Zen Road
Zen Road
  • english
  • deutsch
  • français

A penniless king

by Kodo Sawaki

"There are no inclinations in the sudden, perfect doctrine,
If you have questions you cannot resolve, you must debate them immediately."
- Yoka Daishi, the Shodoka


The perfect doctrine does not know emotions and attachments. The perception of the world does not occur through emotions, as it does with ordinary people. For ordinary people, it is better to be rich than poor and better to be the employer than the employee. They prefer what is good to what is bad. This way of thinking is by nature emotional. When we transcend emotions and preferences, our vision of reality is totally different and phenomena are seen from a diametrically opposed angle.

Poverty made me carefree. The only thing I inherited from my parents was their debts, but I am the king of my kingdom. A penniless king, who goes on foot, bringing his treasures and property with him. I am home wherever I go.


When I am asked my address, I reply, “Komagawa University.” People immediately say, “Isn’t that your business address?” Today, people think that we work at a university to pocket a salary. I don’t go to Komagawa University to earn a living. It is the place where I work, that is, where I fulfill my mission. Let’s say that it is my main temple. In a way, you could say that it is my business address.


[Picture of “Homeless” Kodo Sawaki carrying a stick and wearing all he needs for walking]

I’m not pinned down anywhere: I’m here, I go there, and from there I go somewhere else. I move from one point to another, because I have no house to come back to. I’m making my way without worry towards my final home. It is simply for greater convenience that I leave companions and furniture in each place, which I use as signposts on the road.


My parents left me heavy debts that I wanted to pay off before I left for the war in Manchuria, in case I didn’t come back. I borrowed money from a loan-shark. Having survived the war, I settled my debts when I returned. The day I made the last payment, I was delirious with happiness and screamed to the four winds that now I was the only captain on board, heaven forgive me!


If my parents had left me a fortune, I would have squandered it and I probably would have turned out badly. Without being forced to exercise, my body trained itself to withstand anything and to abstain from fine foods. Whatever torture was inflicted – water, fire, misery – it made it through every test, without ever showing the slightest sign of weakness.


You should not hastily conclude that it is a joy to be poor ; but no better training exists for forming character and toughening the body. When you have a wife and children in your care, the situation is very different depending on whether or not you inherit a fortune. Parents’ money can be used to pay for your wife’s wardrobe or your children’s schooling – you just have to give the order. With no fortune, you have to make ends meet and sort things out alone.


If I had had money, I would have studied in a world-renowned university and received a doctoral degree, or maybe two. Since I was poor, I only had four years of primary school. But I was resourceful. I went to a special school with students who were coming out of secondary school. They had some knowledge of English, whereas I had none.


One day I asked a student what a word meant; he answered, “It means ‘You’re an idiot!’” I believed him. It stayed etched in my memory. I was last in a class of thirty students and by working hard, I managed to reach the eighteenth or nineteenth place. I have bitter memories of it, but there was nothing I could do – I didn’t have the basics. Nevertheless, I experienced an immense joy pursuing studies that I paid for myself.


You might think I’m a bit mad and that I have a curious way of seeing things and understanding happiness; but that’s exactly what this phrase means:


"there are no inclinations in the sudden, perfect doctrine"


So it is that someone who benefits from his parents’ money for his studies experiences less satisfaction than the poor person who must suffer to pay for them by himself. Life is not a peaceful river; its waters are turbulent and impetuous: you laugh, you cry, they topple you and sweep you away, but you experience enormous happiness when you manage to get across.


When I’m asked if it’s evil to be rich, I don’t know how to answer. Is it better to have wealthy parents? I don’t know. According to popular opinion, you are at an advantage when you have wealthy parents and at a disadvantage when your parents are poor. It is also said that hell is a horrible place, heaven a place of delights and this world a disappointment.


All these opinions are just worthless conventional ideas. Buddha is reality as it is, with its mixture of illusions, hell, heaven and Buddha. This is the teaching of the perfect doctrine: There are no inclinations in the sudden, perfect doctrine. This is what you must absolutely understand.



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).