252 - Reflections on Dogen’s “Bussho, The Buddha-Nature” Part 2: Total Existence

According to Zen master Keizan’s Denkoroku, Ananda spent 20 years at the Buddha’s side. He had a perfect memory, understood all the teachings, was an impeccable practitioner, and attained arhatship. Despite this, the Buddha made Kashyapa his Dharma heir, and Ananda spent another 20 years practicing with Kashyapa. Finally, Ananda asked Kashyapa, “What am I missing?” This chapter of the Denkoroku discusses their subsequent exchange and Ananda’s long-awaited awakening.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Ananda Asks, “What Am I Missing?”
Awakening Does Not Depend on Acquisition of Understanding or Skill
Ananda’s Heartfelt Question and Natural Response
Toppling the Flagpole


I will be reading from a translation of the Denkoroku, or Record of the Transmission of Illumination, edited by T. Griffith Foulk.[1] This is a thoughtful and modern translation done by the Soto Zen Text Project and is the result of a collaboration between multiple translators and editors who are also practitioners, both native English speakers and native Japanese speakers. There are many good translations of the Denkoroku, one of the most revered texts in Soto Zen next to Dogen’s writings, but this Soto Zen Text Project translation is a delight with copious footnotes plus a glossary in a second volume – longer than the text itself – giving insight into all kinds of terms, phrases, and imagery. The two-volume text isn’t cheap (available through the University of Hawaii press for $85) but the Soto Shu (Japanese Soto School) has made a pdf of the text with footnotes available on their website, albeit with a watermark.

I will not read the entire chapter on Ananda, but will share approximately half of the text, with my reading interspersed with reflections. [I will not reproduce the text here, but will offer notes telling you which page of the Soto Shu website pdf the reading is from; in the Foulk translation, the Ananda chapter is considered Chapter Two.]


Ananda Asks, “What Am I Missing?”

Read Excerpt 1 – Chapter Two, page 105, the Root Case

The Buddha, the “World-Honored One,” acknowledged Kashyapa as fully understanding and manifesting the Buddha Way – and thus as capable of passing that way on to others – through a ritual acknowledgment we call “transmission.” (I discussed the tradition of Dharma transmission in Episodes 51 and 52.) Part of this ritual is giving a Buddhist robe, a kesa (or kashaya), which is of a different color than a novice’s robe. In Zen, this is typically a brown or mustard-colored robe, but especially revered or accomplished senior practitioners – as the Buddha’s first disciples would have been – might on occasion wear a gold kesa.

Ananda asks Kashyapa, “Apart from the transmission of the kashaya of gold brocade, what is it that was transmitted separately?” In the glossary of the text,[2] it explains that this refers to the “separate transmission apart from the teachings.” In Chan/Zen, great emphasis is placed on the necessity of awakening to what the Buddha awakened to; to pass the Buddha Way on to the next generation, it is not sufficient to memorize the teachings, or even to learn all the correct ways of behaving. We have to awaken to what the Buddha awakened to, but how do we know if someone has awakened thus? Only someone who has awakened can recognize it. So, we say, Buddha in the teacher recognizes Buddha in the student, and Buddha in the student recognizes Buddha in the teacher. It is a real flesh-and-blood experience of intimacy and defies codification.

Ananda knows and understands every last teaching the Buddha gave. His practice is outstanding; according to the Zen story, by this point he has already attained arhatship, or the pinnacle of spiritual attainment, which means he will never be reborn. Still, from the Zen point of view, he is missing something. What is it? Poor Ananda – so patient and diligent and humble, studying with his Dharma brother for 20 years. At last, he begs Kashyapa to explain: “Please, Kashyapa, what am I missing?”

What is it that some people have? We witness something in the way they express themselves, the way they live, behave, and manifest. Perhaps we don’t even meet them personally, but read their writings, appreciate their art, or learn about their actions. If we meet a teacher in person, we see the way they live, speak, and behave. We are inspired to get something of what they have. We gravitate toward them, study their words, ask for their instruction. The role of teacher arises as the aspiration of student arises: “Please, show me what you know. Show me how you do that.”

The way of the student can be long and, at times, frustrating. We may consider giving up. When our fellow students advance more quickly than we do, we do not understand why. What are they getting that we are not? Although we receive the same instructions as everyone else, something within us seems to obstruct us, limit us. It doesn’t matter what discipline we are talking about. It could be a martial art, the playing of a musical instrument, public speaking, cooking, or cabinet making; there is some indescribable element – some je ne sais quoi, or I don’t know what – that an individual can bring to the situation, differentiating apprentice from master.

What is this mystical element? Striving, effort, enthusiasm, determination, focus, love? None of these exactly get at it. We may cultivate all of these and find they matter a great deal, but still this mystical element may elude us; it will not be tamed, captured, or commodified.


Awakening Does Not Depend on Acquisition of Understanding or Skill

Read Excerpts 2, 3 & 4 – Chapter Two, pages 106-109 – 2) “Now, this story… mind ground.” 3) “All the disciples… Tathagata preached.” 4) “From this we know… our own non-entry.”

What is remarkable about Ananda is that he does not give up. Are you willing to practice diligently for 40 years, all the while being told you are missing the fundamental point, the mystical element, the je ne sais quoi? Are you willing to humbly seek the guidance of someone who began practicing the same time you did, but who has been recognized as an authority in a way you have not been?

Ananda is like the ugly duckling – the swan from the fairy tale, born into a duck family who cannot fit in, who feels ungainly and ugly.[3] Except someone explains to our swan Ananda that he is actually a swan, so he goes off to study the ways of the swan, mastering every detail. However, he has not seen his reflection in the water, so he can’t picture himself except as a duck. No one knows more about swan ways than he does, and yet in the company of swans he stands out, awkward in a body that he can’t perceive as anything other than an unfortunately misshapen duck body. Frustrated, he finally asks a wise old swan what he is still missing after all this time and effort. The old swan looks at Ananda compassionately, saying, “Ananda, it is time to give up your effort. Just look at yourself.”

The fact that Ananda needs to give up his striving after 40 years of diligent practice does not mean you should give up your Zen practice and study. Without it, you can’t get to the place of vulnerability and openness that is required for you to realize your true nature. Ananda the swan, at the pivotal moment, recognizes that all the wonderful aspects of swan nature manifest in his very body. Such a realization has been sneaking up behind him for a long time; at the last moment it is not far away.

Keizan tells us Ananda’s story with great reverence and tenderness. What is so significant about Ananda’s story that it has been passed down through millennia to us? It is about the nature of the awakening that is truly liberating. There are many insights we can have which help relieve suffering and bring greater happiness, wisdom, and compassion. We can live with more peace and sanity by practicing meditation and live more in accord with Reality by following the precepts. Still, if we fail to recognize our true nature, what a shame! Such healing, such freedom! Coming home, joining the family of all sentient beings, the family of all Being. Belonging. Intimacy. Knowing who we truly are. Like Ananda the swan, we perceive this very being as everything we have truly longed to become.

Because of human nature, we inevitably imagine that recognizing our true nature is dependent on the acquisition of one more piece of understanding or the mastery of one more skill. Yet we have the example of Ananda, who – unlike us – had memorized every single teaching, understood all of them, and practiced every aspect of the Buddha’s way impeccably and selflessly. Despite this vast knowledge, despite his perfect practice, the pivotal awakening eluded him. From this we know that the nature of awakening is something entirely different from the acquisition of understanding or skill.


Ananda’s Heartfelt Question and Natural Response

Read Excerpt 5 – Chapter Two, pages 113-114 – “In the aforementioned… responding echo.”

As long as we are convinced that the mastery we seek will come, at some point, from the acquisition of additional understanding or skill, we will be busy. This is not at all a bad thing. If we want to produce incredible music on an instrument, we can’t pick it up for the first time and do so, no matter how “in tune with the universe” we may be. We have to train and practice with our body and mind for some time before beautiful playing becomes possible. Only then can we surrender to the process and allow something universal to move through us, expressing itself through music. Similarly, Ananda’s many years of “following and intimately serving” were not wasted.

At some point, though, we reach the limit of what our willful efforts can produce. Only then does it occur to us that the mystical element which will fully animate our activities is something utterly different than any understanding or skill we might acquire. Only then do we sincerely ask, “What else is there?” At some point in our practice, this becomes not a question based in ignorance or a sense of inadequacy, but one based in existential proximity to the truth. Alive with anticipation and intuition, we open our mind, body, and heart to what we have never perceived before.

When Ananda had reached great openness and asked Kashyapa what else was transmitted, Kashyapa “knew the time was right.” He called, “Ananda!” As Keizan says, “although [Kashyapa] called ‘Ananda!’ he was not calling to Ananda.” What does this mean? All the things we can think of as being “Ananda” or belonging to “Ananda” are not what is being called, are not what responds, are not what adds the je ne sais quoi to the unfolding of life. What, or who, then, is being called? This need not be such a mystery to us. It is only a delusion, after all, that some “executive I” has been navigating our life up until this point. We see through that delusion when we respond spontaneously, without pretense, and the response is more appropriate than anything we could have dreamed up self-consciously. 

Do not think, though, that because our true nature often manifests when we let go of our self-conscious effort, Zen is about carefree spontaneity. Such spontaneity is simply self-indulgent, justifying our lack of hard work, planning, training, and discipline by labeling these things as “small self” endeavors while clinging to the idea that our most authentic life will be lived if we never think beyond this moment. Whatever manifests the unfolding of our precious life has led us to our commitments as well as to appropriate responses to whatever arises this moment. Ultimately, purposeful practice versus goalless practice is a false dichotomy.

Keizan says Ananda’s response to Kashyapa is “like the rising of an echo following a call to the valley spirit.” The footnote explains that in “the popular Japanese imagination,” it is thought that the spirit of a valley, or kami, is what shouts back to you in the form of an echo. Thus, Ananda’s response, “Yes?” is spontaneous, natural, without pretense. But then Keizan says Ananda’s response was not “the reply… of a responding echo.” So, in one sense this analogy is accurate, but in another it is not.

In what sense is Ananda’s response not like an echo? We may imagine that something separate and mystical within Ananda responds to Kashyapa, like an unseen valley spirit calling back. We may imagine the discovery of this mystical “true self” is that pivotal piece of understanding or skill we knew would complete our training and allow us to function freely. But to imagine such a mystical, inner true self is going too far. However we describe the essential matter, whatever language we use, we will quickly be drawn into dualistic thinking unless we are very careful. We will imagine a special nature – an inner valley spirit – that is separate from us, which can be realized by us, perceived by us, possessed by us, used by us, enjoyed by us. But that which we seek is absolutely inseparable from the unfolding of this moment. Ananda’s “yes” is not the response of his true nature, it is his true nature. But even to say this presents a trap, because any “yes” we can grasp long enough to identify is no longer It.


Toppling the Flagpole

Read Excerpt 6 – Chapter Two, pages 114-115 – “Topple the flagpole… atop Ananda’s head.”

It is deeply significant that Kashyapa does not tell Ananda to lower or fold up his flag. Kashyapa is not asking his Dharma brother to give up or admit defeat. So far, Ananda’s practice has not led to victory, but neither is he defeated.

Kashyapa invites Ananda to topple the flagpole – to knock it down and stop using it. We can see the flagpole as our willful effort to understand and master, to pit our competence against the world and see whether we can keep our flag flying. We may come to understand that this approach is not going to give us access to that elusive je ne sais quoi that will give us true mastery, that this approach is not going to make us suitable for the receipt of the transmission kesa. But then what? It is one thing to comprehend that the flagpole must be toppled, but quite another to know how to topple it – and even when we have an inkling about how to topple it, we still need to summon the courage to do it. No one can tell us how all of this is done. We must find our own path, painstakingly becoming intimate with ourselves over years of practice.

Hearing his Dharma brother’s encouragement, Ananda is finally able to surrender. Once again, though, Keizan uses language to describe this event and then pulls the language away so we don’t get caught in duality. Keizan explains that it is as if Kashyapa and Ananda have “squared off and erected flags.” We might imagine, then, that when Ananda “gets it” through his spiritual surrender, he wins. His flag should fly while Kashyapa’s is taken down to acknowledge Ananda’s attainment, however belated. This kind of thinking puts us right back into the trap of framing awakening as something we attain or accomplish.

Keizan warns us, “But that is not how this episode goes. Kashyapa is a flagpole, Ananda is a flagpole.” Our flagpole is our body, our mind, our heart, and our willful effort to understand and master. There is no true nature apart from this flagpole, it is only our relationship to this flagpole that changes upon awakening. We no longer use it to stake our claim, defend our position, or strive to accomplish our heart’s desire. We recognize what we longed for has been manifest all along. The Buddha’s robe then spontaneously arrives atop our head, a direct consequence of awakening to our true nature.



[1] Foulk, T. Griffith, Editor-in-Chief. Record of the Transmission of Illumination, Volume I: An Annotated Translation of Zen Master Keizan’s Denkoroku. Translated by T. Griffith Foulk with William M. Bodiford, Sarah J. Horton, Carl Bielefeldt, and John R. McCrae. Tokyo, Sotoshu Shumucho and Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2021.

[2] Foulk, T. Griffith, Editor-in-Chief. Record of the Transmission of Illumination, Volume II: A Glossary of Terms, Sayings, and Names pertaining to Keizan’s Denkoroku. Translated by T. Griffith Foulk with William M. Bodiford, Sarah J. Horton, Carl Bielefeldt, and John R. McCrae. Tokyo, Sotoshu Shumucho and Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2021.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ugly_Duckling


252 - Reflections on Dogen’s “Bussho, The Buddha-Nature” Part 2: Total Existence