The Realization of Zen Master Kyogen

By Shawn Radcliffe

“Realization is Intimacy with all things” ~ Dogen

According to the story of Zen Master Kyogen, a 9th century student of Isan in China, true realization is not about gaining knowledge, but about letting it go.

One day Kyogen asked his teacher Isan about the ultimate truth. In response, his teacher said, “What is your understanding? What is your original face before your parents were born?”

Kyogen thought on these questions, but could find no suitable answer. So he retreated to his room to look through his notes and books. He still couldn’t find an answer that would please his teacher, so he asked Isan to teach him the essential truth. Isan refused, saying that any explanation he gave would be his own, not Kyogen’s.

Despondent, Kyogen burned his notes and books, and left to become a wandering monk, eventually settling down as the caretaker for a shrine in the countryside. One day while he was sweeping the yard, he flicked a pebble against a stalk of bamboo—tak!—and at that moment he was changed.

Although in that instant he became a master, Kyogen never described it as if he had achieved something. Instead he said, “I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew. I now don’t know anything.” And he meant it. Everything was gone—his habits, his sense of body-mind, the world and his view of it. Even the “me” that he thought he knew had slipped away. In this way, Kyogen’s realization was not a sudden inrush of new knowledge, but a dismantling of his current knowing.

But what is the “original face” that Kyogen’s teacher asked him about? This question is meant to drive us toward understanding who and what we are right now—beyond the body-mind inherited from our parents, the habits learned from others, and even the book knowledge picked up in our studies. When we seek our original face before our parents were born, these concepts are all dismantled—this is what is lost to us.

Of course, habits can be good—they help us drive cars and go to work each day. Likewise, intelligence and conceptual understanding can be used skillfully. But when we become stuck in these patterns—if we think they make up our entire truth—then they will obscure our true nature and bind us to our current limitations. Fortunately, in each moment the universe provides us with the opportunity to see who and what we are right now, by giving us a chance to break free of these habits and forget everything. This is the ultimate liberation.

But as Kyogen reminds us, it won’t come from our head: “I’m not going to get this by figuring it out.”

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