One day Hung-Jen, the fifth patriarch of the Dhyana sect in China, made an announcement to his disciples, saying that whoever was capable of giving a satisfactory proof of his thorough comprehension of Buddhism would succeed him in religious authority. The result was the following two stanzas, the first by one of his most learned disciples and the second by his humble rice-pounder, who, however, was awarded the prize.
The body is the holy Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a mirror shining bright;
Exert yourself to keep them always clean,
And never let the dust accumulate.
No holy tree exists as Bodhi known,
No mirror shining bright is standing here,
Since there is nothing from the very first,
Where can the dust itself accumulate?
The two stanzas are suited to illustrate that to obtain a comprehensive view of truth it is not enough to know only one side of the shield, but we must turn it around and see the reverse, as one is complementary to the other. Judging superficially, the two stanzas appear to be directly contradicting each other, for while one advocates the strenuous life, the other seems to be tending to nihilism and libertinism. In my opinion, however, Buddhism would be incomprehensible if these two apparently antagonizing views were not synthesized and harmoniously blended.
These two stanzas are the two wings of a bird, or the two wheels of a cart, or, perhaps more exactly, one is like the eye and the other the legs. With the eye we can see, but we cannot move, as we have no legs; with the legs we are able to move, but we are blind, as we are without sight. From the standpoint of absolute truth, there is no such thing as mind or matter or even God or universe. But if we confine ourselves to this view and become blind to the other side, which says that the many exists, that the world actually is, we are like the man who has no legs; we are unable to move, we cannot carry ourselves, we are helpless, we cannot live our daily life. Philosophical insight may be far-reaching enough, but it is contentless, it lacks the material on which to work. Therefore, we must look at the other side and see how our practical life is to be regulated; we must see how our legs are fixed, whether they are strong enough to take us where the eye is directing.
Again, we must not forget that practical discipline alone does not lead us to the abode of final enlightenment. It is very excellent not to neglect the cleaning of the mirror, the purifying of the mind, which is likely all the time to collect the dust of passion on it. But if we fail to see that a merely conventional, superficial purification is very much like groping in the dark without the knowledge of the import of existence, our spiritual horizon will draw itself within narrow limits like a snail retiring within the shell, and we may lose our original, intrinsic, spontaneous freedom and tranquillity, which belong to the mind by its own constitution; we may put ourselves under an unnecessary yoke, moving only within a prescribed circle. In other words, we may lose simplicity, naturalness, ease of movement in our thinkings and doings.
In what follows I will consider the teaching of Buddhism as stated in the two stanzas harmoniously viewed.
The first stanza begins with the line “The body is the holy Bodhi tree.” In this, our body is compared to the sacredness of the Bodhi tree under which the founder of Buddhism attained his spiritual enlightenment and laid down the foundation of his system. The body, however evanescent in its character, must be considered holy even as the holy tree, and all the necessary care should be taken to keep it the worthy vessel in which the spirit is lodged. There are many fanatic believers in asceticism and self-mortification, thinking that this material existence is the root of evil and therefore the more it is tortured the purer and holier will grow the spirit. The flesh is in its very nature antagonistic to the spirit. They cannot thrive in harmonious relation with each other. The stronger the flesh, the weaker the spirit, and vice versa. The line “The body is the holy Bodhi tree” is directed against those who hold this kind of view. That is to say, Buddhism does not espouse any ascetic practice, nor does it hold a doctrine tending to a dualistic conception of existence which makes the flesh the source of evil and the spirit the foundation of everything good. The body as a material phenomenon has its limitations, as a living organism has its impulses, desires, passions, and moods; and there is nothing evil or wicked in it. It is thirsty and it must drink; it is hungry and it must be fed. Exposure to cold affects its well-being, and it must be clothed. Too much strenuosity exhausts its energy, and it must rest. All these things are inherent in it, and unless we demand that the tree grow as the fish, as a Japanese saying goes, it is altogether irrational to wish our bodily existence to be free from all its constitutional wants. Therefore, Buddhism teaches us not to curb them and torture the body but to regulate them and prevent their going to self-destruction through wantonness.
The second line reads, “The mind is like a mirror shining bright.” This may suggest, when contrasted with the first line, a dualistic conception of our existence, making mind independent of body. But I am not going to enter into this complicated problem—the problem of mind and body, whether they are one or separate. For convenience’s sake, I take the mind as the subjective aspect of the body and the body as the objective aspect of the mind. To speak more popularly, the mind is the inner side of the body and the body is the outer case of the mind. They both make up one solid reality. Within, it is felt as consciousness; without, it is perceived as body. Now, this body is sacred as the Bodhi tree, and every care has to be taken for its well-being. So with the mind: it must be made to retain its original purity through moral discipline.
The mind as it first came from the hands of God was pure, simple, illuminating as the mirror. But in its constant contact with the world of sense, it has become liable to be carried away by its impressions and impulses without ever reminding itself of its original purity. What comes from outside does not, of course, defile the mind, but when the latter loses its own control and gives way to sensuality, the dust begins to accumulate on it. When its transparency is thus gone, the mind becomes a plaything of all chance impulses and haphazard impressions, like a river-ark drifting in the ocean and being tossed up and down by the capricious waves. Buddhism calls such a one ignorant and wanting in the Bodhi (wisdom). It therefore admonishes us to reflect within ourselves constantly and not to give a free rein to the sensual, selfish, unenlightened passions. The reason why Buddhism has so many moral precepts and monastic rules to regulate the lives of the lay disciples and monks will now be understood. They are all intended for the purification of the mind and the regulation of bodily desires. They are meant to ward off the evil influences that disturb serenity of mind and simplicity of heart, in order that our divine nature residing within us may fulfill its own significance and be free in its own operations. Buddhism does not desire to impede in any way our rational activities but simply to check the progress of evil desires, selfish impulses, and unenlightened motives.
So far we have dealt with the ethical and practical phase of Buddhism as enunciated in the first stanza. Now we must go around and see what is the other side of Buddhism, which constitutes the philosophical foundation of the system. It is not enough for us, it is not worthy of the name of a human being, merely to live and not to endeavor to unravel the mysteries of life. As rational, conscious beings, we must look into the reason of things, we must know the why of existence. To live even as a saint is not quite gratifying to the intellectual cravings of the human mind. Of course, every religion must find its culmination in our practical life and not in our abstract speculation. Yet we must seek a philosophical basis of conduct. And Buddhism finds this in the second stanza cited at the beginning of this discourse.
At first blush the stanza seems to smack not a little of nihilism, as it apparently denies the existence of individuality. But those who stop short at this negative interpretation of it are not likely to grasp the deep significance of Buddhism. For Buddhism teaches in this stanza the existence of the highest reality that transcends the duality of body and mind as well as the limitations of time and space. Though this highest reality is the source of life, the ultimate reason of existence, and the norm of things multifarious and multitudinous, it has nothing particular in it, it cannot be designated by any determinative terms, it refuses to be expressed in the phraseology we use in our common parlance. Why? For it is an absolute unity, and there is nothing individual, particular, dualistic, or conditional. It is a great mistake, an intellectual weakness, to suppose that there is such a thing as a personal God or an immortal soul that stands like a mirror bright and shining and that is susceptible to contamination or corruption. For practical purposes we may provisionally admit the existence of an entity that some people call God and that is independent of this world; we may again admit the existence of the soul that is the master of this material phenomenon called body. But to understand these things as actually existing the way our shortsighted intellect conceives them is a fatal mistake.
We must first directly comprehend the spiritual reason of things and then let us with this insight look upon things that are about us. It would be madness to deny the reality of the phenomenal world, but in the midst of these realities the enlightened see their nonreality. There towers a huge mountain, here lies a boundless ocean, birds are singing, trees are growing, and I sit here looking over the verdant meadow; yet, in spite of all these—no, indeed by reason of these, I believe in the nothingness of existence, in the nonreality of realities, and in the absolute oneness of all things; and it is thereby that I gain my peace of mind and realize the sense of perfect freedom in my everyday life.
All those moral laws and religious regulations which I at first found unreasonably fettering my free activity are now blessings, for I am no more than those laws and rules themselves. I have become master of them. I am the maker of all those moral laws, and my existence consists in the execution of them. I say this, and then ask you, does God feel himself hampered in his activity when he has so many laws of nature to observe? Does he, for instance, complain of the law of gravity when he wants an apple to drop on the ground? Is he not perfectly free in following the laws of nature? And are we not made in his image? I see, then, no obstacles, no hampering, no discordant jarring in my following the laws of my being. And hereby we go back to the first stanza of moral discipline. We find now the middle course of truth, a complete harmonization of discipline and naturalness.
At first we had a feeling of compulsion and restraint, but now at the mastery of the second stanza we have philosophical intuition and feel perfectly at ease. We move as we will, yet we do not transgress. Our conduct, when our spiritual enlightenment reaches this stage, is in complete accord with the reason of heaven and earth, for we are now identified with it. From the start our religious discipline has been to attain this ease, this freedom, this simplicity, this spirituality, and we have at last reached the goal and are at rest. The bird has acquired two strong wings, the cart is supplied with a pair of running wheels, and we have the eyes that see and the legs that walk. There is nothing now in this life that will possibly cause vexation of spirit or the gnashing of teeth and the palpitation of heart.
From Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot by Soyen Shaku, ©2004 by Taitetsu Unno, ed. Reprinted with permission of Three Leaves Press.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.