Mud and Water: Bassui Zen


In November we will be spending time with the 14th century Japanese Zen Master Bassui—a name which means “far above average”, a title bestowed by Kohō Kakumyo ( 1271-1361) who was one of many renowned Dharma-masters Bassui encountered along the way to full Self-realization. His own discussions with monks and nuns as well as lay adepts have been compiled under what has come to be known as ‘Mud and Water’, or Wadeigassui which is part of a longer title indicating that the talks originated from the city of Enzan where Bassui was to become abbot of Kōgakuji Temple. We will soon discover, though, that Bassui abhorred “titles” and any manner of regimented religious institutionalized settings. By and large he was a zen-recluse who developed a most genuine insight into what it means to own one’s Buddha-nature. Also, the series of “talks” we will be encountering are not “formalized Dharma-teachings” but rather more along the lines of Dharshan, a Sanskrit term meaning ‘auspicious encounters’ with a revered spiritual master. Before entering into Bassui’s Dharshan sessions some biographical notes are in order.

Bassui’s mother was said to have had a dream that she would give birth to a demon child. Unable to shake off the fear of this omen, she abandoned the newborn Bassui in a nearby field. A family servant found the child there, took him in, and raised him. (Mud and Water, Braverman, pg. xiii)

Hah! And what a demon-child his mother had given birth to. A Bodhi-Demon who would rip and tear asunder the accumulated samsaric-rubbish from an adept’s understanding, empowering them to see ‘directly’ into their own vivifying Buddha-nature, a Bodhi-Demon who would show no mercy to preconceived notions that dared to stand in the way of ultimate Self-realization. At the age of four he questioned why his father’s corpse was placed amidst ‘offerings of food’, wondering how his “soul” could eat it. This was a nagging question that would stay with him for some time—like an annoying fly buzzing about his ear. He gradually came to the realization that there was “no-thing’ that could be grasped as a soul, pondering “Who is the one who sees, hears, and understands?” He spent the rest of his life experiencing ever-deeper revelations that unraveled this mystery. Bassui wandered for many years, coming into contact with great teachers and adepts before experiencing a satori-like moment with Kohō, who blasted-away his former notions of just what constituted the nature of emptiness—he expressed this breakthrough in a poem:

Six windows naturally open, a cold lone flower,
*Unju strikes the rubbish from my eyes,
Crushes the gem in my hand right before me,
So be it, this gold has become hard iron

*referring to Kohō by using the name of his temple

Bassui continued to expand his Buddha-gnosis by frequently visiting numerous Zen monasteries and hermitages. He challenged those who felt too comfy living in their grand monastic-settings, as if excessive formalized structures were the answer to their life’s meaning. He was also critical of another type of monk:

This was one who, disregarding the correct behavior befitting a monk, acted in an eccentric manner, thinking he was behaving in accord with the spirit of the ancient masters. He might get drunk, act rudely, break the precepts, and think that his unconventional behavior was proof of his freedom from the shackles created by formal practice. (ibid, pg.xxii)

For Bassui ‘alcohol’ was a major obstacle that prevented one from awakening to Self-realization:

Bassui was quite firm in his condemnation of the drinking of alcohol. In the Wadeigassui, in response to a question about the importance of keeping the precepts, he says: “The drinking of alcohol, of all broken precepts, is the most upsetting to the serenity of the mind. ” Then he goes on to quote from the Bonmo Sutra (Sutra of the Brahma’s Net): “One who hands another a glass of alcohol, making him drink it, will be born without hands in his next five hundred births. How much more so will one who drinks on his own?” Cautioning against thinking of the precepts as mere warnings against inappropriate outward behavior, he continues: “The true meaning of the precepts is that one should refrain not only from drinking alcohol but also from getting drunk on nirvana.” Although he found this deeper meaning in all the precepts, he was strict about keeping these precepts outwardly, too. With this restriction against alcohol, Bassui went so far as to have a shrine built at Kogakuan with a deity called “Basshugami”: the God of Retribution for Drinking Alcohol. (ibid, pg. xxiii)

For him, drunkenness was not only of the psychophysical kind, but also becoming too drunk on spiritual principles as well. His only ‘expedient means’ was to shake people from their mental stupor by pounding-away and loosening any form of obstacle that prevented unequivocal ‘direct-seeing’.

Bassui also had a strong devotion to the Bodhisattva Kannon:

It was at Kogakuan that the Wadeigassui was recorded. It was published in 1386—a year before Bassui’s death—not at Bassui’s request but with his permission. In his final years he developed great faith in the bodhisattva Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit). The name Kannon is the shortened form of Kanzeon, meaning the one who hears the cry of ordinary people and immediately saves them. In the Wadeigassui, Bassui referred to Kannon as described in the Suramgama Sutra: “He was a person who for every sound he heard contemplated the mind of the hearer, realizing his own nature.” This is clearly the essence of Bassui’s teaching—hence his reverence for this bodhisattva. Bassui had a shrine to Kannon built in the northern part of the Kogakuan temple grounds and asked to be buried there. (ibid, pg.xx)

Hopefully this series will display many splendid-things that will be revealed via Bassui-Zen, a Zen that forever challenges one in the spirit of Bassui’s final pronouncement to his disciples: “Look directly! What is this? Look in this manner and you won’t be fooled!”

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