Saturday, 11 June 2016


36. There is something refreshing about coming across one of the so-called 'ancient masters' who is not described as great or famous or celebrated. And so it is with the master the Japanese Zennists know as Kempo, this being their way of pronouncing the name of the Chinese master Kan-feng. About this Kempo, commentators say, not much is known other than that he was a disciple of, and then successor to, Tozan, founder of the Soto School of Zen, and who died in 869. The dates for Kempo's birth and death are not recorded but as a successor to Tozan he must have been active towards the end of the 9th century, and perhaps into the early part of the 10th century, in China. He seems to have been remembered on account of his response to a nameless monk who had come to him with a quotation from a sutra. The quotation went like this: 'Bhagavats in the ten directions. One straight road to Nirvana'. The monk then added this query: 'I still wonder where the road can be'.
     Was the monk hoping for a scholarly discussion about how the verse related to its source text, the Surangama Sutra? Was he looking to start a philosophical argument about the One and the Many, especially in terms of the one road and the many Bhagavats? Was he genuinely concerned as to how he might choose a sure path from among a host of competing philosophies, schools, teachers?
     Kempo's response cuts through all these possibilities. Lifting up his staff, which no doubt lay near at hand, he simply drew a line in the air and said, 'here it is'. A line in the air: something invisible, something intangible, something that consists only in the doing of it, something that leaves no trace, something that is not a 'something', such was Kempo's response to the sutra quoting monk. Notice that he did add some words with his 'here it is'. Even so, if the monk had blinked (and he surely did) he would have missed it. If, on the other hand, he had had his eyes open and his wits about him, he would have seen what can't be seen, touched what can't be touched, heard what can't be heard. He would have, there and then, been plunged into that vast emptiness of which Bodhidharma spoke, that emptiness in which there are neither Bhagavats nor roads, neither masters nor disciples, neither great masters nor lesser masters. Right in front of him he would have encountered 'this', namely, 'one straight road to Nirvana'.
     (Kempo's teaching, like the man himself, brings to mind the flight of a bird - easily missed and it leaves no trace.)

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