Sonin’s Bow of Verification

The photo above might be Yokoji, the monastery established by Keizan in about 1320 on land donated by Sonin, a woman who became one of Keizan’s successors. Bernard Faure’s book, Visions of Power: Imagining Medieval Japanese Buddhism has more about her and her close relationship with Keizan.

Keizan was born in 1268 and studied with several of Dogen’s direct descendants. Almost all of the surviving Soto lineages come through him. He seems to have been a quite broad-minded medieval fellow, especially supportive of woman’s practice.

Here’s a dialogue that I pieced together from Faure’s book:

Sonin was asked by Keizan about her understanding of temporal conditions and was at first unable to answer. Afterward she eventually had an insight and went to see Keizan in his cell.

Keizan asked Sonin, “The year is coming to an end, the springtime is arriving. There is an order in this. What is it?”

Sonin replied, “On the branches of a shadeless tree, how could there be any seasonal knots?”

Keizan asked, “At such a time, what about it?”

Sonin bowed.

Keizan said about this, “These were her first extraordinary words. I noted them down for future generations.” Keizan then transmitted his Dharma robe to her.

A number of things interest me here. First is the matter of temporal conditions. Like now. Second is how Keizan invited her to investigate them. No dead sitting here either. Third is the shadeless (or shadowless) tree – how can that be? And in the midst of emptiness, what this about seasons?

Finally, Keizan transmitted to her based on her insight. What we can see from the story is that she bowed. How could Sonin have bowed that would have led Keizan to give her his Dharma robe?

BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
On Receiving Inka Shomei from James Myoun Ford Roshi
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
The Way of Tenderness: the Form and Emptiness of Race, Sexuality, and Gender
  • Anonymous

    Maybe it’s just “Maha-kashapa twirls a flower”.

  • BuddhaFrog

    How could Sonin have bowed that would have led Keizan to give her his Dharma robe?Silently.

  • Harry

    She bowed as his Master.Regards,Harry.

  • Anonymous

    “How could Sonin have bowed that would have led Keizan to give her his Dharma robe?”Wholeheartedly you’d think, the same way she was enjoying the coming spring they were chatting about.And thank you Dosho for these wonderful posts, each and every one of them makes me happy :)/S.

  • Uku

    Dosho, thank you for sharing! Wonderful story!

  • do jhana

    In the midst of emptiness, seasons. How could be otherwise?Shonin bowed shadowless in the midst of “seasons”.The robe, I don’t know, was it still cold?

  • Tortoise

    She just bowed. At the moment of her bow she was the 10,000 things. The 10,000 things bowed her and she bowed the 10,000 things. No seperation. This is zazen, just sitting.

  • Barry

    What strikes me is that Sonin didn’t take the barbed hook (“There is an order in this. What is it?”).Sonin’s bow completely terminated the dialog. What more could have been said?

  • Harriet

    Sonin: When I have nothing to say my lips are sealed

  • Monk in the world

    Just an observation from someone who is new at this stuff:As I try to look at these little stories and get something from them, I find my “self” suffering because of all the grasping for the meaning. If I do have some kind of “experience” with this little story, that too will pass and I will be left with “just this”.

  • Dosho Port

    What specifically is your relationship to the story when you see that you are creating suffering by relating to it?

  • Dhyan

    How could Sonin have bowed that woudl have led Keizan to give her his Dharma robe?I suspect this little conversation was only a fragment of the much longer conversation between master and disciple: wordless, kinesthetic, existential, and verbal. Sonin bowed “at the end” and “this particular” conversation was complete. Thus the robe… which was the beginning of a new conversation. Transferred to us by the story… the lingering fragrance of a “complete” moment.

  • Anonymous

    Singlemindedly- Anon