Zen Road
Zen Road
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Why go elsewhere?

by Kodo Sawaki

"Do not seek the truth, do not cut illusion,
Understand that both are empty and devoid of character."
- Yoka Daishi, the Shodoka


Most men look for the truth and run from illusions. They are in a hole, where they turn in circles searching for a good place and running from the bad; one is no better than the other, but they turn about endlessly in the same hole.


Everyone wants to have a good memory to remember what others have said and written; but by merely memorizing what has been done, we live by importation and reduce our individuality and originality to nothing. On the other hand, it is extremely bothersome to forget everything. So, is it better to have a good memory or a bad one? Is it preferable to forget what has been said? Is it preferable to remember it? Where is the truth? I don’t know.


[One of the rare photos of Kodo Sawaki together with Taisen Deshimaru, probably at a summer sesshin, beginning of the 60s]

Shakyamuni said, “You must not spend your life wandering. You are seeking a house when you already have one. Do not build another!”


People spend their time moving.They disparage what they have and run after something else. You only have to observe a child to understand: he has a doll, but if another child has a caramel, he wants a caramel; if he has a caramel and he sees a whistle, he wants the whistle. Then it’s a top, and there’s no end to it. What he possesses no longer interests him as soon as he sees something else.


This is what Shakyamuni means by “wandering.” We look for what we like, but our point of view is constantly changing. Shakyamuni tells us, “You already have a house, don’t build another one!” Isn’t each of us born with a face, a brain, a body? Well then, rest in peace in your abode without going to look elsewhere. Nevertheless, we disparage what we are, the moment we are experiencing, the place where we live, and we leave in search of something else.


It is written in the Lotus Sutra, “The treasure is right next to you.” The ultimate resting place is not at the end of the earth: it’s here. It is also said, “Even though it is next to you, you do not see it!” The truth is so close and you don’t see it! The treasure is so close and you don’t see it! The Buddha is so close and you don’t see him!


You go far, far away to seek Buddha and satori, and you fall into hell. You rush in confusion and haste and when you arrive, there is nothing. The fog suddenly lifts: it was only a mirage. You want to go back to the land you came from, but you see that now you are surrounded by mountains sharp as blades and there is no going back. This is hell, the hell of the man dying of thirst in the desert.


We want to escape from a world we find dreadful but, after having left it, we miss it like a lost paradise. People always want to go somewhere else, and when they arrive at their destination, they feel like a rat in a sewer, and the place they came from seems even more wonderful.


The more we look, the more we sink into the quagmire. The deeper we sink, the more we suffer. In the biography of the painter and poet Buson, I read this phrase: “He had a cheerful and carefree character, his peaceful soul did not seek new horizons.” When we don’t seek anything, not even satori, we feel at ease because we have no tensions. It is very important to feel this well-being.


If we have no need for money, or fame, or a position in society, or satori, or even life, we feel an unparalleled sensation of well-being.


On the other hand, there are people who want to have satori, sleep late and eat well at the same time, or who would like to not have any desires, but who love money and pleasure. There are also lazy people who dream of being workaholics. This endless chain of “I want this, I want that” inevitably leads to suffering. As the proverb says, we want to live long and eat fugu too.(1) In a word, we want to win on all counts.


The date of our death is not set and we don’t know where we come from and where we go. Consequently, the only important thing is to accept ourselves as we are, in our current reality. We must take ourselves in hand, hold on firmly, not let ourselves go. When we have a good grip on ourselves, we cannot run after something or run away from it.


By not seeking the truth and not cutting illusions, we maintain an unshakeable calm. Seated with dignity, legs pushing into the ground, lower back steady and abdomen at ease, the body remains calm and the mind is tranquil. Yesterday was a good day; today is too; tomorrow will be a good day and the day after tomorrow as well.



(1) ie, We want to have our cake and eat it too. Fugu is Japanese for puffer fish, considered a delicacy in Japan in spite of the fact that its liver, gonads and skin are highly poisonous. The fish must be prepared by specially certified chefs. Even so, many cases of poisoning are reported annually, most resulting in fatalities.



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).