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Seizei, a Poor Monk

(from: Shibayama, Zenkei. Zen Comments on the Mumonkan, Harper & Row, NY 1974)

Mumonkan, Case 10

A monk once said to Master Sozan, "I am poor and destitute. I beg you, O Master, please help me and make me rich." Sozan said, " Venerable Seizei!" "Yes, Master," replied Seizei. Sozan remarked, "Having tasted three cups of the best wine of Seigan, do you still say your lips are not yet moistened?"

  • Mumon's Commentary:
  • Seizei assumed a condescending attitude. What is his intention? Sozan has a penetrating eye and has seen through Seizei's mind. Be that as it may, just tell me how the Venerable Seizei could have drunk the wine?

Mumon's Poem

  • His poverty is like Hantan's, His spirit is like that of Kou. With no way of earning a livelihood He dares compete with the richest of men.

This is a very brief case, but we can look at it in a quite a number of ways. Actually, we might discern at least three different levels of practice in Seizei's question, with Sozan's reply exemplifying a fourth.

"I am a poor and destitute... Please help me and make me rich." At the first level, we can imagine Seizei as a complete beginner. He comes to practice the way most people come to it or to therapy, feeling that there is something wrong, something they lack that they seek to gain. One way or another we've all done this. People often come into therapy complaining of a lack of success in their lives. The want to become more assertive, more creative, less inhibited - and then they will get what they want out of life. The same is true of those coming to Zen practice, though sometimes it's given a more spiritual flavor - we want to become enlightened or compassionate or wise or serene. Whatever we call it, we assume there's something lacking in who or what we are, something we need to change or gain. We instinctively feel the answer must lie outside of us or in some future state we're eventually going to attain. The last place we want to look for our answer is in who already are, right here, right now. So, at that level, when Sozan, calls out "Venerable Seizei!" and Seizei spontaneously answers, "Yes, Master," he is being shown that the riches he seeks have been right under his nose all long. Like the Heart Sutra says, "Nirvana is already here" - but how easy it is to overlook it when we are blinded by our own idea of what "riches" must look like.

The next level supposes that Seizei is a more experienced monk. After years of practice, he has gradually examined and exhausted one fantasy or scheme after another for getting spiritually "rich." He has reached the stage where he's seen that his own self-centeredness is the problem and has begun the long, difficult path of self-emptying. In the Zen tradition, we call this "Great Doubt;" in the Christian tradition it's been called "The Dark Night of the Soul." Every answer, every plan, every approach to practice that has any kernel of a gaining idea turns to dust in our mouths. We don't know how to go forward, but there's no going back. Practice seems like an endless desert, with our goal nowhere in sight. But as we read in the Sandokai, "If you do not see the Way, you do not see it even as you walk on it." Sometimes in this state all it takes is a simple word or sound or sight and we see the Way that has been there all along. It is as obvious as recognizing your own name. When the self is empty, it becomes open to the whole world. When no gaining idea intrudes, everything is suddenly yours. Instead of being filled with self-centered dreams, we are filled with each moment's existence, and are free to respond, "Yes, Master" when Life calls.

However, that's not the end of the story. Again, the Sandokai reminds us, "To encounter the Absolute is not yet enlightenment." Almost always, we reify such experiences into something we've achieved or something we try and hold onto. We can be proud of our "emptiness" and boast of our "poverty." There's an old Jewish joke that makes this point: Once, during the High Holy Day services, the rabbi suddenly was possessed by a wave of mystical rapture, and threw himself onto the ground before the Ark and proclaimed, "Lord, I'm Nothing!" Seeing the rabbi in such a state, profoundly moved the cantor to have the same experience and he too, threw himself done before the Ark, proclaiming, "Lord, I'm Nothing!" Then, way in the back of the synagogue, the janitor, threw himself to the ground, and he too shouted, "Lord, "I'm Nothing." Whereupon, the rabbi turned to the cantor and whispered, "Look who thinks he's Nothing."

Anything can become the source of spiritual pride or attachment. From Mumon's comments, I'd say this is the level that koan was most likely to be meant to address. Mumon's verse refers to Hantan, famous for his poverty and simplicity, but also to General Kou, famous for his courage. Seizei is actually challenging Sozan, saying in effect - look what I've acheived. What more could there possibly be? You don't have to have had some great kensho to fall into this trap. Sometimes, we simply let our practice settle onto a comfortable plateau. We enjoy our sitting and don't want it to be disturbed. We want to be left alone to do our thing. Work practice or having to take on zendo jobs like jikido feel like intrusions. When Life calls, we don't want to answer. Sometimes we talk about that plateau as an attachment to emptiness or to Oneness, sometimes as a hundred foot pole - but no matter how long we've practiced, we all need to watch out for a tendency to say to our selves, this is it - so long as "it" has any content whatsoever, rather than a willingness to face the ever-changing moment. Sozan's call summons Seizei out of his "poverty" and into responsiveness to everyday life. And everyday, life issues that same challenge to each one of us. But whereas Sozan calls out "Venerable Seizei," we can't count on life to be so polite.