AS EASY AS FALLING OFF A LOG Investigating the Zen Koan of a Non-Attained Buddha

AS EASY AS FALLING OFF A LOG Investigating the Zen Koan of a Non-Attained Buddha March 21, 2020





Investigating the Zen Koan of a Non-Attained Buddha


James Ishmael Ford

(The video is our beginning attempt to offer a Saturday program during the coronavirus. We have not mastered the medium, as you can readily tell by the fact we’re sideways through the sitting part (twenty minutes) and the chanting. It is corrected for the talk, however. At least visually. We probably will improve as we go forward…) 

The Case

A student of the intimate way said to the master Xingyang Qingrang, “The Buddha Excellent in Great Penetrating Wisdom practiced meditation on the seat of awakening for ten ages. Nonetheless he did not experience the great awakening.” She looked at the master and with her full heart asked, “Why?”

 The master replied, “Your question touches the intimate matter.”

 The student replied, “But he sat on the seat of awakening! Why didn’t he attain Buddhahood?”

 Xingyang replied, “Because he is a non-attained Buddha.”

 Gateless Gate, Case 9


This koan turns on the seventh chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The critical part goes, in Gene Reeves magisterial translation:

The lifetime of the Buddha Excellent in Great Penetrating Wisdom was five hundred and forty trillion myriads of eons. At the beginning, when that buddha, sitting at the place of the Way had destroyed the army of the devil, though he was at the point of attaining supreme awakening, the Dharma of the buddhas did not appear to him then. So, for one small eon and then for ten more small eons he sat cross-legged with body and mind motionless. But the Dharma of the buddhas still did not appear to him.”

Now, after this passage he does awaken. And from there gives a presentation in prose and in verse on the true nature of reality. But for the sake of the koan it all happens within the ten long ages, kalpas in the Buddhist tradition, ages of nearly unimaginable length. The koan and its invitations happens there, where this Buddha is a Buddha who has not awakened.

It might not be all that hard to hear the desperation in the student’s question. How can someone not awake be a Buddha? And with that the answer. In both Zenkei Shibayama’s and Koun Yamada’s translations, the rub-your-nose-in-reality response reads, “Because he did not attain Buddhahood” Guo Gu’s rendering is “Because he did not.” So much in that “not.” And. Really. Each of these statements can be helpful. At least if we listen with open hearts. But I admit I find Robert Aitken’s tantalizing invitation most helpful, and repeat it for my paraphrase of this case, “Because he is a non-attained Buddha.”

Of course, each of these three versions offer an angle on a rather important matter. That is, who are we? Who are you? Who am I? And each version offers a full presentation on something of enormous importance. We find in this case a pointing to the reality of who we are on the other side of our stories about ourselves. And we are invited to encounter it fully.

There is something mildly delicious for me that we know next to nothing about Xingyang Qingrang. It’s a reasonable assumption that he lived early in the tenth century, as we know more about his teacher, Bajiao Huiqing, a Korean master who trained and settled as a teacher in China toward the end of the Ninth century. Xingyang, however, appears a bit like a dream and addresses us from that dream world.

And his presentation is the ancient dream about people caught up in the play of life and death, causes and conditions, beginnings and ends. It is also the dream about someone who at the very same time, she, he, that person is Buddha, is the great awakening, is the boundless itself. Is. Just is.

So, what about us? You and me? Who are we really?

This moment, this one right now, the one we’re caught up in might be called “interesting times.” Perhaps it never was a Chinese curse, but it does have curse about it. Here as a virus stops the world and people are fearful for work and a place to live and, well, for life itself. This place. We certainly are being invited to notice the real as close to unmediated as can be.

Now for me over the many years I’ve thrown myself onto the pillow, really within our tradition, it is understood as the Buddha’s seat, the lotus throne, the navel of the world, over and over again. But. But, what have I encountered in this practice?

In short, a mess. A hot mess. I watch and witness and see nothing but an accumulated mass of moments arising out of a play of causes and conditions, which I can only trace in part. As it goes in that hymn captured in the traditions of the West, I see it all through a glass darkly. I can see the difficulties of my youth as a child of poverty, the family moving constantly, hunger sometimes hanging as a threat, if fortune beyond fortune never actually a reality. I see the joys and sorrows of my life as an adult. And I see how I am now surrounded by the wings of death, at this point the deaths of all my relatives, and in time, mine.

And, as some point of departure in every direction, how in my late teens and early twenties I lived in a monastery. I trained hard there. And I had some experiences. Then the teacher gave me the seal of her approval. She said this is awakening. And, I knew it is not. I knew enough of me then to know it is not. Then for me, that would mean decades more investigating the many angles of that thing I call me. That thing which was awake, and most definitely was not.

Her seal became for me a koan. A koan in that sense of a pointing and an invitation.

And this koan, case nine of the Gateless Gate touches closes on what that means.

In the midst of all the things we are not, what in fact are we? Again, you. Again, me. The great matter of the heart, of who we really are is being presented here. A finger is pointing. We simply have to turn our heads and notice.

The koan turns on a moment where this Buddha of Excellent in Great Penetrating Wisdom has sat for ten eons, ages, kalpas, pick your term for what comes very close to an eternity. In this moment he or maybe she, it doesn’t really matter, that Buddha – that Buddha – is both un-attained and attained.

That moment.

This moment.

Did I mention these are hard, hard times? I wonder how many unskillful and sometimes unkind or just plain selfish things I’ve done in the past twenty-four hours. With Facebook helping along, more than I’d like to contemplate. And not as skillful means. Not, as much as I’d like it to be, crazy wisdom. Just James being a jerk. Just James being James.

James who is sitting here at this moment in the teacher’s seat as Myoun. Luminous cloud, my teaching name. James being James. Luminous cloud being, well, Luminous cloud. (Perhaps you hear those words of Zen wisdom: not one, not two…)

Thinking about the details of who I am I can feel a sense of failure. So many years of practice. And yet. I know myself. Maybe not thoroughly. There is a simple truth that we will remain in large part mysteries to ourselves for the whole of our lives. And, truthfully to our friends who might see us more clearly than we see ourselves. But we remain mysteries even to them. Because. We are mysteries.

But, still, there is enough insight to make judgments. And, most of us do.

How are you dealing with the crisis of this moment? It’s pretty hard. Many people are being thrown out of work. Many more are to experience that earth-shaking reality before this is over. It is inescapable we’re looking at a recession. People in responsible positions are beginning to whisper depression. Few among us are going to take this ride without serious bruising. And for many among us, it’s going to be a horror show.

In this moment of causes and conditions, what about that?

Back when I was coming of age the psychologist Abraham Maslow was in vogue. And I think he had a lot to offer. Especially in pointing to the importance of attending to our human needs as foundational to achieving what he called “self-actualization,” his idea of an optimal emotional and psychological state.

Even then I’d suffered enough to know there was something not quite right in his schema. Yes, we do need to take care of things. On the spiritual way we’ve become aware of spiritual bypassing, where we don’t dig into things that need digging into, and because of that come to have an unbalanced insight, which can be dangerous. Dangerous to self and other. Maslow’s point is even more practical, calling us to pay attention to what in my circles is sometimes called the earth-plane. The nitty gritty of life. This life, the life dealing with work and home. This life today dealing with the virus. While his goal of self-actualization requires these steps, the great awakening of our Zen way does not come when all those conditions he listed are checked off.

Again, from the wisdom of the Western tradition, the spirit turns out to rest where it will. The Wisdom of the intimate way is not the reward for success in life. The wisest often do not have success in any sense of worldly things. People in the worst circumstance you can imagine, can, and sometimes do achieve awakening.

Awakening, the murky assertion of our Zen way. But. And. So, if it’s not a reward, not a scout’s badge; well, then, what is it?

This koan points to some part of the mystery that is our life and our way. What about that Buddha who sat endlessly and did not win awakening? What about me? What about you?

For one hint I think of something Wendy Egyoku Nakao, longtime abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, tells as a comment on this koan. It’s “…a story of a devout woman who chanted “Namu Amida Butsu” every day. When she died, all her chants were reviewed. Each one that had not been chanted with her entire being was discarded. Despondently, she watched as thousands upon thousands of her chants were thrown out. Finally, only one chant was left. Luckily, this last chant had been chanted as her entire being – her one moment – and she was saved.”

The reality of the matter is that this body, this life, the one we’re in right now: that’s it.

However, we’re not called to some intellectual understanding. We’re called into a moment of grace where we set down our understanding, and instead allow what is to be.

It turns out it is okay to be a mass of doubt, of confusion, of fear, of desire. We simply need to let go of our stories about these things, these moments in the rising and falling of conditions.

And we need do it only for a moment. Only for a heart-beat.

The good news as Roshi Nakao says, is that it can all be found, our saving, our healing. And it only takes a moment.

We notice that moment and the Buddha Excellent in Great Penetrating Wisdom awakens. We find the moment neither through hard practice nor through giving up on it all. We find it in the willing heart, in the moment we simply turn our head and see.


This body is the Buddha.

The Buddha is this moment.

Really. That’s it. And with that it’s as easy as falling off a log. All you have to do is notice the log and the falling are Buddha.

Nothing less…


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