Ikkyu and the Bones of the Buddha Statue

Once, Ikkyu was staying in a temple. The night was cold and there were three wooden Buddhas in the temple, so he burned one Buddha to warm himself.

The priest in charge of the temple woke up and noticed something was going on, so he looked to see what Ikkyu was doing.

The Buddha statue was burning and Ikkyu was sitting there warming his hands over the fire.

The priest got angry. He said, “What are you doing? Are you a madman?—and I thought you to be a Buddhist monk, that’s why I allowed you to stay in the temple. This is profane.”

Ikkyu said, “But the Buddha within me was feeling very cold. So it was a question whether to sacrifice the living Buddha to the wooden one, or to sacrifice the wooden one to the living one. And I decided for life.”

The priest was so angry that he couldn’t listen. He said, “You are a madman. You simply get out of here! You have burned Buddha.”

So Ikkyu started to poke the burned Buddha with a stick. There were ashes; the Buddha was almost consumed by the fire.

The priest asked, “What are you doing?”

Ikkyu said, “I am trying to find the bones of Buddha.”

So the priest laughed and said, “You are either a fool or a madman. And you are absolutely mad! You cannot find bones there, because it is just a wooden Buddha.”

Ikkyu laughed. He said, “Then bring the other two. The night is still very cold. I haven’t burned the Buddha. I’ve burned a wooden statue. And you called me the crazy one.”

What can we take from this? Is it just a funny story? Maybe.

I think it represents iconoclasm.

The priest is, in a sense, worshiping this Buddha statue. We shouldn’t worship it. We shouldn’t worship anything, really, but we especially shouldn’t be attached to an icon.

When we give a statue of the Buddha that much respect, we are doing what the Buddha said not to do. He said that the Dharma is what really matters, not him.

Historically it seems that the Buddha rejected the Guru/disciple teaching method. He often said, “You should think for yourselves.” And I think that is important to remember.

After his death, many branches of Buddhism did adopt the Guru/disciple method. They would probably do well to read stories like this one.




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The Samurai Who Became A Monk

The Fierce Zen of Suzuki Shosan.

The Samurai who became a monk.

“To learn to be always in a state of meditation means never to let your vital energy wane. You would never allow it to do so if it were certain that you were to die tomorrow.” ~ Suzuki Shosan

In Japan in the 1600s, a well known samurai retired at the age of 40 because he wanted to learn Zen.

He served under Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and it wasn’t until right after a decisive victory that he asked to be released from his samurai duties.

The Shogun allowed it.

He decided to live the life of a wandering monk. He traveled around Japan studying under different Zen masters. He spent a lot of time studying Zen history and he was really inspired by the stories about a certain iconoclastic Zen teacher from a couple centuries earlier named Ikkyu.

Although he spent a great deal of time studying with a teacher named Daigu Sochiko, he never received Dharma Transmission.

Suzuki Shosan declared himself Enlightened. And he didn’t even change his name to a Buddhist name.

Now, this might sounds scandalous: self-declared Enlightenment? Surely that couldn’t happen then or now!

Well, it did. It actually wasn’t all that rare at that time. Here in the West we sometimes think of Dharma Transmission as something really special. And it is, or it’s supposed to be.

But during Suzuki Shosan’s time the Zen community was very political. There was a thing going on that is sometimes called “Temple Transmission.”

That’s when someone is given Dharma Transmission, declared an Enlightened Master, for political or expedient reasons. It was one of the things that Shosan’s hero Ikkyu had condemned in the Zen establishment.

Example: Zen Master X needs someone to head a certain temple because the previous head of the temple has died or left. Zen Master X wants the head of the temple to have Dharma Transmission. So, he gives a student Dharma Transmission. Zen Master X didn’t wait until a student was Enlightened, he waited until he needed a student with Dharma Transmission around.

Not only that, but some temples were known to give Dharma Transmission for money, the same way diploma mills sell PhD s today. We don’t like to admit it, but this kind of thing happened. And it still happens.

The Dharma Transmission system is great. It has served us very well. But it’s not perfect. Because nothing that involves human beings can be perfect.

Not only that, but most Zen temples were, to a greater or lesser degree, connected to the Japanese government, which could be good sometimes and bad at other times.

Sometimes it seems like Zen history has two tracks.

Temple Zen is full of monks that live in monasteries and chant and meditate and memorize sutras all day.

Renegade Zen is full of people that challenged the establishment, that thought of things in new ways, that weren’t afraid to innovate.

The renegades: Dogen, Rinzai, Ikkyu, Huineng…these are the ones that we remember. There is an iconoclastic current at work here.

Anyway, Suzuki Shosan declared his own Enlightenment because he didn’t want to deal with politics.

At this time in Japan this happened sometimes. He was not unique. Although he didn’t bother with the temple system for certifying his Enlightenment, he also didn’t go around criticizing the temple system. I think that’s an important point.

Anyway, even though he wasn’t a “good” Zen Master, I still think his teaching can be useful to us.

He taught something that he called Nio Zen.

The Nio are those scary looking figures that stand outside of some Zen temples in Japan.


They are supposed to be these demon guardians that protect the Dharma.

Shosan told his students to visualize the Nio in meditation, to help them channel energy and vitality. He believed that the fierceness of the Nio could help us conquer the three poisons.

He also told his students to be ready for death at any moment, as a way to strengthen present moment awareness. This, it is thought, was inspired by his career as a samurai.

But this is why I really like him:

There was a pretty popular view in Shosan’s time that to attain Enlightenment, one had to separate from the world. If not actually become a monk, at least spend a lot of time alone. Shosan didn’t believe that. He thought that the message of Enlightenment could and should be brought to everyone at all levels of society. If Buddha nature is our true nature, then anyone should be able to attain Enlightenment, from the most high level monk down to the lowly criminal. Although he lived the life of a monk, he specifically told people that they didn’t need to, that Enlightenment was already available right here in this moment.

Suzuki Shosan built 32 Zen temples, which is in itself and incredible achievement.

He was 76 years old when he died.

He left behind a book of teachings called “Parting the Grasses at the Foot of the Mountain.”

He wasn’t a ‘good’ Zen Master, but I like him. He was more worthy of the title than many people who receive it in the official way.


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Cutting Down the Buddha

Lin Chi said, “If you meet a Buddha, cut him down,” because we need to cultivate a feeling of doubt that cuts down all thoughts and mental states during training. This sounds terrible to us at first. Why would we kill the Buddha? But Lin Chi is trying to make an important point. Lin Chi is giving us a metaphorical argument for the rejection of dogmatism. It can be easy for us to accidentally put our teachers on a pedestal.

This would be a mistake. Far from being hateful, it’s because Lin Chi loved the Buddha that he wanted to remind us not to turn him into an object of worship. The Buddha didn’t want people to look at him as a god; he was simply a teacher who provided instructions for a way of life. This kind of iconoclasm isn’t rare in Buddhism. So, he said we should cut down the Buddha because worshiping the Buddha gets in the way of our cultivating a feeling of doubt. We shouldn’t be thinking about how great the Buddha is during training.

The real Buddha is within ourselves, it’s our Buddha nature. Placing leaders and teachers on pedestals is dangerous. Throughout history we have repeatedly seen what can happen when religious leaders have too much authority. This is true in Buddhism as well as in every other religion. Teachers are just people. And teachers don’t take us to enlightenment—even the Buddha doesn’t. Teachers only point the way—we have to walk the path ourselves.

It seems that the Buddha didn’t want that kind of religious devotion anyway. When asked if he was a god, the Buddha said no. When asked who he was, the Buddha only replied, “I am awake.”
The Buddha isn’t a God and he didn’t want to be worshiped as one.
The Buddha isn’t going to save us or bring us to Enlightenment. We have to do that ourselves.

The Buddha that we imagine is nothing more than another delusion to be cut down.

Retreat with Maezen

I went on a retreat at the Rime Buddhist Center over the weekend. I am still feeling incredibly inspired by it. It was my first ‘sesshin’, Soto Zen retreat. It was the best retreat I’ve ever been on. The retreat was led by a visiting teacher named Karen Maezen Miller. She lives in California but comes to visit the Rime Center every few years. There were thirty of us attending.

She started with a talk about the meaning of Zen and ‘the beginner’s mind’. We had a completely silent lunch, which was an odd experience, and then we engaged in mindful activity, walking around the building wiping up dust with rags.

Then she held private one-on-one interviews for two hours. During this time, we alternated between twenty minutes of ‘zazen’, sitting meditation, followed by ten minutes of ‘kinhin,’ walking meditation.

Only eight of us got the chance to go meet with her one-on-one. I was the last person to go.

I knew the customary ritual. I entered the room where she was sitting. I bowed and said, “My name is Daniel. My practice is counting the breath.”

The way she looked at me, the way she looked at everyone, she seemed to radiate compassion and wisdom. I’ve never really seen that before, but it’s how Bodhisattvas are described. It reminded me of how Ram Dass described the Guru he met in India.

I asked her some questions about the differences between Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen. She told me that although she is known as a Soto Zen Priest, she practices both and her teacher practiced both as well. Rinzai is known for relying heavily on Koan practice and Soto is known for relying heavily on meditation. She pointed out that Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen wrote many Koans. There is plenty of overlap between the two schools of Zen. So, while I’ve been studying with a Rinzai group, I shouldn’t be worried about wishing it was Soto instead. (Or, for that matter, worried about the fact that the other group I study with is Vajrayana).

She said that now that we’ve met and had this retreat together, all of her lineage, going back to the Buddha, has now touched me. I certainly felt touched.

But, at the same time, she said lineage doesn’t matter too much. Meditation and mindfulness are what’s important. And it doesn’t really matter whether I study under a Soto or Rinzai teacher.

I’ve studied with many Buddhist teachers from many different traditions. Maezen is by far the most inspiring. I don’t want to say anything negative about any of the other Buddhist teachers. I only want to say that she really inspired me.

At the end we got to say some parting words to her in front of everyone.

I said, “I first read your book ‘Momma Zen’ because I wanted to learn about Buddhist parenting, because I’m a Buddhist parent myself. And I run the children’s program here at the Rime Center. I just wanted to tell you thank you for coming and you’ve been a big inspiration to me.”