Zen Road
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Putting abilities to good use

by Kodo Sawaki

[Picture of a jovial Kodo Sawaki in old age]
"The great man (1) seizes the sword of wisdom,
Its prajna point and diamond flame."
- Yoka Daishi, the Shodoka

Buddhism is the religion of wisdom. The true man holds the sword of wisdom. Wisdom is our unique aspiration. Our supreme ideal is to become a true man. In our world, we say, “There is no cure for stupidity.” Buddha also said, “You should not strike up a friendship with a fool.”


Here is a story about an idiotic son. He was very devoted to his father and practiced filial piety with fervor. His father was bald as an egg. One day while he was taking his nap, the flies were proving particularly aggressive. They would not stop coming and going on his bare head – some versions even say they were mosquitoes. The devoted son chased them away with ardor but without result. They would come back just as quickly. He was exasperated and ended up getting angry. He grabbed a block of wood, held it high above his head and in one blow brought it down on the flies. The flies escaped, and the head burst into pieces. At that moment, the tree-god sounded this refrain: “It is better to have a sage for an enemy than a moron for an ally.”


When the enemy is a sage, we are enriched by guessing his intentions. (Naturally, we are not talking about false sages.) When we strike up a friendship with a fool, if only out of pure compassion, to show him what a true man is, we should expect cruel disappointment.


Seizing the sword of wisdom is of vital importance, an essential factor in the chain of causality. Even without money or rank, polishing the sword of wisdom without the slightest particle of untruthfulness or error tarnishing it should be the sole aspiration of every human being.


The human race is famous for its intelligence and its manual dexterity, thanks to which man builds all sorts of machines. He also has a propensity to quarrel and uses language with skill. In a word, man is endowed with all sorts of talents. Unfortunately, it turns out that, among humans, rare are the individuals who make good use of their abilities.


Moral standards say that we must not misuse our gifts; I would say that we must do everything we can to exhibit our talents as best we can. A crook makes bad use of his talents. So does a moneylender. So does a man with three vacation homes and several mistresses in his care. Each in his own way is an example of misused talent. I’m the first to admit it: when I look at myself closely, I perceive that I am a mediocre user. Faultless lives are extremely rare.


[Picture of Kodo Sawaki sitting in zazen]

Making the most of our abilities is identifying ourselves with Buddha or God. I would say that we must first of all know ourselves completely, then put the best of ourselves to use by cutting through the passions that lead us to use ourselves badly. This way, we raise ourselves up on our own summit, a peak dazzling with a light that contains the whole universe, and we brandish the sharp blade of wisdom. In other words, seizing the sword of wisdom is carrying human abilities to their optimum worth.


The person who reaches this ultimate point where sky and earth have the same root, where he is one with all things and the whole universe – this man has the ability to help others. Even if he doesn’t have Shakyamuni’s monopoly, he is no less a buddha. “Sentient and non-sentient beings become the Way; grass, trees, countries and lands, everything, without exception, becomes Buddha.”


I have dwelled quite a long time on this one phrase –


"the great man seizes the sword of wisdom"


– because it is fundamental. The sword, with its prajna point and diamond flame, has the hardness and brilliance of a diamond, which is the symbol of indestructibility. So let us be reassured, the sword of wisdom is solid: its point does not bend and its flame does not go out. The sharp point is the man who, rising up to his highest degree, uses his abilities to the fullest.


At that moment, he holds in his hand a diamond flame. It is regrettable that some people spend their time sewing garments for dead children, or making funeral masks or building tombs as second homes, when life quivers before us! By seizing


"the sword of wisdom with its prajna point and diamond flame,"


we seize life afresh, authentic life, life at face value, here and now.



(1) the great man: Jap. daijobu; Chin. ta-chang-fu; Skt. mahapurusa.

This expression is a name given to those who have awakened to Buddha-nature.

Étienne Lamotte, in L’Enseignement de Vimalakirti (Vimalakirti’s Teaching, English translation by Sara Boin-Webb), translates it as “great man.” A.L. Colas, in Poèmes du zen des Cinq-montagnes (Zen Poems of the Five Mountains), quotes Jakushitsu Genko (1390-1367): “Zazen practice is the affair of solid people (daijobu). It is not within the reach of weak or soft temperaments…”

He notes that “great man” might lead to confusion. Daijobu is a mentally healthy and morally strong creature who knows how to be free of the passionate illnesses contracted by the intellect and the affectivity of the ordinary human being.



Excerpted from Chant de l’Éveil: le Shodoka commenté par un maître zen (”The Song of Awakening: A Zen Master’s Commentaries on The Shodoka“) by Kodo Sawaki (Paris: AZI/Albin Michel, 1999).