Monday, September 22, 2014


“I am the master of my fate:
“I am the captain of my soul.”

Bassui Tokushō was a Zen practitioner who did not want to be called a master. He lived in the late 1300s and trained in Sōtō, Rinzai, and Ch'an schools. Although he absorbed the wide-ranging teachings of Zen, Bassui was irritated with the state of the practice in Japan. To him there was too much attachment by some monks and masters to ritual and dogma, as well as too much attachment to freedom and informality.
          That dissatisfaction bloomed at an early age. When Bassui was seven years old he asked a Zen priest, who was preparing food for a funeral ritual, who was going to eat the food.
          “The soul of the dead person, of course,” said the priest.
          “What is this thing you call the soul?” the boy asked.
          The priest didn’t respond.                                              
          Over the following years Bassui stopped wondering about soul, deciding the notion was too vague to have an answer. Instead he pondered about who it was that sees, hears, eats, and wonders at this very moment.
          That set him off on a journey from temple to temple asking learned priest after learned priest about one’s true self. Still, there were no answers, which exasperated him even more.
Though Bassui thought of himself as a Zen Buddhist he did not align himself with any temple or monastery. He diligently sat in zazen, but he did not shave his head, and he wore ordinary clothing. Nor did he recite sutras or chanted. Uninterested in the trimmings of Zen, he was absorbed in knowing he who really was master.
          When Bassui was asked why he didn’t dress like a practicing monk he said he became a monk to understand life, not to wear robes,
          When asked if he studied koans he said, “How can I appreciate the words of other men when I don’t even know my own mind?”
          Even though Bassui avoided being given any sort of title, at age thirty-one he reluctantly accepted ordination as a Zen master. Even then he was mistrustful of what he considered the too-easy confirmation, and he remained unimpressed by the prominent abbots and the proclaimed leaders of the times.
          For several years Bassui lived a wanderer’s life, sometimes staying in Zen temples, sometimes living alone as a hermit. When he re-visited the hermit monk Tokukei, the man realized Bassui was neither a follower nor a leader. He suggested he construct his own place of retreat and simply teach whoever might listen.
          Bassui built a hermitage, but whenever too many disciples gathered around him he would wander off.
          Bassui urged students to avoid koans until they had seen into their own nature. Unlike Zen masters of old, he neither ranted nor raved. Instead he spoke calmly of Dogen and other free-thinking teachers, He recounted stories of the ancients, and used folklore and legend, but he always returned to the question “Who is the one that is hearing at this very moment?”
          If a student asked him what to do about random thoughts that came up during zazen, Bassui said to acknowledge them and to ask “Who is it that is having these thoughts?” He encouraged emptiness, but at the same time he claimed emptiness was not self-realization.
           “If you catch a glimpse of your self-nature, Bassui insisted, “It is the same as reading all of the sutras without holding one in your hand and reading a word.”
          He said that the act of bowing before the Buddha was merely a physical exercise in horizontaling the mass of ego.
          That term “horizontaling” may not be a real word in either English or Japanese, but it makes the point.
          According to Bassui, wanting to be different from so-called ordinary people was the same as any other distracting thought. “Who is the one who sees all this?” was his favorite saying.
Bassui was reported never to have written anything. A disciple of his named Myodo compiled a short biography that included several of Bassui’s talks. When Bassui was requested to give the collection a title, he said, “This was not my idea. What name can I consider for such a coarse mixture of mud and water?”
          The present-day book titled Mud and Water: The Teachings of Zen Master Bassui, is available on Amazon. It contains such chapters as Outside the Scriptures and Not through Words; The Sole Practice of Zazen; The Wordless Sermon.
          Another book (Zen Radicals, Rebels, Reformers, authors Besserman and Steger) mentions that Bassui was an encouraging Zen teacher who did not browbeat his students but led them. He inspired them to have faith in themselves rather than in shrines or in question-and-answer contests. He constantly advised against becoming obsessed with koans. And he warned about fanatics, saying “Look into your own nature and sit in zazen.”
          Bassui may not have been a rebel, a radical, or a reformer. He was a Zen individual who taught what he believed.
          In his life Bassui exemplified the words of British poet William Henley:
“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”