “Who am I?”

All of these seemingly enigmatic questions are like what is said in the Diamond Sutra: The world is not really a world; it is just called a “world.” Mu is not really Mu, but we just call it “Mu” for the time being.

So don’t be deceived by enigmatic wordings. Whatever koan we are working on is just a given name or label. If you can see through the words, then my talk should not present any problem for you—it should help you to clarify your true nature.

At Dai Bosatsu Zendo, we have been studying The Recorded Sayings of Master Joshu (Joshu Roku). As you may know, Master Joshu is most famous for his koan “Mu.” This section of the Joshu Roku deals with the Master’s early days as a disciple of his teacher, Nansen Fugan Zenji.

One day, Nansen came back from the bathhouse. He saw the monk in charge of the bath stoking the fire. Nansen asked, “What are you doing?”

If he saw the monk stoking the fire, it is so obvious, why did he ask? Nonetheless, as a teacher, he had to ask the question, “What are you doing?” Often I ask, “Where are you from?” or “How are you?” If someone is sitting in front of me and looks healthy in both body and mind, it is almost a stupid question to ask, “How are you?” If I already know someone is from such and such a place, asking, “Where are you from?” seems totally unnecessary. In the same way, Nansen had to ask the monk in charge of the bath, stoking the fire with firewood, “What are you doing?”

The monk answered, “I am making the bathwater warm.” Obviously what he said is self-explanatory. But this monk did not get Nansen’s first question: “What are you doing?” or “Who are you? What are you really doing?” Just ask yourself from time to time, “What am I really doing?” This is just another way of questioning yourself about your true nature—like Master Bassui did with his constant, “Kore nanzo?” (“What is this?”).

In this modern age, when someone wants to take a bath, even here at our monastery, all they need to do is go to the bathroom and turn on the hot water. The same is true for taking a shower. But even nowadays in Japanese monasteries, there is a big bathtub in which three or four monks can bathe together at once. The monk in charge of the bath is called yokuju; he has to stoke the stove with firewood in order to heat the bathwater.

I heard the following story twice, during a teisho given by Itsugai Roshi, the abbot of Shogen-Ji before Tani Kogetsu Roshi: When Itsugai Roshi was an unsui (monk in training), one day he was in charge of the bath, which involved stoking the stove with wood, but for some reason the logs were wet and didn’t catch fire. So it was necessary for him to get some newspapers, which he lit with a match, and finally the logs started to catch fire. During all this time he was in koan samadhi (immersion in the koan he had been given), not at all scattered, thinking about how to make the bathwater warm. That was a second priority. The top priority was to solve his koan. So finally, the fire suddenly burst into flames, and at this very moment, all his preconceived ideas, concepts, prejudice, whatever you can think of, were simultaneously combusted. He became united with the essence, not with leaves and branches.

We modern people have a tendency to start with trivial matters and, having analyzed the trivial, then want to go to the essence. Zen practice works in the opposite direction: the top priority is the essence, and the trivial matters will always follow.

Returning to our koan: Nansen, out of passion to train his student, asked him, “What are you doing?” The monk answered, “I am making the bathwater warm.” Nansen did not scold this monk, but instead said, “Don’t forget to invite the water buffalo to take a bath.” The monk did not ask “What?” He did not say, “What are you talking about?” but at least he was able to say “Hai!”

I often say that the essence of Zen practice can be condensed into this short word: “Hai.” Again, modern people have a tendency to ask “Why?” instead of saying “Hai.” We don’t like to obey, so we talk back or we argue. But honestly, what can we achieve with argument? “Hai” is really another way to say “Mu,” or “What is this?” It is not at all about being defeated. It is not mere blind obedience, but just “Hai. Hai!” Of course, this spirit can be conveyed in any language, as long as it is said with sincerity, from the bottom of your heart. But “Hai!” is much more dynamic and stronger than saying, “Yeah” or “Uh-huh.” Saying “Hai!” communicates more than just agreement; it conveys enthusiasm as well.

As you know, we all carry various kinds of emotional, psychological, and intellectual pride, which feeds our resistance, preventing us from simply saying “Hai” from the bottom of our hearts. Your practice may be accompanied by pain, drowsiness, scattered thoughts, and your breath may not reach very deeply. Equally difficult may be for you to simply say “Hai.” But as long as you came here for Zen practice, to improve your state of mind, and to be made less fearful, less irritated, more openhearted, less anxious, and to ultimately become better human beings, why don’t you start by saying, “Hai!”

Sitting on the cushion and digging into your koan all by yourself is perhaps easier for most of you. But if someone corrects you, or some mistake is mentioned publicly, to accept it and plainly say “Hai” is not at all easy. Yet this is where our practice starts. Without this, even if you read the entire Tripitaka ten times, even if you attend Rohatsu sesshin fifty times, nothing will change!

There was a dharma sister who was sitting at Shobo-Ji in New York, and she made a vow. That vow was to attend fifty seven-day sesshins at Dai Bosatsu Zendo. I thought that was a great vow. And she thought that if she attended sesshin fifty times, she would be able to open her heart to a new dharma vista, or point of view. She followed her vow faithfully. It took her about eight or nine years. Throughout that time, she sat very faithfully with the koan I had given her. Quite impressive. But unfortunately, some kind of karmic hindrance prevented her from opening her dharma eyes. So before the fiftieth sesshin started, she said to me, “If I can’t pass my koan during this sesshin, I shall never come back to Dai Bosatsu Zendo.” On her fiftieth sesshin, she really did her best, but she could not realize that she was buddhanature to begin with. She was constantly searching outside, like most of us. It is not that we have buddhanature. We are buddhanature itself.

In her case, she searched for fifty consecutive sesshins, which quite impressed me, but then she suddenly gave up. Our practice is not a matter of quantity. It has something to do with karmic hindrances, or our internal attitudes. It is a matter of learning to say “Hai” without replying, “But, but.” It is fear of being driven this way and that by others. But the truth is we are beautifully guided when we open the gates of our hearts. Going back to that dharma sister, who knows, maybe a wonderful realization would have awaited her during her fifty-first sesshin!

About two months ago, at New York Zendo Shobo-Ji, I was asked to instruct a few students on how to do jikijitsu (lead zazen sessions), including how to strike the gongs and the inkin bell, particularly when we are leading everyone to do sampai (three prostrations). I also taught them how to strike students with keisaku (warning stick), how to be ino (sutra leader), and how to strike the mokugyo (wooden drum). All these, “how to, how to…” elegantly and efficiently. I spent about three hours with all of the students. At the end, everybody put their palms together and thanked me profusely. Not only that, but as I was leaving, they waited outside the zendo and put their palms together and saw me off on East 67th Street.

I must admit, this had never happened before. At the time, I thought, “They think that these simple instructions on how to do this and that is a profound teaching.” Yet while learning these responsibilities is certainly one of the important aspects of what we are doing here, the essence of Zen practice—which I have been repeating for far more than fifty sesshins: “Sit unconditionally with Mu! Just say Hai!”—is not appreciated as much, and certainly not as heeded as my instructions on how to ring bells and strike clappers.

In the evening the monk came to Nansen’s quarters, and Nansen asked, “What’s up?” The monk said, “Venerable Water Buffalo, the bath is ready.”

Evidently, that monk knew conceptually that there is no difference, no separation between Nansen and a water buffalo. Nansen had to ask,“Did you bring a leash or not?” The monk did not bring a leash and was certainly taken by surprise by this question. His conceptual understanding came to an end. The monk had no reply. When Master Joshu came later to greet his teacher, Nansen mentioned what had happened. Joshu said, “I have something to say!” Nansen said, “Fine, but have you brought a leash with you?” Instead of saying, “Yes” or “No,” or keeping silent, Joshu dashed forward and grabbed Nansen by the nose.

When Joshu turned more than one hundred years old, his teachings, such as “Mu,” became so pure and concise that people would say his lips emitted light. When he was young, he was full of vitality. He would dash forward and grab Nansen by the nose. A leash is not necessary—superfluous! Nansen remarked, “Okay, but it is a bit too coarse.”

This reminds me of the episode when Fuke and Rinzai were invited by a patron to have dinner, and while debating over the dharma, Fuke overturned a table loaded with dishes and food. Rinzai remarked, “Okay, but it is too coarse.”

Zen koans are not so difficult to understand, as long as the essence is clear. So whether sitting, walking, doing yoga, or whatever you are engaged in—including sleeping—the top priority must not be forgotten.

Eido T. Shimano Roshi

Eido T. Shimano Roshi

Eido T. Shimano Roshi is the former abbot of the New York Zendo in New York City, and of Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Zen monastery in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.