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無學祖元 Wuxue Zuyuan (1226–1286), aka 佛光國師 Foguang Guoshi
(Rōmaji:) 無學祖元 Mugaku Sogen, aka 仏光国師 Bukkō Kokushi
Wuxue Zuyuan 無學祖元 (J., Mugaku Sogen [posthumous title granted in Japan, “The National Preceptor of the Buddha's Radiance” or 仏光国師 Bukkō Kokushi]; 1226–1286) was a student of Wuzhun Shifan 無準師範 (1177–1249) in China. He was invited to Japan by the Kamakura regent, Hojo Tokimune 北条時宗 (1251-1284), arriving in 1279. After serving for a time as abbot of Kencho-ji, he was appointed founding abbot of the great monastery Engaku-ji 圓覺寺, and there taught a number of influential Japanese monks. So goes a poem written by him:
Shooting with a Broken Bow
The bow is shattered; arrows are all gone.
At this critical moment—
Cast aside all doubt.
Shoot without the slightest delay.
Richard Bryan McDaniel: Zen Masters of Japan. The Second Step East. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 2013.
The Japanese Zen master, Bukko Kokushi, was born in China. His Buddhist name was Wuxue Zuyuan, which the Japanese pronounced Mugaku Sogen. The name Bukko was given to him post-humously, according to the common custom, along with the title Kokushi, which means “National Teacher.”
Bukko became a monk at the age of 13 and studied with the Zen Master, Mujun Shiban (Wuzhun Shifan). Shiban was one of the most significant Chinese teachers of his day, and one of the few who was willing to accept Japanese students. In addition to being a master of the Rinzai tradition, Shiban was also a celebrated artist and calligrapher, and his students acquired an appreciation of those along with their Zen training.
Shiban assigned Bukko the koan “Mu.” Bukko, a self-confident young man, was certain he would be able to resolve the koan within a year. But after six years had passed, he still had not made any headway with it. Then, as he reported later, “while no special change came over me, the ‘Mu’ became so inseparably attached to me that I could not get away from it even while asleep. This whole universe seemed to be nothing but the ‘Mu’ itself.”
Shiban recognized the difficulty Bukko was having and advised him to leave Mu aside for a while and practice shikan taza instead. However, by then Bukko was so deeply absorbed in Mu that he was unable to withdraw his attention from it although he still had no idea what it signified. He reported that Mu was so powerful that at times he did not know whether he was sitting or standing. He persisted in the practice for another six months; then, on hearing a block of wood struck, he came to awakening.
He wrote this description of what happened:
Thence my joy knew no bounds. I could not quietly sit in the Meditation Hall; I went about with no special purpose in the mountains, walking this way and that. I thought of the sun and moon traversing in a day through a space 4,000,000,000 miles wide. “My present abode is China,” I reflected then, “and they say the district of Yang is the center of the earth. If so, this place must be 2,000,000,000 miles away from where the sun rises; and how is it that as soon as it comes up its rays lose no time in striking my face?” I reflected again, “The rays of my own eye must travel just as instantaneously as those of the sun as it reaches the latter; my eyes, my mind, are they not the Dharmakaya itself?” Thinking thus, I felt all the bounds snapped and broken to pieces that had been tying me for so many ages. How many numberless years had I been sitting in the hole of ants! Today even in every pore of my skin there lie all the Buddha-lands in the ten quarters! I thought within myself, “Even if I have no greater satori [awakening], I am now all-sufficient unto myself.”
After his enlightenment, Bukko became head priest of his own temple. At that time, the Mongols were completing their conquest of China, and enemy soldiers scoured the countryside looking to suppress pockets of resistance. A group of these raided Bukko’s temple, intending to put all the monks there to death as they had elsewhere. Bukko remained calm in the face of the attack and asked the leader of the soldiers to allow him time to compose a poem to mark the occasion of his death. While the soldiers waited with drawn swords, Bukko took up his calligraphy brush and wrote:
In all this world there is no place for me to lay down my staff
Subject and object are totally empty! How delightful!
The great sword of a famous warrior of the past—
It is as if a spring breeze were split by a bolt of lightning.
Impressed by the equanimity with which the monk faced his impending death, the soldiers retreated without harming any of the members of the community.
Word of the encounter between Bukko and the Mongol soldiers reached the current leader of Japan—Hojo Tokimune. Tokimune was the shikken, or regent, to the Shogun, but in fact held the reins of power in the country. His father, Tokiyori, had been a Zen practitioner and came to enlightenment under the guidance of a Chinese Zen master teaching in Japan. Tokimune was credited with repelling the first attempt made by the Monguls to invade Japan, but he realized it had only been good fortune that had prevented the invasion from succeeding. He fully expected the Monguls to make a second attempt, and, to help him prepare for that, Tokimu ne invited Bukko to come to Japan in 1279 to serve as his teacher.
Bukko, who was 56 years old at the time, accepted the invitation. He asked Tokimune what it was he was seeking from the practice of Zen. Tokimune explained that he sought to conquer all fear. Bukko instructed him to search within himself for the source of fear; this became Tokimune’s koan—“Where is my fear located?”
When the second Mongol fleet approached Japan, Tokimune went to see Bukko and told him, “This will be the most important event in my life.”
“And how do you plan to deal with it?” Bukko asked.
Tokimune responded by shouting out the word “Victory!” with all his might.
“Ah,” Bukko remarked. “The son of a lion roars like a lion!”
After the failure of the second Mongul invasion, Tokimune built Engaku Temple as a memorial for all those who had lost their lives defending Japan. Bukko was installed as its first head priest.
Bukko was the teacher who brought the Zen tradition to the samurai. Seeing the esteem Tokimune had for him, samurai warriors were drawn to the Zen master as well. In spite of the Buddhist prohibition against taking life, Bukko did not condemn the samurai for being warriors; after Tokimune died, Bukko even declared that the shikken had been a Bodhisattva. The samurai saw Zen not so much as a religion but rather as a practical discipline with which they learned to overcome their fears and face death with equanimity.
The case of Bukkō
by D. T. Suzuki (鈴木大拙貞太郎 Suzuki Daisetsu Teitarō, 1870-1966)
in Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949, pp. 255-257.
The case of Bukkō (Fo-kuang), the National Teacher,*
was more extraordinary than that of Kakuin, and fortu-
nately in this case, too, we have his own recording of it in
detail. 'When I was fourteen,' writes Bukkō, 'I went up to
Kinzan. When seventeen I made up my mind to study
Buddhism and began to unravel the mysteries of "Joshu's
Mu". I expected to finish the matter within one year, but
I did not come to any understanding of it after all. Another
year passed without much avail, and three more years, also
finding myself with no progress. In the fifth or sixth year,
while no special change came over me, the "Mu" became
so inseparably attached to me that I could not get away
from it even while asleep. This whole universe seemed to be
nothing but the "Mu" itself. In the meantime I was told
by an old monk to set it aside for a while and see how things
would go with me. According to this advice, I dropped the
matter altogether and sat quietly. But owing to the fact
that the "Mu" had been with me so long, I could in no
way shake it off however much I tried. When I was sitting,
I forgot that I was sitting; nor was I conscious of my own
body. Nothing but a sense of utter blankness prevailed.
Half a year thus passed, Like a bird escaped from its cage,
my mind, my consciousness moved about [without restraint]
sometimes eastward, sometimes westward, sometimes north-
ward or southward. Sitting through two days in succession,
or through one day and night, I did not feel any fatigue.
*Tsu-yüan (1226-1286) came to Japan when the Hōjō family was in
power at Kamakura. He established the Engakuji monastery, which is
one of the chief Zen monasteries in Japan. While still in China his
temple was invaded by soldiers of the Yüan dynasty, who threatened to
kill him, but Bukkō was immovable and quietly uttered the following
電光影裡斬春風 (Variant character in the last line 電光影裏斬春風 (裏 instead of 裡)
'Throughout heaven and earth there is not a piece of ground where a single stick could be inserted;
I am glad that all things are void, myself and the world:
Honoured be the sword, three feet long, wielded by the great Yüan swordsmen;
For it is like cutting a spring breeze in a flash of lightning.'
'At the time there were about nine hundred monks re-
siding in the monastery, among whom there were many
devoted students of Zen. One day while sitting, I felt as if
my mind and my body were separated from each other and
lost the chance of getting back together. All the monks
about me thought that I was quite dead, but an old monk
among them said that I was frozen to a state of immov-
ability while absorbed in deep meditation, and that if I
were covered up with warm clothings I should by myself
come to my senses. This proved true, for I finally awoke
from it; and when I asked the monks near my seat how
long I had been in that condition, they told me it was one
day and night.
'After this, I still kept up my practice of sitting. I could
now sleep a little. When I closed my eyes a broad expanse
of emptiness presented itself before them, which then
assumed the form of a farmyard. Through this piece of land
I walked and walked until I got thoroughly familiar with
the ground. But as soon as my eyes were opened the vision
altogether disappeared. One night, sitting far into the
night I kept my eyes open and was aware of my sitting
up in my seat. All of a sudden the sound of striking the
board in front of the head monk's room reached my ear,
which at once revealed me the "original man" in full.
There was then no more of that vision which appeared at
the closing of my eyes. Hastily I came down from the seat
and ran out into the moonlit night and went up to the
garden house called Ganki, where looking up to the sky I
laughed loudly, "Oh, how great is the Dharmakaya! Oh,
how great and immense for evermore!"
'Thence my joy knew no bounds. I could not quietly sit
in the Meditation Hall; I went about with no special
purpose in the mountains, walking this way and that. I
thought of the sun and the moon traversing in a day
through a space 4,000,000,000 miles wide. "My present
abode is in China", I reflected then, "and they say the
district of Yang is the centre of the earth. If so, this place
must be 2,000,000,000 miles away from where the sun rises;
and how is it that as soon as it comes up its rays lose no time
in striking my face?" I reflected again, "The rays of my
own eye must ravel just as instantaneously as those of the
sun as it reaches the latter; my eyes, my mind, are they not
the Dharrnakaya itself?" Thinking thus, I felt all the
bounds snapped and broken to pieces that had been tying
me for so many ages. How many numberless years had I
been sitting in the hole of ants! Today even in every pore
of my skin there lie all the Buddha-lands in the ten quarters!
I thought within myself, "Even if I have no greater
satori, I am now all-sufficient unto myself".'
Here is the stanza composed by Bukkō at the moment of
satori, describing his inner feelings:
'With one stroke I have completely smashed the cave of the ghosts;
Behold there rushes out the iron face of the monster Nata!
Both my ears are as deaf and my tongue is tied;
If thou touchest it idly, the fiery star shoots out!'