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Joshu’s Donkeys Cross, Horses Cross

Introductory word by Roshi

Joshu Jushin of this subject was a native of northern China. When he was ordained (at quite a young age), he visited Nansen with his teacher. “Do you know the name of this monastery?” asked Nansen, who had been taking a nap in his room. The boy said, “Sacred Elephant Monastery”. Then did you see a sacred elephant?” asked Nansen. The boy replied, “I did not see any sacred elephants, but I saw a reclining Bodhisattva.” Nansen raised himself up and said, “Have you your own master now?” “Yes, I have”, said the boy. “Who is he?” asked Nansen. To this the boy made a formal obeisance which should be given only to his own master saying, “Spring cold is still here. Please take good care of yourself.” Nansen called up the Ino (who took care of the zendo) and gave him a seat.

One day Nansen allowed Joshu to meet him in his room. Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the true Way?” “Ordinary mind is the true Way,” said Nansen. “Is it something to be attained or not to be attained?” asked Joshu. “To try to attain it is to avert from it,” said Nansen. “When you do not try to attain it, how do you know the true Way?” asked Joshu. To this question Nansen’s answer was very polite. “The true Way is not a matter to be known or not to be known. To know is to have a limited idea of it, and not to know is just psychological unawareness. If you want to achieve the absolute, where there is no doubt, you should be clear enough and vast enough to be like empty space.” Hereby Joshu acquired full understanding of the true way of Zen.Joshu's Donkeys - Buddhism

When Joshu was 61 years of age, he heard that his former master in his home town was not well, and he went all the way back from south China to take care of him. His parents heard about his coming back from the south and wanted to have him home. But as soon as Joshu learned of his parent’s wishes, he left his old master before they came.

He used to say, “I must ask my way from a child of seven, if he is good enough. But I shall be a teacher of any old man of a hundred years.” At the age of 80 he resided at Joshu (north China). He appreciated the bare life of ancient patriarchs, and used only a broken-legged chair, repaired by a piece of firewood. Through the 40 years during which he lived the simplest form of life in Joshu monastery, he never wrote a single page of a letter, and begged for his support.

Main subject by Setcho

A monk said to Joshu, “Sir, that famous stone bridge of Joshu – I have just come from it and I saw nothing but some stepping stones.” Joshu said, “So all you saw were some stepping stones? Do you mean to say you did not see the stone bridge?” The monk said, “What do you mean by stone bridge?” Joshu said, “Donkeys cross, horses cross.”

Commentary by Roshi

This monk came to Joshu ignoring the great master’s prestige, and said, “I did not see anything but a common stepping stone bridge”, and requested an answer. Joshu replied that the monk had seen a simple stepping stone bridge, but did not see the actual bridge. This gave the monk an interesting gift problem. Now the monk was caught in Joshu’s gift box of duality (intellectual problem: right or wrong, this or that, phenomena or noumena, interplay of the subjective and the objective) and asked what is the real stone bridge. Now Joshu, wishing to free the monk from the idea of some special stone bridge, answered, “Donkeys cross, horses cross.”

This unusual manner of instruction is not like Toku-san or Rinzai, who answer by means of sticks or scolding voice. Joshu just answered with simple common words. This ‘koan’ looks quite common, but it does not allow you to become accustomed to it.

Once Joshu asked a head monk of the zendo who it was who had built the stone bridge. The head monk said, “Riyo built it”. Joshu asked again, “When he was building it, on what did he work? (i.e. did he work on a subjective bridge or objective bridge or what?)”. The head monk could not answer. Joshu said, “People talk about this stone bridge, but when asked this kind of simple question, they cannot answer.”

One day when Joshu was cleaning the main hall a monk came and asked him, “Why is there dust in the hall to clean?” Joshu said, “Because dust comes in from outside.” The monk said, “I cannot recognize pure clean hall to have dust in it.” Joshu said, “I see one more piece of dust here.” That was the old Zen Master Joshu’s way.

The Zen Master is supposed to be tough enough to remain faithful to the Way, but all the better to be not so tough and follow the Way.

Appreciatory word by Setcho

Without setting himself up as an isolated peak,
Old Joshu’s Zen is insurmountably high.
Who knows he is catching giant turtles1
In the vast ocean of Buddhism?
That old scholar Kanei2 may be compared to Joshu Only to make us all laugh.  Suddenly breaking the arrows was quite futile.

1 There is a myth about a giant who went fishing and caught six giant turtles. The point is that giants might be expected to catch large turtles when they went fishing, but puny little creatures should not expect such fortune. The simple traveling monk who came to Joshu was not a giant and could not expect to get big results from his question – but when he came into the presence of Joshu’s wide wisdom he had to luck to catch a giant turtle: in other words he was given a magnificent reply to his little question.

2 Kankei (895) was a disciple of Rinzai and contemporary with Joshu. He was asked a question similar to the one asked of Joshu in this main subject. Kankei’s question and answer were as follows: A young monk: “I have just come from the famous Kankei Valley, but I saw nothing but a small lake.” Kankei: “But didn’t you see the real Kankei Valley?” Monk: “What is the Kankei Valley you mean?” Kankei: “Breaking the arrow suddenly,”

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