At the Friends in Tea gathering last month, Eido Roshi, the head of the Daibosatsu, gave a talk commenting on the meaning of some famous Zen phrases that are often used on tea scrolls. I wanted to share some of the things he said here. I did my best to take the notes as accurately as possible, but I know there are some things missing, so for that I apologize.
“This expression is so enormous that I don’t have to tell you anything. … It’s often translated, ‘one time, one meeting.’ Literally, that is not inaccurate, but my interpretation is ‘unprecedented and unrepeatable.’ We have never before met here – unprecedented. Most likely, six years from now, there may be new faces. Hence, unrepeatable.”
Wa Kei Sei Jaku
[Usually translated “harmony, respect, purity, tranquility,” Roshi translates the second character “reverence” and the last one “extinction.”]
“Wa, kei, sei, jaku is a beautiful expression, but this order is wrong. Jaku is another way to say ‘Nirvana,’ which in English means ‘extinction.’ . . . We have a lot of deceptions, delusions, illusions, and even subconscious preconceived ideas. It is perhaps too idealistic to think that all these will be gone. If that happens, then wa, kei, and sei will be gone, too. But assuming that the preconceived ideas are extinguished [jaku], then wa, kei, and sei will happen.
“Some people translate ‘jaku’ as ‘tranquility,’ but tranquility is temporary. Of course, everything is temporary, but tranquility is particularly temporary. It should be translated ‘extinction.’ “
[This is not a word, but simply a circle drawn in a single stroke.]
“There are many ways to write this, but [it’s important to] do it in one breath – no inhalation, no exhalation. Quicker is better, more tasty.”
The enso is often written with a “san,” a poem or capping phrase accompanying the image. Usually the person who does the image and the person writing the capping phrase are different. Three common san that are often written with the enso are:
Tsuki ka dango ka oke no wa ka (Is it a moon or a dumpling or the ring of a wooden pail?) – “You can write anything here. Is it a bagel, or a doughnut, or just sembe?”
Nore ni te yoshi (It’s all right as it is) – “It’s all right as it is, whether it’s crooked or a perfect circle. A perfect circle is not so tasty as a crooked one.”
Kore nanzo! (What is this!)
“A Rinzai Zen master was constantly asking his students, ‘Who is it that hears? Who is it that tastes?’ . . . The other day I saw a photo in the paper of a painting in the Boston Museum. The title was, ‘Where are we from? Who are we? Where are we going?’ On one side was a baby, in the middle a young, strong man, and standing at the end was an old lady crouching. This is exactly the question, ‘Kore nanzo?’ It is undoubtedly the greatest question we can ask while we are living in this incarnation.”
Nichi Nichi Kore Kojitsu [Every day is a good day]
Konnichi Kore Kojitsu [Today is a good day]
“There was a Zen master named Unmon who said to his monks, ‘I do not ask anything before the 15th day of the month, but I will say something after the 15th day.’ And one monk said, ‘Nichi nichi kore kojitsu.’ It’s easily misinterpreted.”
Konnichi Buji [Today, no agenda]
“The real meaning of buji is:
bu = no, negation
ji = event, matter, happening
“Looking at our lives, birth is an event. It’s not a no-matter. Getting old is an event. Sickness, passing away, too. From morning to night, all day long, event, event, event. Up to this point, it’s easy [to understand].
“A few years ago I was translating the Genzai Roku into English. This buji is one of the main themes of the Genzai Roku, and I thought it needed explanation.
“We tend to think that by doing various practices we can reach a point where delusions disappear, and we think there’s nothing else to do. This view is a deception. How could reality be altered by practice? Yet, you may ask, if buji implies doing nothing, then why do we have to practice? Isn’t ‘doing nothing’ in the usual passive sense of the phrase enough? At the same time, isn’t every being one ji? And isn’t our very being the source of all our problems that exist? Can we negate or transcend our own limited being? When we completely realize the true nature of the universe, what seems to be ji is nothing other than buji. No matter what we do, [it’s nothing].
“The closest English word to ‘buji’ is ‘now.’ Can you improve on now? Of course not. At this moment, can you or your circumstances be otherwise? When you understand that the present moment is all there is, you have no choice but to come to a radical acceptance, and this radical acceptance is the most difficult part.
“Buji means ‘one with suchness’ – the unconditional nature of being ready to be, with nothing wanting, nothing superfluous.
“To understand what I have just said is not so difficult, but radical acceptance is hard, and therefore we need practice.
“Konnichi buji means ‘today I accept this is what it is.’ This is a dilemma. We want to make progress, and therefore we think, the more we practice the better we get. We cannot deny that. In one thousand years of practicing Zen, ten thousand years of practicing tea, there’s never a day when you’re ready. It’s always, not yet, not yet, not yet. But today, this is it. When those two come together – not yet / this is it – there’s no word for that, so we have to say radical acceptance.”
Tozan Sui Jo Ko [East mountain always walks on water]
Kumpu Minami Yori Kitari [Fragrant wind comes from the south]
“Sanmon asked Unmon, ‘Where do all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas come from?’
“Unmon said, ‘Tozan sui jo ko.’”
“Another monk said, ‘I would not have said it like that. I would have said, Kumpu minami yori kitari.’
“This you can understand even rationally.”
Den Kaku Biryo wo Shozu [A subtle coolness pervades the dharma hall]
“When you enter a tearoom, the firs thing you see is the tokonoma, and what the scroll there says determines the main theme of the gathering. At this morning’s chakai, there was a scroll that read ‘Sei gin no yo cha o niru,’ ‘Reciting poetry at night, boiling tea.’ Nowadays in modern society we cannot appreciate such a scene. In Western history the ancient period ends about the fifth century, when the Roman Empire was finished. After that, for nine hundred years we are in the Dark Age. Gradually, the Renaissance took place in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth centuries. From then on, things changed. In the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was where life really changed – how long we live, how quickly we live. We forgot the memento mori [mementos of the dead]. This is where our tragedy began. There are improvements – we have modern civilization – but we also have to remember the memento mori. Even the mention of death is taboo [today]. This is really a serious matter.
“Okay, we are living in the modern age. Accept, appreciate. But it makes our minds artificially and mechanically unnatural. It makes it essential to come to Daibosatsu and set up the tearoom, even though you don’t chant or say poetry, to make an image of that through the imagination, we can go back to ancient days. This is what is the point of tea practice. . . .
“Truly these days, East and West are no longer distinguishable. Even the borders are becoming less and less. And for us, students of Zen and students of tea, what is really necessary is learning the nature of beauty and simplicity.
“For Rikyu, everything was beauty. Even his death was beauty for him.”
[Roshi referenced Rikyu’s death poem, his san, which is as follows:
Having lived for seventy years
I have now transcended my anger [toward Hideyoshi], totsu!
I have carried my treasure sword throughout my life
It could kill the Buddhas and the patriarchs
Now the time has come for me to throw it to heaven!]
Haku Un Onozukara Koraisu [White cloud comes and goes naturally]
Seizan Moto Fudo [Blue mountain does not move]
“There is a contrast here – white and blue. You can imagine the clouds and the mountain. But you have to think another way: not yet / this is it.
“Which one is the mountain? Which one is not yet? This is it.”