Big Bags of Stinking Skin

kodo-sawakiOne of the times I visited Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery in Northern California, I discovered, in their library, a little folder full of translations of articles written by Kodo Sawaki. There was no information about who translated the articles or where they came from. There was just a handwritten note that said the folder was compiled by Rick Dreher for Blanche Hartman and Kosho McCall.

Kodo Sawaki was my teacher Gudo Nishijima’s teacher. He was known as “homeless Kodo” because, unlike most Zen masters, he did not maintain a temple of his own. Instead, he traveled around Japan teaching regular people how to do zazen and talking about the philosophy of Dogen Zenji. My friend Tonen O’Connor translated one of his best books, Commentary on the Song of Awakening. For the more budget conscious there’s also The Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo. You can also find some of his stuff on-line at the website of Antai-ji, the temple he lived in when he retired.

My friend Greg Fain was kind enough to make me a copy of the contents of that Kodo Sawaki folder. Last night at Angel City Zen Center, I read one of the articles to the group. It seemed somehow very timely. So I’m sharing it with you nice folks who read this blog. Here it is.

People only grow angry because they think of their body as a possession. Yet the Sutras talk about it, all they say is that it is a big bag of stinking skin. When somebody in a rage shouts, “What do you take me for?” or “Who do you think you’re talking to?” I think to myself, “To a big bag of stinking skin.”

Human beings tear each other apart because of their opinions, politicians tear each other apart, husband and wife tear each other apart. The whole world is full of tearing. Why? Just because of the vanity of our egos.

Even monks and nuns and priests tear each other apart. Is there life after death? Is the soul eternal or not? All of that is nothing but trivial jokes, ego stories. If we stop paying attention to the ego, such nonsense as eternity or not eternity ceases to exist, for the soul.

This degenerate world is the reason why professional liars succeed today. But if we observe impermanence, there were no more lies, and where there are no more lies religion appears.

You can see your image in the mirror, but how do you see the mind that not even a mirror can reflect? It’s possible in zazen. Nothing reveals the ego like zazen. The purer the zazen, the more transparent, the better you can see the illusions of your ego.

Our corruption is that we are cut off from the universe, and our illusion is that we confuse the cut-off ego with the one that, originally, is not separate from the cosmic system. The roots of that true ego are the same as those of sky and earth, the same body and same mind as all sentient beings.

This is true religion, which has no right side or wrong side, no inside or outside, is transparent from sky to earth, is the secret of Zen. Everything must become completely transparent, me and you, past and present and future. In terms of reality this means that our life today, our attitude now, gives life to the past.

If our attitude is false and then all those who have fed us and taught us, all those we have met and known, have acted solely in order to produce that falseness. If our attitude is right, whatever they have done they did solely in order to produce that rightness. The limits of the Self are truly beyond any imagining, and fill the sky, earth, and the whole universe.

In terms of religious faith, space and time and have nothing to do with it. It is only right now that we can use this ordinary human body to practice zazen with Shakyamuni, with the Buddhas of the whole universe in ten directions, practice zazen with the mountains, rivers, and trees. That’s why I practice zazen.

Sitting like this is what makes up the self become transparent, makes us able to see without any limits, in harmony with sky and earth, and it is what gives the self a total vision of the whole universe. That is the way of silent sitting and the principle of shikantaza.

To me the most interesting part of this essay is the paragraph that begins, “Our corruption is that we are cut off from the universe.” Sometimes Zen teachers will just spill the beans. They’ll tell you the whole secret of life, the universe, and everything. I used to imagine my teachers were deliberately saying mysterious, cryptic things or talking in riddles. Now I see that they were laying out the entire truth for me as directly as they could. I was just too dense to get it. In this paragraph Kodo Sawaki does that for his readers.

The other part I like is the part that begins, “If our attitude is false…” This is really significant. When you lie, you not only dishonor yourself, but everyone who ever raised you or taught you anything, every friend you ever had, your entire nation, your whole species. I wish more people had that attitude. I think we’d all be a lot better off.

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