The Vow of Humankind:

Talks by Shin'ichi Hisamatsu

FAS Society Journal, Autumn 1987, pp.2-7
Translated by Chris Ives from Hisamatsu Shin'ichi Chosakushû, Vol. III, pp. 234-249. Originally presented as talks (teikô) at the April Sesshin (betsuji gakudô) of 195l at Reiun'in temple on the grounds of the Myôshinji Rinzai Zen monastery compound.

Keeping Calm and Composed, Let Us Awake to Our True Self


Why must "awaken to the True Self"? The way of being of the "True Self" answers this question for us. In other words, when we have awakened to the "True Self," the necessity of truly awakening to it and the fact that awakening is true for us become clear in and of themselves for the first time, like when we learn coolness and warmth by touching. There are many reasons for and "moments" involved in the human search for salvation and emancipation, but, generally speaking, we have to be saved because we are, after all, absolutely negative entities. That is, human beings are in a deep sense nihilistic. Only when we truly recognize this do we clearly realize that we must be saved. At that point, we reach an impasse, and, as a compelling religious desire, the so-called "seeking of the Way" arises in us. In this, the objective reason why the religious demand inevitably arises in nihilistic human beings becomes clear.

Why are human beings nihilistic? Generally speaking, human beings are "something," etwas, limited or restricted beings. That humans "are something" means that we are absolutely negative, Because we are "something," we are bound and shackled by that "something." As expressed in the Mumonkan, we are "spirits dependent on grass and attached to trees." Spirits or spirit refers more to human existence than to the human soul. We are an existence that relies on grass and clings to trees. Grass and trees refer to the "something" that we are. Expressed more concretely, to be "something" is to be mental and physical, the concrete forms in which humans are " something." Because we are mental and physical, we must extricate ourselves, we must realize the "dropping off of body and mind." Through the dropping off of body and mind, Dôgen went from being "something," that is, a mental and physical human being, to being a human extricated from mind and body, a true human being awakened to the True Self.

We usually cannot conceive of a self without a mind or body. There are, however, many historical records of selves where mind and body have fallen away, especially in the East. This is conveyed by such expressions as Emptiness, Nothingness, Suchness, the Dharmakaya, not-a-single-thing, and "vastly open without holiness." These expressions are not produced by thinking with our heads. Rather, they are grounded in the actual Self-Awakening, in the awakened way of human being, and express the condition of that way of being. When we arrive at that condition, such terminology is understood as obvious and in no way strange.

The self where mind and body have dropped off is the self that is liberated from mental and physical restrictions. It is the extricated self, which is nothing at all, no thing at all. In the Self-Awakening of such a self, salvation and emancipation are brought about. Salvation and emancipation are necessarily established upon such a self, which, being beyond restriction by anything at all, is a body of emancipation, an emancipated Subject. The Sixth patriarch said, "Originally, not-a-single-thing, so where is the dust to cling?" Even things so minuscule as the "dust of dust" do not exist on this self. It is a self of complete nothingness, quite like a clearly polished mirror. When this self awakens unto itself, all dust disappears on its own. Just as the sun rises and darkness recedes, that self awakens and we are emancipated. There is an expression, "A snowflake on a red-hot kiln." Like when snow falls into a starlet fire and immediately melts away, this self is no "spirit dependent on grass, attached to trees." It is stuck to nothing, As it is no-thing, it cannot be restricted by anything.

Salvation is never a matter of being saved from the outside or being helped by an "other." Salvation or emancipation is accomplished in our way of being, not through being saved by God or Buddha. Salvation occurs when we "awaken to the True Self," and this emancipation is confirmed in our way of being. In this direction lies the path of Kegon Buddhist called gengenmon, the "Gate back to the source." This return to the source is the Awakening to the True Self. This corresponds to the "Going Aspect" (ôsô) of Pure land Buddhism. In Tendai Buddhism, the shi[samatha, to concentrate the self] or shikan [kan: vipasyana, contemplation, insight] indicates the same things as the Kegon gengenmon. Zen calls this sôtômon[: to sweep, ; to eliminate, to melt away, mon: gate], the "sweeping-away gate," indicating the sweeping away of all dust. In the end, this amounts to absolute negation, the movement from a mental and physical self to the self where mind and body have fallen away. It is what Zen refers to as the One Great Death. In the saying of the Sixth Patriarch, "Without thinking of good and evil, what is your original face?" What is at issue is not merely good and evil, for this expression means that one must not be "something." If one is goodness, one is something; and, of course, one must not be evil. This diverges from not thinking about good and evil or merely not thinking -- it is the falling away of mind and body. Through this falling away of mind and body, not only good and evil but all things are not thought about. This is so-called "non-thinking" (hishiryô). Where there is mind and body there is thought, but no non-thinking. Of course, non-thinking does not signify merely not thinking -- it necessarily presupposes the negation of the existence of the thinking subject. In other words, non-thinking corresponds to not being "something," so true non-thinking is Awakening. As this is the Awakening where mind and body have fallen away, it is "thinking of that which is non-thinking." Since this thinking results from the self-awakening of non-thinking, it of course differs from normal thought. Since ancient times, zazen has been practiced in the East as a method for arriving at this state. Zazen, however, must be the zazen of the falling away of mind and body. The I which is no-thing is the self that truly sits. When one "awakens to the True Self," true zazen comes forth for the first time; and when true zazen comes forth, one "awakens to the True Self."

Yuishiki Buddhism (vijnapti-matrata, the Yogachara school) relates closely to Yoga. Yoga is generally a centering of the mind, so-called samadhi. But if the concentrating on and becoming one with an object involves something external, it will fall short of ultimate Yoga. True Yoga emerges when we cease to be "something," and to cease to be "something" is to become one. In this way, the self in which mind and body have fallen away is true Yoga. Therefore, true Yoga is the concentration with nothing concentrating and nothing a concentrated on, nothing determining and nothing determined. This is not merely the absence of determination, of noema and noesis; this is the self-awakening to the nonexistence of noema and noesis. The Awakening with absolutely nothing determining or determined, the self-awakening which is One, is true Yoga. This is sunyata-samadhi, or raja-samadhi (Royal Samadhi). Ultimately, the shiof shikanexpresses this raja-samadhi.

If raja-samadhi is simply a self that is not something, it is not the True Self. True raja-samadhi is the True Self, the true subject, so it functions unobstructed in all things; it functions as all things. This constitutes its tree functioning. Constantly, this is emptiness, and, moreover, existence. In other words, this is "fallen-away mind and body," expressed in the Heart Sutra, "emptiness is form." In Kegon Buddhism, this is expressed by such terminology as "functioning arising from the Self" and "Emergence Gate." This "Emergence Gate," the opposite of the "Gate back to the Source," emerges here, as do the kan of shikan in Tendai Buddhism and the "Return Aspect" in Pure Land Buddhism. In Zen, this is "Rebirth in Death." Through the "One Great Death," we pass through the "Equality Gate," and then, in being "reborn in death," we emerge through the "Discernment Gate." Or, in opposition to the Sweeping-Away Gate stands the "Creation Gate". This is a "via positiva" standing in opposition to the "via negativa."

This is no mere emptiness or nothingness; it is functioning emptiness and functioning nothingness, and this is what the true nature of emptiness must be. Accordingly, Buddhism views emptiness as tai (Self) and functioning as (activity) . Because this tai is the Subject, it is never anything else. Because it is the Self, there is no separation from it. In other words, because it is always the subject, it is always you. The True Self is no longer "something." And because of this, it is unborn and undying. This is also expressed by such expressions as eternal, unchanging, beyond time and spate, filling the ten-dimensional world, extending throughout past, present, and future. The eternal Self, the unborn-undying Self: this is the Original Face. The Self which neither has been born nor dies is the eternal present, the infinite space, here.

Thus, our sitting, true zazen, must be that which has no direction and no time. And, as its functioning, all distinctions arise in it.

By what method can we awaken to the True Self? Zazen is one method, although not the sole one. As I mentioned earlier, however, zazen is apt to degenerate into a mere oneness or equality without functioning. Koans constitute another method of awakening, but they can degenerate into mere functioning. In a true method, the Going Aspect and Return Aspect are consummated simultaneously, and dying and being reborn are experienced in a true sense. Since long ago, Buddhism has produced many forms of this type of method. The founders of sects all devised their own distinctive methods, but when such methods are established, certain evils appear.

At present, to find or create a true method is a crucial problem for us. The most important task of this Society is thoroughly realizing the Going Aspect and Return Aspect while simultaneously searching for a way all people can realize them. We must all work on this. I will next present a proposal for a way of accomplishing this.


In my last talk I presented my view of a key phrase in the Vow of Humankind: "awaken to the True Self." Awakening to the True Self is not something I have merely thought about in my head or felt; I have experienced this with all my body and mind. The content of this experience, the True Self, is an internal self-realization. It becomes self-evident that this must be both my way of being and the way of being of all humankind. We plumb our actual human way of being and at the bottom confront a so-called absolute aporia; we break through this way of being from within and confirm a newly-reborn self. We awaken to our Self, and this awakened Self then functions as a true "mother-body." This amounts to dying absolutely and being reborn, to being reborn through death. I can express this with the words, "Cornered, one passes through; passing through, one changes." From my perspective, this is a more appropriate way of expressing Awakening than the usual wording: "Cornered, one changes; changed, one passes through."

As delineated in Pure land Buddhism, one dies to actuality and attains the going-aspect, enters Nirvana to fulfill this aspect, and then comes out of Nirvana in the return-aspect. These three stages correspond to the three stages of "become highly composed," and in awakening to the True Self, we must pass through all three. If any state is missing, we have not truly awakened to the True Self. But how do we, "in" our selves and bodies, pass through these three stages?

If the three stages of awakening to the True Self are merely explained to me, I will fail to go through the process and awaken to the True Self. Yet how do we awaken to the True Self? Inevitably, we seek after a method of awakening to the True Self. This is not easy. In the past, our predecessors struggled with the problem of establishing a method, and this is the most important problem for religion. The method must be universal, so that the whole world can practice and thereby arrive at the "True Self." It must be a public method, a method anyone can practice, a method that can, without fail, bring all practitioners to the True Self. In short it must be a public and certain method in this sense. I suppose many of you here have devised your own methods, but in the true method, at the same time you "awaken to the "True Self," you must have others awaken as well. Accordingly, this is a problem we must face squarely, not only for ourselves but for all people. Whether this method is established or not depends on whether a path is opened through which we truly become religious. Whoever seriously considers the human way of being faces no greater problem than this.

How should we establish this method? I would like to present a personal proposal for a method of awakening to the True Self. This method includes all three stages without omission, which in unison constitute a way of Awakening to the True Self. After I discuss my idea, l would like to hear your criticism.

This is my own personal proposal, but I wish to establish this method as a "public proposal" (kôan). Ultimately, this is a method that truly leads to absolute negation. Through this method, one drives oneself further and further into a corner and then runs up against the wall. Driven to a total impasse, we thereupon extricate ourselves. This desperate impasse is our way of being as something, and it is an absolutely negative position. It is the place where we become absolutely negative. We drive ourselves to this place, extricate ourselves from it, and become the Self which is not anything at all. Expressed in terminology used before, we enter the second stage from the first, and simultaneously, at the third stage, the self that is no-thing freely functions. l am considering a method where these three stages are actualized simultaneously.

Zen uses Jôshû's Mu koan as such a method. Although I cannot discuss this koan in detail now, it does not constitute a true method. Such koans as "What is your original face before you were born from your parents?" cone closer to what I am talking about. Of course, our parents gave birth to us, but what is the Self existing before our parents gave us birth, the Self that possesses neither body nor mind? What is your original face before you were born from your parents? I am not speaking in terms of genealogy. What is the self that is not the body borne by your parents?

This is the self in which mind and body have fallen away. The self of one's parents' child is physical and mental, but what is the nature of the Self existing before that kind of self, the Self where mind and body have dropped off? As a koan or subject of inquiry, this problem amounts to the task, "Drop off mind and body!" or "Become your original face existing before you were born from your parents!" This is one method.

But how do mind and body fall away? We devise a method, mind and body drop away, and we become our original face before our birth from our parents, so we can speak of this as a method through which we enter the second stage from the first stage. There is an expression, "Breaking one's bones, one returns them to one's father; cutting up one's body, one returns it to one's mother; one then has one's original face reveal itself." If we make this our task, it asks us what we become after we break our bones and return them to our fathers, cut ourselves to pieces and return them to our mothers. This is one way we extricate ourselves from our actual selves.

There is also the Kyôgen-jôju koan. If you climb a tree, take hold of a high branch with your teeth, let your feet dangle in the air, grab nothing with your hands, and then are asked, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's trip east from India into China?" how do you answer? If you open your mouth and answer, you will fall to the ground and certain death. If you do not answer, you rudely disregard the questioner. This Kyôgen-jôju koan thus creates the dilemma of choosing between death and defiance; through this method you are driven into a corner and must discover a way to extricate yourself from the dilemma. This is not, however, a complete method for bringing about what is indicated by the expression, "Cornered, one passes through; passing through, one changes." I cannot criticize this koan in detail at this time, but, for a clear reason, I can assert that it falls short of a complete method. Zazen is also said to be a method for the falling away of mind and body, but this is an incomplete method as well.

Therefore, the problem is that of the kind of method that is at least nearly complete. I would like to establish a method for "Cornered, one passes through; passing through, one changes" in the simple form, "Right now, if nothing whatsoever of yourself will do, what do you do?" If all our ways of being and all our actions are no good, what do we do? "All our actions" refers to our total actuality, but the situation where nothing will do is an absolute predicament, the last extremity. Faced with the query, "what do you do?" one is reborn from that absolute predicament if one can do something. In response to this, we might say, "Is that all there is to it?" But, in fact, this is anything but easy. If we can accomplish this, however, we can truly be reborn after death.

This can serve as a question regardless of the situation one is in. Whether sitting, standing, thinking about things, reading books, eating, or going to the bathroom, one's way of being in each place and time becomes an opportunity. If, when sitting, sitting is no good, what do you do? If, when standing, standing is no good, what do you do? When our sitting is no good, perhaps we stand. When standing is unacceptable, we probably walk. When walking is no good, we run. Or we say something, ask something, or eat something. If we continue in this way, no matter how much we are told that our action is of no avail, there is always some kind of way out. But when everything is wrong, what do we do? If we fail to do something when nothing is of any avail, we will never truly break free from all our ways of being, from our existing as "something."

All of the aforementioned actions are discriminations. Sitting is a discrimination; it is "something." Standing is a discrimination, for it is something, too. The same is the case with thinking. Even if a human being extricates himself or herself from that something -- for example, shakes free from sitting and then stands -- the person still is something. In order to depart from every "something" and become no-thing, we must extricate ourselves from all things. Because we must break free from all of our ways of being in one stroke, we ask, "If nothing whatsoever will do, what do you do?"

This question, "what do you do?" encompasses "passing through, one changes." As expressed in the "The rat in the corner bites the cat" and "Take one step forward from the top of a hundred-foot pole," we are driven to the wall, reborn from that place, and gain new life; we climb to the top of the pole and then, from a place where we cannot do anything, we take one step forward. Then and there, true functioning emerges. In that place lies true emancipation and true salvation. We must actually clarify this subjectively in our functioning.

This method only works when I proceed subjectively. When I am sitting and am asked what I do in case my sitting will not do, because it is I that am doing all this, I stand if sitting is no good. In this case, "If sitting is no good, what do you do?" refers just to one situation, but when "sitting is no good" includes the totality of action, we can no longer stand. At that point we can neither sit nor stand. We are driven to the wall by this subjective dilemma. What do we do then? When we are truly cornered, we break through and new functioning appears. But, when we are not truly against the wall, such functioning does not came forth. If in the four cardinal behaviors we bring ourselves to an impasse, such functioning will emerge. When we truly penetrate this subjective koan of being cornered and passing through, without omitting any of the three stages mentioned before, we can "awaken to the True Self" in one stroke.

***To be continued***

November 12, 1996