Monday, 5 September 2016


57. Intellectuals and scholars tend to get a bad press in the Zen tradition. A case in point is that of the ninth century Chinese master Kyogen, a scholar renowned for his erudition. He began his training under Master Hyakujo and then, after Hyakujo died, became a disciple of Master Isan who saw at once that his learned disciple was too clever by half. Telling Kyogen that his great learning stood in the way of him attaining enlightenment, Isan challenged his disciple with the question, 'What is your true self - the self that existed before you came out of your mother's womb, before you knew east from west?' At this Kyogen was at first dumbfounded and didn't know what to say. Then, racking his brains, he came up with all sorts of answers, none of which hit the mark. Isan rejected each of them out of hand. In his desperation Kyogen begged his master to explain the matter to him. Isan, however, insisted that Kyogen should find the answer for himself. True to form, Kyogen turned to his books and the copious notes he had taken over the years. But for all his poring over these learned texts he remained completely baffled. He evidently failed to realise that Isan had not asked him about what he had learned from his reading or from his study of the sutras. Eventually he saw that the books couldn't help him and he gave up on them. Such was his disgust with what they had to offer that he actually burnt them and resolved that henceforth he would live the life of a simple monk or, as he put it, 'a rice-gruel monk'. To this end he left his master and went off to serve as caretaker for the graveyard where a famous master was buried. There he lived in a small hut and busied himself with meditation and the performance of simple everyday tasks. And so it came to pass that one day while he was sweeping the ground around the dead master's tomb his broom picked up a small stone and sent it flying to bang against some bamboo. Tock! The sound of the stone hitting the bamboo brought Kyogen to a sudden realisation of his true self, the self that existed before he came out of his mother's womb, before he knew east from west.