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Bassui: 14th century outsider

Buddha-nature, the Self of all beings, is the simple truth. From Buddhas to insects, it is the seer, hearer, and mover.

Throughout Zen's history we find stories of inspirational masters who lived and taught outside the organized system of monasteries and "schools." Bassui Tokusho (1327-1387) is a wonderful example of such a Zen individualist who avoided even country temples, entering them only for private instruction, otherwise spending his time in solitary practice. He came to study the Way, he explained when challenged, not to study the elaborate protocols of the monastic regimen.

Born a samurai, he was abandoned as a baby in a field by his mother, who had terrible visions regarding her child's destiny, and rescued by a family servant who reared him. Bassui traveled widely to study with highly regarded masters as well as spending long periods in solitary practice and koan study in a remote hermitages. When Bassui did eventually invite students to study with him, including lay people, he avoided both the Rinzai approach to koan study, which he evidently found formulaic, and the Soto approach, which he deemed merely intellectual.

Who is the master of hearing this sound?

Bassui urged his students to focus on a single question: Who is the master of hearing this sound?

What is this mind?
Who is hearing these sounds?
Do not mistake any state for
Self-realization, but continue
To ask yourself even more intensely,
What is it that hears?

Who is hearing?
Your physical being doesn't hear,
Nor does the void.
Then what does?
Strive to find out.
Put aside your rational intellect,
Give up all techniques.
Just get rid of the notion of self.

Bassui was imploring students to focus on the nature of their own mind:

If you would free yourself of the sufferings of samsara, you must learn the direct way to become a Buddha. This way is no other than the realization of your own Mind'.

Our minds are "intrinsically pure" and our practice is to realize our own mind. Practice, then, is asking 'What is my own Mind?' and Zen meditation is the process for doing this. In meditation we learn to see everything we experience, with our senses or in our consciousness, as illusion, "of no enduring reality." Our experience of our world is a delusion, like a dream from which we must awaken. Hence Bassui's teaching to ask ourselves, "Who is hearing" and to "Look directly — what is this?"

Like Bankei's teaching of the unborn 300 years later (see Lesson 31). Bassui demystified enlightenment, presenting a path of liberation accessible to all, and, like Bankei, his simple egalitarian message attracted thousands of followers from all levels of society

Bassui was one of the "wild men" of Zen—along with such masters as Hakuin, Basho and Ryokan—who existed outside the institutional system. His spirited teaching of the Way as the immediate, personal experience of buddha-nature has inspired Zen students for hundreds of years as well as Zen masters such as Hakuin.

Bassui told the story of a certain patriarch who took one meal a day, never lay down, spent the day in worshipful practice, and lived a life free of impurity or desire. His disciples considered him to surely have attained the Way.

But an older patriarch startled the disciples by saying that the teacher's practice was merely "the foundations of delusion."

The disciples challenged the old man. "What deeds allow you to slander our teacher?" they demanded to know.

The old patriarch replied thusly: "I neither follow the Way nor depart from it. I neither worship the Buddha nor have contempt for him. I neither sit long hours in meditation nor sit idle. I neither eat just one meal a day nor am I greedy for more. I desire nothing, and that is what I call the Way."