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Case Twenty-seven

It is Not Mind, It Is Not Buddha, It Is Not Things.

From Commentaries on The Gateless Gate, by Nyogen Senzaki

A monk asked Nansen, "Is there a teaching no master has ever preached?" Nansen said, "Yes, there is." "What is it?" asked the monk. Nansen replied, "It is not mind, it is not Buddha, it is not things."

BODHISATTVAS: The teachings can only describe or explain what Truth is by referring to its attributes or to relationships that distinguish it from untruth. Master or no master, that is all that can be done. All masters describe or explain Truth, but none of them can make you realize it. You must open your own inner gate by yourself. This monk asked Nansen, "Is there a teaching no master has ever preached?" Nansen replied, "Yes, there is." The answer is honest and true.

A master never preaches the inner, or esoteric, teaching. But the kind of preaching that merely entertains listeners is rather harmful. It gives them the burdens of delusion, endlessly. A master speaks abruptly, and cuts off the road of thinking in the mind of the listener. The simpler the better for Zen teaching. No word is best of all. Joshu said "Mu" and Tenryu said nothing, but simply raised his finger. The monk in this koan asked Nansen, "What is it?" Stupid! He is asking Nansen to feed him a dish of ice cream. When the ice cream melts it is no longer ice cream. When Zen is answered by words it is no longer Zen. I would like to grab hold of his chest and say, "Speak! Speak!" If it were Rinzai, he would give the monk a slap and push him away. Nansen was gentle enough to say, "It is not mind, it is not Buddha, it is not things." I doubt that the monk attained realization at these words of Nansen, yet they are quite interesting for us to investigate.

The idealist thinks everything is a phenomenon of mind, but does not know the essence of mind. The materialist believes in the existence of all matter, but when it comes to the theory of electrons, there is the dilemma of self-contradiction. Buddhist realism explains very well that the noumenon is the phenomenon, and the phenomenon is the noumenon, but to actualize what reality is, one has to pass the gateless gate. The reality is called Buddha, but the name is only a shadow, not the essence. In pointing to the esoteric or inner teaching, therefore, Nansen could only say, "It is not mind, it is not Buddha, it is not things." If you add a word to Nansenís answer, you spoil his Zen. If you take a word from the answer, you break the completeness of his Zen. Just enter into the realm of golden silence through this gate of no-thing. When you emerge from your samadhi, you see everything, and you may say, "Masters preached this, and nothing else. It is mind, it is Buddha, and it is all things."

Biographically speaking, the words of Nansen in this koan were the actual transmission from his teacher, Baso. Baso used to answer the question, "What is Buddha?" with the words, "mind of yours is Buddha." Another time, when he was asked that question, he said, "This mind of yours is not Buddha". A monk asked Baso, "Why did you say, 'This mind of yours is Buddha: when you were asked, 'What is Buddha?'" Baso said, "wanted the children to stop their crying." He was giving candy to those crying baby monks. The questioner continued, "the children stop crying, what would you say?" Baso answered, "I would say, 'This mind of yours is not Buddha.'" The questioner said, "Suppose one neither cries nor wishes candy, then what would you say?" Baso said, "I would say, 'There is no thing.'"The questioner continued, "If there comes one who does not cry, who needs no candy, and who does not cling to nothingness, what would you propose?" Baso said, "a person is a master, and can handle all situations. Why should I say anything?" This anecdote will give you the key to open the gate, and also it will teach you how to practice Zen in your everyday life.


Old Nansen gave away his treasure. He must have been greatly upset.

Nansen had the purity of heart of a young lover. His blushing and his awkward words are admirable. According to another record, the monk who asked the question was Hosho, who afterward became a successor of Hyakujo, and lived in the mountain temple where the story of the fox was told. Even though the monk could not receive the family treasure at the time of this koan, he became a nephew of Nansen in the teaching line. So the words of Nansen were not wasted after all.


Too much attentiveness caused him to lose his dignity.
Only silence would bring real merit.
Even if the mountain were to become the sea,
Words could never open another's mind.

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