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Tozan Ryokai; Awakening to the Phenomenal World – Tony Shinro Doubleday

The thirty-eighth ancestor in the Soto lineage was Tozan Ryokai (807-69). He received transmission from Ungo Donjo (784-841) after first training with a number of other masters, including Isan Reiyu (771-853).

Tozan met with Isan at a time when he was preoccupied by a question, which, according to the scholar Robert Sharf, was controversial within Chinese Buddhism during the ninth century.

The question concerned the distinction between sentient beings and inanimate phenomena and in particular whether insentient things could have the Buddha nature and teach the Dharma.

The Southern school of Zen had based itself on the Nirvana Sutra, which says, “That which lacks Buddha nature is deemed an insentient thing”, and its teachers argued that, if insentient phenomena lack Buddha nature, they could not teach the Dharma. However, Tozan knew that the Northern school and the fourth and fifth Ancestors had asserted that inanimate phenomena do expound the Dharma. In his own time, the National Teacher Nan’yo Echu (d. 775) argued the case. It was not without ancient authority. In the fifth century, Dao Sheng, an influential Buddhist teacher, and a disciple of the great translator Kumarajiva, had argued from the Mahaparanirvana Sutra, that if all sentient beings could become Buddha then so too could mountains. He was reviled for this understanding and forced to withdraw into the wilderness, where he was said to have expounded the Dharma to the lifeless rocks that nodded their heads in responsive understanding.

Although it might have been said in mockery of Dao Sheng that the rocks nodded to him, later generations came to believe he was correct, and when I came across a reference to his teaching and banishment I was reminded of the surrealist work of the artist Paul Nash (1889-1946), who gave animated personality to inanimate, found objects in the drama of his encounter with them. Confronted, for instance, by a piece of driftwood on a river bank he told an interviewer that he was instantly aware that he was in the presence of a ‘personage”, which was more and more other than it appeared, emanating “some indeterminate and disquieting magic”. Subsequently, I found a hint from another direction that the nodding of the rocks really was the kind of alchemy that so beguiled Paul Nash. In Spiritual Ecology: the cry of the earth, edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, the Jungian analyst, Jules Cashford, discusses the modern rediscovery of the numinous nature of the earth goddess, Gaia, commenting that “numinous” has an ancient Greek origin in, “the ‘nod’ of a deity, the coming alive of divine presence”. It is that which “beckons us beyond our habitual categories of perception”. Therefore, could it be, I wondered, that the rocks nodding their assent to Dao Sheng bestowed a numinous life to the reciprocity of his solitary existence in their midst? It seemed likely.

Generations later, Dogen Zenji would regard none of this as controversial and would famously affirm that the self is confirmed as the 10,000 inanimate phenomena within the realm of the Buddha Ancestors. In Tozan’s time, however, it was cause for disputation.

Tozan heard that a monk had once asked the National Teacher Nan’yo Echu ‘What is the mind of the ancient Buddhas?’ and Nan’yo had replied, ‘A wall tile’. Tozan didn’t understand what the National Teacher had meant by this. To him, perhaps taking the perspective of the Southern school, a wall tile was simply inert. He did not see that anything inanimate could expound the Dharma. So he asked Isan for guidance.

Isan said, “I have this teaching, but one seldom encounters anyone who understands it”. When Tozan asked for more instruction, Isan lifted his hossu in the air and asked, “Do you understand?” Tozan still did not understand and Isan said further only that, “The mouth which my parents gave to the world is utterly unable to explain this to you”.

I think that perhaps Isan understood a wall tile in the same way Paul Nash understood a found object. In which case he might have said of this encounter that the mind of the ancient Buddhas is typical of what any reflective person might encounter. Wall tiles, like all inanimate objects, belong to the common world and are readily found, anywhere by anyone, but Nash would have added the qualification that, “to find you must be able to perceive.” Tozan was, of course, trying to understand Isan doctrinally, rather than to perceive with his senses.

Isan sent Tozan to Ungo Donjo, whom he asked, “Who can hear the non-sentient preach the Dharma?” Ungo answered, “The non-sentient can hear the non-sentient preach the Dharma.” Tozan asked, “Can you hear it?” Ungo replied, “If I could hear it, you would not be able to hear me preach the Dharma”. Tozan replied, “In that case I do not hear you preach the Dharma”. Ungo said, “If you still don’t hear me preach the Dharma, how much less can you hear the non-sentient preach the Dharma”. At this, Tozan had an insight. Inanimate phenomena teach the Dharma of inanimate phenomena; sentient beings teach the Dharma of sentient beings. The Dharma is not restricted to words and phrases, or even to sounds, it is also physiological and topological.

Tozan said in verse:

“Wonderful! Wonderful!
The preaching of the Dharma by the non-sentient is inconceivable.
If you try to hear with your ears, it’s hard to understand;
When you listen with your mind’s eye, then you know it.”

Later, Tozan attained to a more complete awakening when he saw his own reflection in water as he crossed a river. By a transformative moment of encounter, the inanimate element, water, reflected Tozan’s presence back to him within its own presence, as water. In the instant it occurred, there was nothing inanimate or lifeless about this encounter.

When I came to Tozan’s enlightenment story I found myself drawn into his question (does an insentient being have Buddha nature?) and his teachers’ patient efforts to help him to see that no amount of grasping after meaning or linguistic content can describe what inheres in the moment of encounter with the simple presence of an inanimate object, like a rock. A rock is not a passive object. Its Dharma is its immanence. David Abram says, in Becoming Animal; an Earthly Cosmology:

“Consider a largish rock, about three feet in diameter, its irregular bulk reposing on the ground… there is such a rock resting just outside the studio where I sit writing [these words] … I glance at it now through the window, offering its shade to the clumped grasses, implacable in its solidity – a familiar and stable presence amid all my whirling thoughts… After I’ve been adrift in these words and sentences for a long stretch, I look up and find that rock, once again, poised in the same stance, holding its familiar shape against the trees and the blue sky, although the shadow it casts upon the ground has now shifted. I return to my work. After an hour or so, it calls my gaze once again; the sky behind the rock is now dense with cloud, and so its shadow has been subsumed within the common shade – yet the stone still maintains its earlier stance. I’m suddenly struck by the immense exertion it would take to hold myself in such a stable posture, moment after moment, without flinching. To sustain itself in that position, steadily, so that even now it is still bearing that very shape, and still again, and yet again, hour after hour, and day after day – that must take a lot of effort! Not of course that the rock has to deal with the kind of mad restlessness that besets a muscled being like myself. Yet simply to hold itself together in a cosmos that is steadily flying apart, to prevail, year after year, against the suck of entropy, seems already to entail a kind of stubbornness, an obdurate persistence that we miss when we think of “being” or bare existence, as a purely passive state. And so I find myself staring at this rock with a new astonishment – a new appreciation for its compacted energy, the wild activity that it displays by its simple presence.”

To me, Abram’s crafted prose puts into words the Dharma that Isan’s mouth had been unable to explain. Yet, despite his eloquence, Abram cannot give me the experience of the simple presence of the rock outside his window. He can only evoke in me some sense of it, which I must then perceive and understand for myself, in my own life.

The story of Tozan’s awakening presents me with the ultimate inconceivability of any difference bjetween the Dharma taught by the sentient and the Dharma taught by the non-sentient. It raises the question whether, when the blind knocks gently against the frame of the open window in the summer breeze, it teaches the Dharma, or not? What Dharma would that be?

All sutras begin, “Thus, have I heard …”. If, like Tozan, I think that, for there to be an exposition of the Dharma, some sentience must be necessary (as in, “I have heard that …”), I miss the “Thus”, as in “thusness”, without which no Dharma could be expounded.

Thusness, though, is darkly indistinct. It can’t really be understood. Isan said, “I have this teaching, but one seldom encounters anyone who understands it”; and perhaps he wasn’t surprised, after he’d lifted his hossu in the air, that Tozan still wanted a verbal explanation.

Like Tozan, Reiun Shigo and Kyogen Chikan also trained with Isan; and they were both awakened by the teachings of inanimate phenomena. Seeing plum blossoms Reuin wrote:

For thirty years I’ve sought the swordsman,
Many times the leaves have fallen, the branches bare.
After seeing the peach blossoms.
Never doubting again.

Insight came to Kyogen during samu at the grave of the originator of Tozan’s trouble, the National Teacher Nan’yo Echu:

The sound of something struck! – and I have forgotten all I knew.
Training was not even temporarily necessary.
In movement and deportment I manifest the Ancient Way,
And do fall not into a possible pessimism.
Nothing of me remains behind when I pass,
In speech and manner free of dignity.
All those who have reached this state of knowledge by experience,
Without exception tell of this supreme activity-potential.

In Shobogenzo Zuimonki (2-26), Dogen Zenji said that Reuin and Kyogen attained realisation through their bodies. I would say so too did Tozan. What I think Dogen meant is that the body is the field of pure sensation (for example, Kyogen’s sound of something struck) rather than the field of the cognitive interpretation of that sensation (“Oh, my broom flicked up a tile that hit the bamboo and made that noise!”). In the body, each moment of immanent felt-presence is composed of infinite sensations. When I look holistically at a moment of felt-presence, for example during zazen, it’s “not-two” and it’s “not-one”. It is thusness, which is to say that I can’t say what it is. This is to attain understanding through the body. I have to intervene with an act of cognitive interpretation, to articulate sensation as an experience of “this and “that”, “here” and “there”, “now” and “then”, etc.

I am grateful to Tozan for his struggle with the insentient Dharma because he reminds me that, self-consciously seeking to learn from an objective world, I too easily forget to listen to the subtle teaching of the body, which is the realm of the senses. Having a body brings with it all the sensations of being in the world; and if, as Dogen says in Shobogenzo Zuimonki, the Dharma is the practice-realisation of the body then we may also say that the senses are the practice-realisation of the Dharma.

Inanimate phenomena make sense as passive lifelessness, inanimate and incapable of teaching, only if I see the world about me as an alienated and disembodied, two-dimensional plain, in which my awareness lacks depth, ending at the surface of my skin. Seeing myself subjectively, against the backdrop of a landscape, it’s not hard to begin to think of that landscape as impassive, or inanimate. A mountain range, for example, becomes merely an inert scenic image, like a stage set, or a framed picture.

When I open my senses I allow an appreciation of spatial depth; and only then do I begin to understand why the world around me is very far from impassive. In Becoming Animal, Abram writes:

“… unlike the height of a mountain range, and the width of span of a valley, the depth of a terrain – the relation between near and far aspects of that land – depends entirely upon where you are standing within that terrain. As you move, bodily, within that landscape, the depth of its scape alters before you.”

Nan Shepherd understood this. In The Hidden Mountain she said of her Cairngorm home range, “… it arches its back and each layer of landscape bristles”. In The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane calls landscape a “volatile subject”, which “arches and bristles” at us – and into us. For Shepherd, Abram and MacFarlane, the words ‘landscape’ and ‘mountain’ are not just nouns, describing something fixed and distinct, they are esoteric verbs. MacFarlane says, “Landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the course of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident… [It is the] bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment”.

The “bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment” is the National Teacher’s constant non-sentient preaching of the Dharma and the rocks nodding in assent to Dao Sheng’s teaching, which like Tozan, I feel encouraged to perceive for myself.

In Arctic Dreams Barry Lopez writes about the state of mind he discovered as an anthropologist hunting wildlife with Inuit on the tundra. He says that his faculties felt as if they were fully incorporated into the landscape, and that:

“It is more than listening for animals or watching for hoof prints or a shift in the weather. It is more than an analysis of what one senses. To hunt means to have the land around you like clothing. To engage in a wordless dialogue with it, one so absorbing that you cease to talk with your human companions. It means to release yourself from rational images of what something “means” and to be concerned only that it “is”. And then to recognise that things exist only insofar as they can be related to other things. These relationships – fresh drops of moisture on top of rocks at a river crossing and a raven’s distant voice – become patterns. The patterns are always in motion.”

It seems to me that to sit with open senses in a moment of felt presence is to know these patterns of motion, the holistic system of the world we inhabit, as the Dharma teaching of the world of inanimate phenomena. It is to know thusness of its Buddha nature and to understand Tozan’s awakening. In this Sansui-kyo (Mountains and Waters Sutra) fascicle of Shobogenzo, Dogen supplies a capping phrase for Tozan’s awakening:

“Mountains right now are the actualisation of the Buddha Way, abiding in their thusness, they realise completeness”.