A New Year’s Koan

From SHINJI SHOBOGENZO translated by Gudo Wafu Nishijima and Michael Leutchford:

One day a monk asked Master Kyosei Dofu of Ryusaku Temple in the Ko district: Is the first day of the New Year related to Buddhism?

The Master said: Yes it is.

The monk said: What is the Buddhist teaching about New Year’s Day?

The Master said: New Year’s Day is the beginning of happiness and all things become new.

The monk said: I thank the Master for his answer.

The Master said: Today I am not so clever.

On another day, the monk asked Master Myokyo: Is the first day of the New Year related to Buddhism?

Master Myokyo said: No it is not.

The monk said: Every year is a good year and every day is a good day. Why do you say it is not?

Master Myokyo said: An old man of the Cho family drinks sake and an old man of the Ri family gets drunk.

The monk said: Your words were sufficiently controlled and great at the beginning, but now they are very small like something with the head of a dragon and the tail of a snake.

Master Myokyo said: Today my mind is not very clear.

Nishijima Roshi’s Commentary

Master Kyosei said that New Year’s Day is related to Buddhism and Master Myokyo (Sosen Shikan) said that it is not. These answers seem to be completely contradictory, so who was right? We can say that both were right. Reality is complicated, and not logical. Greeting each other and saying “Happy New Year!” is itself Buddhist conduct, and makes the New Year fresh and new. However, even though there is New Year’s Day, everyday life goes on, and January 1st is just another day; many people drink alcohol and get drunk.

Master Myokyo quoted an old saying about the Cho family and the Ri family, which was used to indicate an illogical situation. He wanted to suggest the complexity of the real situation. He chose not to respond to the monk’s criticism of his words, perhaps feeling that the monk’s attitude was too abstract. The Masters’ statements, “Today I am not so clever” and “Today my mind is not very clear” indicate their reluctance to discuss Buddhism intellectually.

Nishijima, Gudo; Nishijima, Gudo. Master Dogen’s Shinji Shobogenzo: 301 Koan Stories (p. 70). Windbell Publications.