Who is the master?

It’s impossible nowadays to miss the ever-present word mindfulness. It’s freely used by religious and non-religious people alike. In Zen, mindfulness is often understood as attention, and is of utmost importance. But attention to what?

Rather than speculate, let’s take the famous koan Zuigan calls his master, which is sometimes translated as Zuigan calls himself master. This is an interesting koan in its own right, being unusual in that it has only one character. Typical koans have an exchange between two or three people. This koan is presented as Case 12 of the Mumonkan in Two Zen Classics, translated by Katsuki Sekida like this:

Zuigan Gen Oshō called to himself every day, “Master!” and answered, “Yes, sir!” Then he would say, “Be wide awake!” and answer, “Yes, sir!” ”Henceforward, never be deceived by others!” “No, I won’t!”

Mumon’s comment

Old Zuigan buys and sells himself. He takes out a lot of god-masks and devil-masks and puts them on and plays with them. What for, eh? One calling and the other answering; one wide awake, the other saying he will never be deceived. If you stick to any of them, you will be a failure. If you imitate Zuigan, you will play the fox.

Mumon’s verse

Clinging to the deluded way of consciousness,

Students of the Way do not realize truth.

The seed of birth and death through endless eons:

The fool calls it the true original self.

Who was Zuigan? His full name was Zuigan Shingen, and he was thought to live sometime between 850 and 910 AD. He was a disciple of Ganto Senkatsu, who in turn was a disciple of a very famous master, Tokusan. As far as koan training goes, Zuigan had only one koan. Every day, he would call himself “Master!” answering “Yes, sir!” Then he would admonish himself “Be wide awake!” meaning “be clearly aware of yourself”, answering “Yes, sir!” Being awake has several meanings, such as “are you being clear and not obscuring yourself?”, “is your Zen eye open?” And most pertinent to this case, are you truly in the Zen mind state? Do you know what that is?

Before looking at the closing sentence of the case, it’s worth recalling that, in traditional Zen training, there are strict rules both as to presentation of a koan and standard answers. Rather than simply saying “yes” the monk would bellow “Yes, sir!” as if addressing a general. You may find other translations of this koan where the shout is translated simply as “Yes!” Monks and lay people alike may struggle for years before hitting the so-called right answer. But what the Zen master is looking for, first and foremost, is the authenticity of the answer, which represents the state of mind conveyed in the koan.  

“Never be deceived by others” has a few layers of meaning. It means to not be influenced by the opinions of others as only you can experience and know the Truth. The original kanji translated here as “deceive” means to stand firmly in your beliefs and to not lose sight of Reality that you have glimpsed in kensho. The case instructs us to transcend common thinking, and to stay in the Zen space. And that is what Zuigan is doing daily: reminding himself of the treasure of enlightenment, keeping his Zen mind strong along with the need to maintain the sight of the master. 

Now who or what is the Master? Part of the answer can be only given in sanzen. But before long, hopefully most Zen practitioners will realise that “Master” here is their essential nature, the Absolute, the Buddha nature, or the face you had before your parents were born. 

How can we make the concept of Master familiar to a Western practitioner? Let’s look at a bridge between Eastern and Western viewpoints as set out by Karlfried Graf Dürckheim in his book The call for the master. Here, the Master is considered as both an idea and reality. In this context the word master has three meanings: the eternal master, the here-and-now master, and the inner master. Whereas the eternal master is an archetype, the here-and-now master is a real person embodying this principle. Meanwhile the inner master, in Dürckheim’s words “is the possibility – individually sensed as promise, potential, and obligation – of giving the eternal master physical form and reality in one’s own life”. All three signify the Absolute realising itself via the human life.

In the Western view of the world there is no such thing as the Buddha nature. Instead, this inexpressible, greater-than-us quantity is referred to by other names. Words like Life and Being are often used. While Zen is supposed to be largely wordless, Life and Being make it easier for us to identify with this cosmic principle. Then here-and-now master is a living person whose duty is to guide others. There is no master without students. They must feel the urgent need to find, and to unite with the eternal master, through their inner master.

So how can we interpret the monologue of Zuigan in this context? He is both a master and a student, flitting from one role to another. That’s what Mumon means by “god-masks” and “devil-masks” in his commentary. These are just concepts, what Shinzan Miyamae Zenji called a human idea. So “do not be deceived by others” means both seeing through this, but also using the masks, with awareness, when necessary. It means having confidence in your own awakening. Even if the Buddha himself would question it, you must not waver. That’s one of the deeper meanings of Zen as experiential practice.

Mumon’s verse is more enigmatic. It refers to those seekers who haven’t yet transcended duality and believe that the consciousness goes somewhere else after death. In Buddhist theory, this is the reason for never-dying delusions such as life and death. But these fluctuations are not the essential nature.

Meanwhile, in Zen practice, master, student and the Way merge into one. This throws some light on the Zen insistence that there is no living Zen without a living master, but also that in doing zazen you meet the masters of old. In the latter case this is the eternal master, the idea, and the archetype. As students of Zen, we embody all three masters: the eternal,  the here-and-now, and the inner. And in the end, it’s the awakening of the inner master that we seek, perhaps with the help of others who have been through this process before.