Green Koans Case 56: No Fence to the West

Clark Strand

No Fence

CASE #56:    No Fence to the West

Kyoshin, who settled in Kako, built no fence to the west: toward the Land of Bliss the gate lay open. Nor, befittingly, did he enshrine an image of worship; he kept no sacred books. In appearance not a monk nor yet worldly, he faced the west always, saying the nembutsu, and was like one to whom all else was forgotten.

BACKGROUND:

Kyoshin, who settled in Kako     Kyoshin (d. 866) was a Japanese scholar-monk said to have been unusually well-versed in the sacred literature. At the peak of his scholarly career he became a wanderer, eventually settling among illiterate farming people in a rural area where he married and had children, hiring himself out as a day laborer. Shinran Shonin (1173-1263), the founder of the Jodo Shinshu (“True Pure Land”) school of Japanese Buddhism, claimed to follow the example of Kyoshin, who was “neither monk nor lay,” and Ippen (1234-1289), founder of the Ji Pure Land school, was on a pilgrimage to Kyoshin’s gravesite when he died.

No fence to the west     Amida’s Pure Land was said to lie at an incalculable distance to the west of this world. It was customary for early Pure Land devotees to face west for their daily practice. Likewise, since ancient times the dying were positioned facing west so that they could see the Pure Land at the moment of death. In ecological terms, the Pure Land is a functioning ecosystem from which nothing is lost and nothing can be added. “No fence to the west” would therefore indicate a mind constantly aware of one thing being transformed into another. On the day of his death Kyoshin, rather than enthusing about the Pure Land, had his friends carry his body outside of his hut so that it could be devoured by wild dogs.

Nembutsu     (Lit. “to think of Buddha”) The practice of reciting Namu Amida Butsu or Namo Omito Fo (“I take refuge in Amida”). The primary practice of all schools of Pure Land Buddhism, it can be performed as a jiriki (“self power”) practice, usually in conjunction with some form of seated meditation, or as a tariki (“other power”) practice, entrusting oneself to Amida Buddha in much the same way that people in 12-Step Recovery learn to rely upon a Higher Power. In Japanese Buddhism, the tariki approach to nembutsu practice gradually prevailed.

NOTE: This koan appears as Saying #98 in the Ichigon hodan, translated into English by Dennis Hirota under the title Plain Words on the Pure Land Way. A record of the sayings and doings of Japan’s wandering Pure Land monks, the Ichigon hodan is a primary source of knowledge about Buddhism during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333).

COMMENTARY:
Kyoshin had something like a university professorship, or maybe he was like the Dean of Harvard Theological. Then one day he up and left his temple by the west gate and never looked back.  No more priest’s robes. No more statues. No more rituals or ceremonies. No more books.

What was he doing all those years in Kako—just getting ready to die? Not on your life! A man with no fence to the west has nothing to lose and everything to live for. That kind of poverty can’t be bought with the riches of this world.

VERSE:
Only repeating
Namu-amida-butsu
With no other thought
For his own welfare—what book
Could teach a thing like that?

Find all the Green Koans here.

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Jim Spencer's picture

What book could teach a thing like that? Not just one book, but hundreds. The writings of D.T. Suzuki, Nyogen Senzaki, the majority of the Buddhist cannon, everything that the Dalai Lama has written - I think that you would have to read all of these and then some, study them deeply, to get to the point where you throw them all away and reduce your practice down to the repetition of one simple mantra.

ClarkStrand's picture

According to D.T. Suzuki, this was exaclty what Kyoshin did (or its equivalent during his day, at least) and it wasn't enough. So he abandoned it and just said the nembutsu.