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Buddhadharma : Spring 2009
29 SPRING 2 00 9 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly One day, Nansen came back from the bathhouse. He saw the monk in charge of the bath stoking the fire. Nansen asked, “What are you doing?” If he saw the monk stoking the fire, it is so obvious, why did he ask? Nonetheless, as a teacher, he had to ask the question, “What are you doing?” Often I ask, “Where are you from?” or “How are you?” If someone is sit- ting in front of me and looks healthy in both body and mind, it is almost a stupid question to ask, “How are you?” If I already know someone is from such and such a place, asking, “Where are you from?” seems totally unneces- sary. In the same way, Nansen had to ask the monk in charge of the bath, stoking the fire with firewood, “What are you doing?” The monk answered, “I am making the bathwater warm.” Obviously what he said is self-explanatory. But this monk did not get Nansen’s first question: “What are you doing?” or “Who are you? What are you really doing?” Just ask yourself from time to time, “What am I really doing?” This is just another way of questioning yourself about your true nature—like Master Bassui did with his con- stant, “Kore nanzo?” (“What is this?”). In this modern age, when someone wants to take a bath, even here at our monastery, all they need to do is go to the bathroom and turn on the hot water. The same is true for taking a shower. But even nowadays in Japa- nese monasteries, there is a big bathtub in which three or four monks can bathe together at once. The monk in charge of the bath is called yokuju; he has to stoke the stove with firewood in order to heat the bathwater. I heard the following story twice, during a teisho given by Itsugai Roshi, the abbot of Shogen-Ji before Tani Kogetsu Roshi: When Itsugai Roshi was an unsui (monk in train- ing), one day he was in charge of the bath, which involved stoking the stove with wood, but for some reason the logs were wet and didn’t catch fire. So it was necessary for him to get some newspapers, which he lit with a match, and finally the logs started to catch fire. During all this time he was in koan samadhi (immersion in the koan he had been given), not at all scattered, thinking about how to make the bathwater warm. That was a second priority. The top priority was to solve his koan. So finally, the fire suddenly burst into flames, and at this very moment, all his preconceived ideas, concepts, prejudice, whatever you can think of, were simultane- ously combusted. He became united with the essence, not with leaves and branches. We modern people have a tendency to start with trivial matters and, having analyzed the trivial, then want to go to the essence. Zen practice works in the opposite direction: the top priority is the essence, and the trivial mat- ters will always follow. Returning to our koan: Nansen, out of pas- sion to train his student, asked him, “What are you doing?” The monk answered, “I am making the bathwater warm.” Nansen did not scold this monk, but instead said, “Don’t forget to invite the water buffalo to take a bath.” The monk did not ask “What?” He did not say, “What are you talking about?” but at least he was able to say “Hai!” I often say that the essence of Zen practice can be condensed into this short word: “Hai.” Again, modern people have a tendency to ask “Why?” instead of saying “Hai.” We don’t like to obey, so we talk back or we argue. But honestly, what can we achieve with argument? “Hai” is really another way to say “Mu,” or “What is this?” It is not at all about being defeated. It is not mere blind obedience, but just “Hai. Hai!” Of course, this spirit can be conveyed in any language, as long as it is said with sincerity, from the bottom of your heart. But “Hai!” is much more dynamic and stron- ger than saying, “Yeah” or “Uh-huh.” Saying “Hai” is really another way to say “Mu,” or “What is this?” It’s not at all about being defeated or blind obedience. ➤ continued page 78 JoeGaffneY