The Middle Way

Soyen Shaku's classic sermon on the finding balance between discipline and intuition

Soyen Shaku

One day Hung-Jen, the fifth patriarch of the Dhyana sect in China, made an announcement to his disciples, saying that whoever was capable of giving a satisfactory proof of his thorough comprehension of Buddhism would succeed him in religious authority. The result was the following two stanzas, the first by one of his most learned disciples and the second by his humble rice-pounder, who, however, was awarded the prize.

    The body is the holy Bodhi tree,
    The mind is like a mirror shining bright;
    Exert yourself to keep them always clean,
    And never let the dust accumulate.

    No holy tree exists as Bodhi known,
    No mirror shining bright is standing here,
    Since there is nothing from the very first,
    Where can the dust itself accumulate?

The two stanzas are suited to illustrate that to obtain a comprehensive view of truth it is not enough to know only one side of the shield, but we must turn it around and see the reverse, as one is complementary to the other. Judging superficially, the two stanzas appear to be directly contradicting each other, for while one advocates the strenuous life, the other seems to be tending to nihilism and libertinism. In my opinion, however, Buddhism would be incomprehensible if these two apparently antagonizing views were not synthesized and harmoniously blended.

Seiko    Susan MorningstarThese two stanzas are the two wings of a bird, or the two wheels of a cart, or, perhaps more exactly, one is like the eye and the other the legs. With the eye we can see, but we cannot move, as we have no legs; with the legs we are able to move, but we are blind, as we are without sight. From the standpoint of absolute truth, there is no such thing as mind or matter or even God or universe. But if we confine ourselves to this view and become blind to the other side, which says that the many exists, that the world actually is, we are like the man who has no legs; we are unable to move, we cannot carry ourselves, we are helpless, we cannot live our daily life. Philosophical insight may be far-reaching enough, but it is contentless, it lacks the material on which to work. Therefore, we must look at the other side and see how our practical life is to be regulated; we must see how our legs are fixed, whether they are strong enough to take us where the eye is directing.

Again, we must not forget that practical discipline alone does not lead us to the abode of final enlightenment. It is very excellent not to neglect the cleaning of the mirror, the purifying of the mind, which is likely all the time to collect the dust of passion on it. But if we fail to see that a merely conventional, superficial purification is very much like groping in the dark without the knowledge of the import of existence, our spiritual horizon will draw itself within narrow limits like a snail retiring within the shell, and we may lose our original, intrinsic, spontaneous freedom and tranquillity, which belong to the mind by its own constitution; we may put ourselves under an unnecessary yoke, moving only within a prescribed circle. In other words, we may lose simplicity, naturalness, ease of movement in our thinkings and doings.

In what follows I will consider the teaching of Buddhism as stated in the two stanzas harmoniously viewed.


The first stanza begins with the line “The body is the holy Bodhi tree.” In this, our body is compared to the sacredness of the Bodhi tree under which the founder of Buddhism attained his spiritual enlightenment and laid down the foundation of his system. The body, however evanescent in its character, must be considered holy even as the holy tree, and all the necessary care should be taken to keep it the worthy vessel in which the spirit is lodged. There are many fanatic believers in asceticism and self-mortification, thinking that this material existence is the root of evil and therefore the more it is tortured the purer and holier will grow the spirit. The flesh is in its very nature antagonistic to the spirit. They cannot thrive in harmonious relation with each other. The stronger the flesh, the weaker the spirit, and vice versa. The line “The body is the holy Bodhi tree” is directed against those who hold this kind of view. That is to say, Buddhism does not espouse any ascetic practice, nor does it hold a doctrine tending to a dualistic conception of existence which makes the flesh the source of evil and the spirit the foundation of everything good. The body as a material phenomenon has its limitations, as a living organism has its impulses, desires, passions, and moods; and there is nothing evil or wicked in it. It is thirsty and it must drink; it is hungry and it must be fed. Exposure to cold affects its well-being, and it must be clothed. Too much strenuosity exhausts its energy, and it must rest. All these things are inherent in it, and unless we demand that the tree grow as the fish, as a Japanese saying goes, it is altogether irrational to wish our bodily existence to be free from all its constitutional wants. Therefore, Buddhism teaches us not to curb them and torture the body but to regulate them and prevent their going to self-destruction through wantonness.

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