Zen Road
Zen Road
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No competence required

by Reiryu Philippe Coupey


When examining a person, our eyes must be true and catch him before his action.
We must understand that there is another transmission of the doctrines which does not rely on sutras or other writings.
Pay no attention to trivialities, and, please, go forward in one step.
The great road to Choan(1) is straight as a line.
When examining a person, our eyes must be true and catch him before his action.
- Daichi Sokei


"When examining a person, our eyes must be true and catch him before his action." Of course there is a transmission outside of writings. Our transmission begins with Buddha, who turned the flower before Mahakashyapa – which has nothing to do with writing. In fact most Zen stories have nothing to do with writing: Hotei’s finger pointing to the moon, Gutei’s thumb…. So to lend a hand, we must not rely on words. Zen sayings can’t really help us, nor can well-turned phrases.

Today, everything is based on form. “Oh, he writes very well!” “What a lovely sentence.” Recently I was reading a sutra (Samyutta-Nikaya II, 267), and was struck by a reference to the Kali Yuga period, called “The Apocalypse,” which explained when and why we will lose the essence of Buddha’s teaching. It said that one of the signs of the degeneration of this teaching would be when we start writing fine, flowery phrases, and begin transforming everything this way.


So what is the essence?

It’s i shin den shin. [from heart-mind to heart-mind]


Of course our civilization needs great works. But what’s more important – great works, or great people? We could say that the world needs great men and great women withoutgreat works.


Master Rinzai often spoke about “the man without qualities.” Master Deshimaru didn’t have any qualities that I know of. This is perhaps characteristic of a great man.(2)


The great road to Choan is straight as a line.

No special qualities are required to follow it. Courage is not a quality. Master Kodo Sawaki, speaking about how to live, said that in order to become aware of reality – and that’s exactly what we do in zazen, that’s the teaching, that’s the moon, not the finger that points to it – courage is necessary. Cold-bloodedness. To rid oneself of one’s blindfold.


This is not really the case of the person who is a word specialist, although writers often consider themselves courageous. It’s intellectual, it’s in the head, it’s not diving in, body and mind.


In our civilization today, form has become our only relationship to the world, with words serving to create the image of form. This is not the act of going beyond. This is not the act of the unknown – “unknown” in the sense of sampai. Primitive man didn’t have an image in his head. That came later. He did sampai. He joined the universal. He was universal, and only universal. Today he is an individual, someone who must succeed, who must develop a sense of self.


Education is essential. But it must be an education which touches true mind. This is zazen: educating, not the frontal brain or intellect, but the central brain, the hypothalamus, the meeting point between body and mind. That’s what it means to not depend on words. That’s the action before the action. That’s not paying attention to trivialities. That’s straight as a line. That’s the courage Kodo Sawaki is talking about. That’s the man without qualities. The great man.


This is not an education that’s going to make us efficient in one area or another. It’s not an education that’s going to get us diplomas. It’s an education that consists of completely developing the human character, the mind.


Recently, a study was conducted to find out why certain men and women became important people in our society, people who have had great influence on this earth. And the conclusion was that it was never thanks to the education they had received in school, and certainly not thanks to the diplomas they had acquired. It was due to their character, which blossomed during their lifetime.



The great road to Choan is straight as a line.



Kodo Sawaki often said that our practice means living the life that goes straight ahead. A clearly defined goal.


Go directly to the root. Ku. Don’t follow words. Don’t follow language. Before words, before language, before the sutras, before the image. This is lending a hand. It’s going beyond. It doesn’t mean leaving the earth and floating in the cosmos, with Dogen, or Daichi. We must come back to earth, enter into the earth, like the two fighting mud cows who fell into the sea and melted away. No more illusions.



(1)Choan (Jap.), Sian or Xi’an (Ch.). Ancient capital of China and its current historical center.


(2)Writer Yukio Mishima (1925-1970): “The samurai who would let himself cultivate a particular art or technique will see his specialized function ruin his ideal…. A complete being does not need competence.” (The Samurai Ethic and Modern Japan)

Samurai Jocho Yamamoto Tsunetomo (d. 1719): “The man who bases his reputation on competence in a particular technique is an imbecile… Such an individual can serve no purpose.” (Hagakure)



Excerpts from a kusen given at La Gendronnière Zen Temple, October 21-24, 2004.


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