Yuanwu Quotes an Ancient Master

(An Unauthorized and Incomplete Guide to Zazen)


Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz, CAIn a letter, master Yuanwu (circa 1100 C.E.) quoted an ancient worthy, who said:

Find the seat and put on the robe, and afterward see for yourself.

(Zen Letters, Teachings of Yuanwu, translated by J.C. Cleary and Thomas Cleary, pg. 65, ©1994 by J. C. Cleary and Thomas Cleary)

The advice to the listener to “find the seat” means in part to discover the spiritual practice necessary in one’s own circumstance, although the advice in this case was clearly informed by Buddhist practice.

To “find the seat” also means to realize the experience outlined in the second line of Fuxi’s poem: “walking along, I ride the ox”.

To “put on the robe” is in part to commit oneself to a life of purity. In Buddhism, such a commitment is undertaken to make an end of suffering.

To “put on the robe” also refers to a ceremony in the day-to-day life of a Zen monastery. There comes a moment in the morning service when each priest in attendance places the folded cloth of their ordination robe on top of their head, and after a brief verse about the significance of the garment, each priest puts on the additional robe. The outward activity of this particular morning ceremony echoes the inward activity described in the third line of Fuxi’s poem, “the ox crosses the wooden bridge”: the reciprocal innervation of the posture reaches the top of the head, and the rhythm of change of the cranial-sacral fluid is applied automatically through the sense of place in the occurrence of consciousness to the realization of feeling over the surface of the body.

To “see for yourself” is to experience the truth of the Zen teaching. This is to experience sense-contact right through to the activity of the stretch already in existence as consciousness takes place.

photograph of Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz, California by Ingrid Ringel