Songs of Awakening: the Early Zen Missionary to the West Nyogen Senzaki Comments on the Shodoka

Songs of Awakening: the Early Zen Missionary to the West Nyogen Senzaki Comments on the Shodoka January 14, 2022



Shodoka – Song of Realization
Yoka-daishi (d.713)
Excerpted from Buddhism and Zen
Compiled, edited and translated by Nyogen Senzaki and Ruth Stout McCandless
(New York: The Philosophical Library, 1953), pp. 32-72.

The stanzas italicized were translated from a copy of the original by Nyogen Senzaki, and the commentary following the stanzas was from Senzaki’s own instructions to his students.

The minute you attain Buddha’s Zen,
the six noble deeds and the ten thousand good actions are already complete within you.
In your dream there are six paths,
But when you awake, they will be reduced to nothingness.

No sin, no happiness, no loss and no gain.
Do not try to seek these things in Mind-Essence.
For a long time you have not wiped the dust from your mirror.
Now is the time for you to see its brilliance precisely.

Who thinks non-thinking and who recognizes non-existence?
It if is really non-existence, you cannot think of it.
Ask a robot whether it is happy or not.
As long as you aim to become Buddha,
No matter how you strive, you will never be one.

Do not cling to the four elements.
Drink and eat according to your true nature.
Things are transient, therefore, they are in a state of emptiness.
This is Buddha’s realization.

A true disciple of Buddha speaks the ultimate truth.
If you do not agree with what I say, you are free to discuss it.
You must remember, however, that Buddhism is concerned with the root of truth,
Not with the branches or leaves.

Most people do not recognize the mani-jewel, the gem of wisdom.
It is hidden in the secret place of Tathagata awaiting discovery and attainment.
The six senses and the six worlds interweave making life as it is.
It is an illusion as a whole, yet nothing exists to be called illusion.
The perfect light of this mani-jewel, the gem of wisdom, illuminates humanity.
It has neither color nor form, nor has it non-color and non-form.

Clarify the five kinds of vision, and acquire the five powers.
It is only possible through Zen meditation that goes beyond speculation.
One can see the images in the mirror naturally.
To hold the reflections of the moon on the water is impossible.

A Zen student should walk alone at all times.
Those who have attained, tread the same road of Nirvana.
Each of them is natural in manner, and clean and contented of heart.
Since not one of them is concerned with special attraction, no one pays them much attention.

The followers of Buddha speak of their poverty.
The simplicity of their living may be called poor, but not their Zen.
A monk’s gown, torn and mended, shows the world his poverty;
His Zen, unseen by others, is the treasure beyond all value.

No matter how much it is used, the priceless treasure never deteriorates.
It may be given freely to others who need it.
The three bodies of Buddha and the four kinds of wisdom are completely contained within it.
The eight sorts of emancipation and the six miraculous powers are merely impressions of the same seal.

The excellent student of Zen goes directly to the ultimate truth.
The fair or good ones like to learn from others but have no steady faith.
Once you strip off the tattered clothing of prejudice you will see your true self.
How can you wander around in outward striving?

One who attains Zen must acquire its eloquence.
Meditation and wisdom must have their full brilliance unclouded by an idea of emptiness.
Such an accomplishment is not limited to the few.
The Buddhas, countless as the sands of the Ganges, are all witness to this fact.

Zen students journey by land and sea, across rivers and over mountains.
Visiting monasteries and receiving personal guidance from teachers.
I also followed the Way, reaching So-kei, where I met my master and received Dharma.
Now I know my true being has nothing to do with birth and death.

A Zen student walks in Zen and sits in Zen.
Whether in speech and action, or silence and inaction, his body always dwells in peace.
He smiles, facing the sword that takes his life.
He keeps poise even at the moment of death, nor can drugs alter his calm.

Our great teacher, Sakyamuni, met Dipankara Buddha many millions of years ago, and accepted his Dharma.
Ever since, he is master of Ksanti, perserverance, life after life.

Man is born many times, so they die many times.
Life and death continue endlessly.
If you realize the true meaning of the unborn,
You will transcend both gladness and grief.

An ideal Zen student neither seeks the true
Nor avoids the untrue.
They know that these are merely dualistic ideas
That have no form.
Non-form is neither empty nor not empty.
It is the true form of Buddha’s wisdom.

To assist you in the interpretation of this stanza I shall paraphrase a portion of Shin-jin-mei, a poem written by the Third Patriarch in China.

“Truth is like vast space without entrance or exit. There is nothing more, nor nothing less. Foolish people limit themselves, covering their eyes, but truth is never hidden. Some attend lectures trying to grasp truth in the words of others. Some accumulate books trying to dig truth from the pile of trash. They are both wrong. A few of the wiser ones may learn meditation in their effort to reach an inner void. They chose the void rather than outer entanglements, but it is still the same old dualistic trick. Just think non-thinking if you are a true Zen student.
There you do not know anything, but you are with everything. There is no choice nor preference, and dualism will vanish by itself. But if you stop moving and hold quietness, that quietness is ever in motion. If children make a noise, you will scold them loudly so that the situation is worse than before. Just forget and ignore the noise, and you will attain peace of mind. When you forget your liking and disliking, you will get a glimpse of oneness. The serenity of this middle way is quite different from the inner void.”

The mind mirror illuminates all ingenuously.
Its penetrating, limitless rays reach everywhere
In the universe.
Without exception everything is reflected
In this mirror.
The whole universe is a gem of light
Beyond the terms of in and out.

Here is another portion of the Shin-jin-mei to interpret the preceding stanza:

“Zen transcends time and space. Ten thousand years are nothing but a thought after all. What you have seen is what you had in the whole world. If your thought transcends time and space, you will know that the smallest thing is large and the largest thing is small; that being is non-being and non-being is being. Without such experience you will hesitate to do anything. If you can realize that one is many, and many are one, your Zen will be completed.

“Faith and mind-essence are not separate from each other. You will see only the ‘not two.’ The ‘not two’ is the faith. The ‘not two’ is the mind essence. There is no other way but silence to express it properly. This silence is not the past. This silence is not the present. This silence is not the future.”

When a Zen student sees emptiness one-sidedly,
They are likely to ignore the law of causation,
Then live aimlessly with impure thoughts and wrong actions.
This idea is morbid as they deny the existence of anything,
But admit an entity of emptiness.
To escape drowning, they have thrown themselves into the fire.

To “see emptiness onesidedly” is to give another name to relativity, phenomenality or nothingness. When Buddhism denies the existence of anything, this of course includes the existence of emptiness. There is order; there is the law of causation. The use of the word “emptiness” implies that which cannot be spoken.

One who rejects delusions to search for truth,
May achieve skill in discrimination,
But such a student will never reach enlightenment
Because they mistake the enemy for their own child

Some Christians admire an angel but hate a devil. Some Confucians pine for the ancient kingdom but complain of the present government. All of them attempt to take hold of the true by abandoning the false. They struggle endlessly, but never attain true peacefulness. Zen students who try to reach truth by rejecting delusions are making the same mistake. Learn silence and work on constantly in silence, to see clearly what the mind is.

People miss the spiritual treasure and lose merit
Because they depend on dualistic thinking
And neglect the essence of mind.
To pass through the gate of Zen,
One must correct this error.
Then one can attain the wisdom
To enter the palace of Nivana.

Buddhists often refer to the ‘seven treasures’ (paramitas), which are faith, perseverance, listening, humility, precepts, self surrender, and meditation and wisdom. Meditation and wisdom are considered as one, inner cultivation and outer illumination. To acquire these seven treasures one must first of all see Mind-Essence clearly, just as Aladdin had first to find the lamp before he could produce other wonders.

Wobaku, a Chinese Zen master, once said, “Buddhas and sentient beings both grow out of One Mind, and there is no reality other than this Mind…Only because we seek it outwardly in a world of form, the more we seek, the farther away it moves from us. To make Buddha seek after himself, or to make Mind take hold of itself, this is impossible to the end of eternity. We do not realize that as soon as our thoughts cease and all attempts at forming ideas are forgotten, the Buddha is revealed before us.”

You cannot praise nor blame realization.
Like the sky, truth has no bounds.
Wherever you stand, it surrounds you.
When you seek it, you cannot reach it;
Your hand cannot hold it,
Nor your mind exclude it.
When you no longer seek it, it is with you.
In silence, you speak it loudly;
In speech you manifest its silence.
Thus the gate of compassion opens wide
To the benefit of all beings.

When you begin to study Zen, you aim to attain realization. Your motive is good in so far as motive is concerned, but in your meditation you should aim at nothing. You may aim at realization to encourage yourself when you are not meditating, but beware of clinging entanglements. Encouragement is one thing, meditation is another. Do not mix them up. Carry your meditation as the eternal present, and saturate your everyday life with it.

When a person asks me what branch of
Buddhism I studied, I tell him about
Mahaprajna, the root of the teaching.
Without Mahaprajna, though you know right and wrong,
You are beyond the truth.
With the root of the teaching,
Wherever you go it is the land of truth.

The teaching came from Buddha through the generations.
The lamp of wisdom was first transmitted to Mahakasyapa,
Then genealogically through twenty eight patriarchs.
Bodhidharma, the Patriarch of India, came to
This country across the seas.
My teacher, who works in So-kei,
Received his robe to become the Sixth Patriarch
Who knows how many generations will carry the teaching
In the future?

Buddhism is the teaching of self-enlightenment. No God or gods will help you to realize the truth. The power of realization within you is called Mahaprajna, meaning great wisdom. This is the root of the teaching, the source of all streams of Buddhistic thought. Those who speculate, reading scriptures or clinging to creeds and dogmas, wander far from realization. Ethical deeds and kind actions may be praised, but they are without real value until they spring from Mahaprajna. The brilliancy of Mahaprajna illumines all beings; Buddhas and Patriarchs reflect this brilliance one to the other.

The true does not stand by itself,
And the false never exists alone.
When the idea of existence and non-existence
Vanishes, the idea of emptiness and non-emptiness
The Sutra gives twenty names to emptiness, each showing
You the one body of Buddha-nature.

The mind rises and contacts the outer world,
Thus, delusions appear.
Subjectivity and objectivity are like dust on the
Surface of a mirror.
When the mirror is free of dust,
It shines brightly.
If no mind rises, there is no contact,
No delusion; only the true nature appears.

Yoka is warning us not to postulate true and false. Without dualism many can easily reach the truth, but they must experience it in their meditation. The goal of meditation is beyond words and ideas The names of emptiness are like lists of drugs. If you are well and strong, you are not interested in them. Many teachers seek to hold or to mystify a student by using the various designations of good or evil built up through the ages. If you wish to make a business of teaching, then memorize the names, but if you want emancipation for yourself and others, give up the drug business and practice Zen meditation.

No other trees grow in the forest of sandalwood;
For countless ages only lions have lived there,
Roaming freely in the silent, dark grove.
No birds and no other animals enter the forest,
Only the lion cubs follow the older beasts.
Even the three year old cub roars loudly.
How can a yelping fox imitate the kind of Dhamma?
Even though hundreds of monsters open
Their mouths, it will be in vain.

It is said in India that no inferior trees grow near a forest of sandalwood, so Buddhists use the name as a symbol of ultimate wisdom. In this stanza birds and beasts represent fame and glory. Monks are indifferent to these in any form in any age. Only the lion cubs can follow the older lions, and even they have learned to roar while still young. A yelping fox may fool some with his imitations, as a false teacher will use the words and rituals of true teachings, but when he meets a real lion he will be helpless.

Zen doctrine is no subject for sentiment.
Doubts cannot be cleared by argument.
I stubbornly demand your silence
To save you from the pitfall of being and non-being.

Zen allows no student to waste time even for a second. If you have a koan, work on it; if you have no koan, just count your breath. Doubt? What is it? Just keep on meditating. This is the only means of learning to walk the Middle Way.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!