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The monk’s conviction

by Kodo Sawaki


"A true monk can be recognized by the determination of his speech.
Let anyone who does not agree verify it for himself."
- Yoka Daishi, the Shodoka


A decisive explanation expresses the obvious, an irrefutable truth such as, “When it rains, it is not sunny,” or “My elder brother is older than me.” It is not expressed in vague and ambiguous language full of “probably” or “maybe.” Children do not use ambiguous language, but when they become adults, they get lost in conjectures about heaven and hell.

“Am I Buddha or am I not Buddha?” The problems raised by what happens after death are just pastimes for the idle. “Will I go to heaven or hell when I die?” How can there be such a fuss about this, when we are assailed by more immediate problems?


A man suffers the hardships of a man, and a woman the hardships of a woman. A poor person suffers the hardships of a poor person, and a rich person those of a rich person. A beautiful woman suffers the hardships of a beauty and an ugly woman those of an eyesore. All of this suffering is our immediate problem: it falls upon us with full force and anyone who doesn’t get hammered is either an imbecile or a lunatic. If this urgent subject is not taken into consideration, then the Buddha-Law is just canned, established dogma.


In the Gakudoyojinshu, Dogen wrote, “Whoever practices the Buddha-Way must, above all else, trust it. Whoever trusts it should reside in the Way and have no doubts, hesitations or illusions. He must have faith in the fact that nothing can be added, taken away or corrected.” There’s something that’s not hard to understand.


You are you: trust yourself. Otherwise, you are no longer yourself, you don’t know yourself. When you are yourself, it doesn’t matter if other people look at you or not; if you are doing what should be done, you are doing it well. So during zazen we sit up very straight when the kyosaku is behind us, and we do not become a limp dishrag when he has gone by. Why act otherwise? Isn’t it our own body? Since it’s our own body, it should be treated with dignity.


[Picture of Kodo Sawaki sitting in zazen]

Those who have faith in the Buddha-Way must trust themselves. You must believe that nothing differentiates us from Buddha. My raw material could have been put to other uses. I could have been a professor, for example, and become a leading expert on the matter. Or a politician – but in fact, what do you become when you’re a politician? How many times do you go to jail? Maybe a strolling musician in a chindon-ya band?


I think I would have liked that. Or a gangster – but I don’t know if you acquire prestigious titles on that path. In any case, whatever we do, we inevitably become something.


During the Sino-Japanese War, I went to the front as a private first class: “Private Sawaki!” “Here!” Then I became a corporal and I even made sergeant. But Soldier Sawaki’s career ended there.


When I’m angry and the blood rushes to my head, my face is angry. When I laugh, it laughs. I’m not another man when I become Buddha; I become myself. My raw material becomes Buddha, without anything hindering it. When you do zazen, your whole body is zazen. What I’m saying is absolutely true. If you drink alcohol, every articulation, every muscle, the smallest cell is drunk. This is what I call an undeniable truth and what I mean by determined speech.


The world of the awakened man is not that of ordinary man. The awakened man has a complete vision of the universe. From this perspective, all sentient or insentient things become the Way. Plants, trees, earth and planets are Buddha; mountains and rivers are Buddha made manifest.


In the world of the ignorant man, we just hear things like, “I’ve had some time to do zazen lately…” or “I’m too busy to do zazen right now…” Seen from the world of zazen, the whole world is zazen. The song of the wind and the rain is zazen. Consequently, seen from the world of Buddha, everything in the universe is Buddha. For someone who is not Buddha, nothing is Buddha. This is the reason why we can practice the Way anywhere, without anything hindering it.


Any place can become a dojo. I just have to hang up a sign, have students come and practice zazen. After my departure, it will become a normal living space again. This is how a man, through his action, can transform things. If we understand that our own action can change the world, we should have respect and consideration for ourselves. This is the clear and precise doctrine that reveals the true monk.


There is no room for equivocation in this doctrine. We shoot for the bull’s-eye, without hesitating.


Let anyone who does not agree verify it for himself.


Whether a runaway bull charges or the sky spins, we don’t move. What is, is; what is not, is not. What can be done, we do; what can’t be done, we don’t do. We do what must be done, and what must not be done, we don’t do. Thoughts and actions are clear and straight: that’s what is meant by a precise and determined doctrine. It is the deep conviction that what we say is the truth and that this truth is eternal.



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).