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Nail Implies Hammer

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"Real Zen training is to have one thing mentioned and immediately to think of the second, third, fourth—all sides, from all aspects. Life is complicated; consequently, we have to be awake all of the time. Unless we can do that, zazen practice becomes just dead contemplation."


Zen Buddhism, as we know it today, began during the sixth century C.E. through the efforts of Bodhidharma, in his coming to China from India. It bloomed like a flower during the time of the sixth patriarch, Eno Daikan Zenji, and is now spreading all over the world. This is none other than a movement of cosmic energy.

The character that we pronounce as Zen is pronounced Ch'an in Chinese. In turn, this is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word dhyana. The difference among these three terms is not only in pronunciation, but in meaning as well. Dhyana literally means "deep, motionless meditation," not just physically but mentally still as well. When Buddhism was transmitted to China it became fused with the mentality and philosophy of the Chinese people. It evolved from an Indian metaphysical mind to a uniquely Chinese practical way of thinking. Through this synthesis, Buddhism was transformed into something different. Ch'an became more pragmatic, more dynamic, more "feet on the ground," as the saying goes.

When it came to Japan in the thirteenth century, it merged with samurai ethics and lifestyle and became known as Zen. Gradually, in time, it permeated Japanese culture and sunk deep into the very fabric of the nation. Now we are in the midst of it being transmitted to the West. Who knows what kind of Zen will develop in this country? It is my hope that in the decades to follow, Zen will become even more vital, alive and energetic, yet still keep its lucid stillness and elegance.

Among many Zen texts, the Hekiganroku, or Blue Rock Collection, is perhaps the most well known and widely used throughout the Zen schools. The text is a result of the combined efforts of two outstanding Zen masters, namely Setcho Juken Zenji and Engo Kokugon Zenji. Setcho chose one hundred cases and composed a verse for each case. Engo wrote an introduction before each of the main subjects and commentary. The following is Engo's introduction for Case Number One.

Smoke over the hill indicates fire. When you see horns on the other side of the fence, you know there is an ox there. Given one corner, you grasp the other three. One glance and you ought to discern even the smallest difference. This is the everyday tea-and-rice matter of robed monks. As for cutting off the myriad streams, he is free to appear in the East and disappear in the West. He can go against or go with it, in any and all directions. He is free to give, free to deprive. Be that as it may, how, in fact, will this sort of person behave? See Setcho's trailing vines.

This introduction is not only an introduction to Case Number One of the Blue Rock Collection but to Zen training itself. Though the book has one hundred cases, it can be seen as one case with one hundred different aspects.

Smoke over the hill indicates fire. When you see horns on the other side of the fence, you know there is an ox there. The first line is so obvious, whether you are a Zen student or not. When you see horns above a hedge, you can and should figure out that, behind the hedge, there must be some kind of animal. It may be an ox, it may be a buffalo or it may be a stag.

Given one corner, you grasp the other three. Given one hint, we ought to find out the other three. If everything is explained to us, from A to Z, then even an idiot can grasp it. But in our everyday life, it is not so easy. Often we have to guess what is asked of us. For instance, when you're asked to bring a nail, you should know that bringing a hammer is implied. This simple action of bringing a hammer is extremely important; it requires a certain practice, a certain sensitivity and certain intense attention.

In Asian countries, when we measure grain we use a square box made of wood. This square box does not have a lid, so it is a square measuring cup, if you will. It is called a masu. The origin of Engo's saying came from the image of the bottom inside of this masu; if one corner is pointed, we can naturally assume that the other three corners are alike. Real Zen training is to have one thing mentioned and immediately to think of the second, third, fourth—all sides, from all aspects. This brisk mental activity is indispensable and is born from our zazen. Zazen then is not mere meditation. Life is complicated; consequently, we have to be awake all the time, we must be aware. Unless we can do that, zazen practice becomes just dead contemplation. Naturally, zazen emphasizes the importance of stillness, calmness, composure and the importance of a lucid mind. Of course, in zazen, self-realization is essential, but at the same time, our Rinzai Zen tradition emphasizes briskness and swift, immediate discernment.

Speaking of meditation, or contemplation, some students who come to me say that their practice is shikantaza. Shikantaza literally means, "just sitting." Unquestionably shikantaza is the purest zazen. However, it becomes purest only when the student realizes that there is nothing but JUST THIS! During the last sesshin (Zen retreat) here at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, someone, while doing zazen, saw the falling leaves through the window. All of a sudden it seemed to him that each falling leaf had its own glittering light, that each leaf had its own proper place. And yet, nothing special. JUST THIS! Having understood this experientially, now he is ready to do shikantaza. On the other hand, if you do not know the true significance of shikantaza, it may become quite a dangerous practice. It may become shikan-wasting-your-time.

Getting back to Engo's three corners, in our everyday life, sometimes we may see these three corners and yet be afraid to take appropriate action. We ask if something is our job or someone else's job, because we have to respect each other's "territory." To invade or not to invade, that is the question. However, one glance and you ought to discern the smallest difference. It is not a matter of territory or territorialism; it is a matter of our attitude. If there is even the slightest aggression, friction will occur. But on the other hand, if generosity and purity of intention are in your deed, then peaceful cooperation can be accomplished. Therefore the smallest difference is not a matter of size at all; it is a matter of the heart.

For example, here at this zendo, we receive many telephone calls. By the very first "hello," we can discern through someone's voice what kind of person he or she is. Even in such a thing as a letter, we can discern the letter writer's degree of sincerity, not only through the handwriting, but the kind of paper used, even in the stamp. When it comes to the stamp on the envelope, it is so obvious, the sender's state of mind. When I receive a letter, I always check the placement of the stamp before I open it. If it is upside-down, or torn or crooked, the letter is not worthy to be opened and read. Thus, by seeing one corner, at least three aspects of the person are revealed. This is not only a good lesson for discernment, but for us, too, when we call or write or place a stamp on an envelope. To me this is Zen practice.

This is the everyday tea-and-rice matter of robed monks. Or we could say this in another way: "This is every Zen student's bread and butter." Here we see the unique nature of Zen Buddhism. In Zen, we emphasize the importance of work practice and cleaning. When you clean something, the center is always easy to clean but the corners are often overlooked or ignored. You may think that work practice such as cleaning the bathroom or working on the road has nothing to do with your zazen. Within time, though, we gradually realize that zazen is not as narrow as that. Zazen should be active, broad, subtle and deep. This is what we are trying to do at Dai Bosatsu Zendo. I don't mention this all the time, because I am hoping that, little by little, you will discover it through your own efforts. By discovering it on your own, you will find that it will become a treasure to keep for the rest of your life. On the other hand, if you are told what to do all the time, it may be helpful for you only for that particular moment; you will not learn or grow on your own, and this precious knowledge will not be infused into your being. Therefore, trying to be patient, I give you a chance to make mistakes, and to realize and discover your own treasure.

As for cutting off the myriad streams, he is free to appear in the East and disappear in the West. He can go against or go with it, in any and all directions. He is free to give, free to deprive. This is one of these language problems. The moment we say "he," we can't help but think that it refers to someone else. Saying "he gives" or "he takes," we add an "s" for the third-person present tense, and the more we follow such grammatical rules, the more we think we are talking about someone else, somewhere else. But, what Engo is really trying to teach us is not "he" or "she" but YOU! WE! If we master "IT," we are free to appear in the East and disappear in the West. We can go against or go with it, in any and all directions. We are free to give, free to deprive.

Do not take this so literally: "appear in the East," "disappear in the West." During sesshin, it is not at all good to appear for some sittings, then disappear for part of the day and then reappear again; we must follow the schedule. In a true sense, Engo's statement is the expression of one's unbounded freedom. But in order to get such freedom, we must be bounded.

This freedom has at least two different aspects. The first is to do whatever you want to do; the other is to be able to control yourself while respecting all the activity around you. To do the latter without creating any burden or problem or tension or interruption for other people, yet moving freely, like the leaf falls from the tree in the autumn, is very profound.

Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of this and freedom of that—we use this word a lot. "Freedom, freedom," we say, and yet we know deep down that we are not at all free. External freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution, but when it comes to our mental, psychological and emotional freedom, this cannot be guaranteed by the Constitution. It is this freedom which we need more of, rather than freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etc.

What we are doing here may be exotic for some. But through this exotic practice, the practical nature of Zen is revealed. I am always giving one corner, or hint, and expect you to realize the other three. Without this training, Zen practice may be seen as an escape. Our practice must confront, without being aggressive. We must be patient, and, single-mindedly, march on.

In the Broadway play The Man of La Mancha, there is a well-known song, "The Impossible Dream." In it there is a very encouraging lyric, which goes:

This is my quest, to follow that star, no matter how hopeless no matter how far; to fight for the right without question or pause, to be willing to march into hell for the heavenly cause! And I know if I'll only be true to this glorious quest, that my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I'm laid to my rest. And the world will be better for this, that one man scorned and covered with scars, still strove, with his last ounce of courage, to reach the unreachable stars!


To reach the unreachable star is none other than to attain true freedom.

One glance and you ought to discern the smallest difference. When one hears the sound of an instrument—whether it is clappers, bell or gong—by one sound, if it is inappropriate, we ought to discern even the smallest mistake. Even if we are not paying particular attention, our bodies know and pick up the mistake. When zazen is properly done with sufficient years of practice, we can't help but be able to discern. Needless to say, we don't do zazen in order to see someone else's mistakes. Hearing the bell, clappers, gong, announcement of the sutras, thinking about when to end or when to strike the big gong—you may think that all this is exotic Zen. But it is not so! It's all related to everyday life. This is "the everyday tea-and-rice matter of robed monks." Compared to 1976, when this zendo was officially dedicated, there is a heaven-and-earth difference, but still-not yet, not yet. "However endless the Buddha's way is, I vow to follow it."*

As for "free to deprive," we have to meditate on this phrase profoundly. I give you one corner, or hint, and the other three you have to figure out. By doing so, you will make them your blood, your priceless treasure. The hint is this: what we habitually think of as important is, in fact, not important at all. The sun rises, the sun sets, and there is really nothing we can do about this. If we can acknowledge that we are limited, then we can honestly say without embarrassment, "There is nothing I can do." This deprivation is our true renunciation. He who freely "deprives" can do this kind of relinquishment. The more that you detach, the more freedom will come. What an uncanny paradox.


Eido T. Shimano Roshi is 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


* This is one of the four vows chanted at the end of morning service at Dai Bosatsu Zendo and New York Zendo Shobo-ji:

However innumerable all beings are, I vow to save them all.
However inexhaustible delusions are, I vow to extinguish them all.
However immeasurable dharma teachings are, I vow to master them all.
However endless the Buddha's way is, I vow to follow it.


Nail Implies Hammer, Eido T. Shimano Roshi, Shambhala Sun, May 2003.




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