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Sansho and the Golden Scaled Carp Escaped from the Net

Sansho Enen (dates unknown) was a Dharma-heir of Rinzai who died in 867.  He later studied under Seppo Gison (822-908), who was a disciple of Tokusan, and the teacher of Ummon.

Introductory word presented by Roshi

“To pierce the enemy’s lines in seven or eight places and to snatch the enemy’s drums and banner in wartime,” is metaphorically compared to the Great Activity of Sansho in this main subject.  “A hundred ramparts and a thousand entrenchments.  Watching the front and guarding the rear.”  Both are comparisons to Seppo’s way of attending to Sansho.  “Sitting on the tiger’s head and seizing its tail.”  Such is not good enough to compare to the Great Activity of a skillful Zen master like Sansho.

“Even though an ox head disappears and a horse head appears,” this would not be miraculous enough to compare to the skill of Seppo.  So ponder what you will do if you come across a man of such surpassingly Great Activity.

Main subject by Setcho interpreted by Roshi

Attention!  Sansho asked Seppo:  “What does a mysterious golden-scaled carp escaped from the fishing net eat?”  Seppo said, “I would like to wait for your coming out of the net and then answer you.”  Sansho said, “You, who have 1,500 disciples, do not understand what I say.”  Seppo said, “This old monk is too busy managing temple affairs to attend to you.”

Commentary by Roshi

Seppo and Sansho – with questions and answers, giving and taking, crossing words with one another – neither won or lost.  Just think what kind of wisdom they have.  Sansho had received Rinzai’s transmission and had traveled many places.  It is no wonder that he was treated as a high monk.  Look at the following questions and answers between Seppo and him.  Perhaps only well-trained monks can appreciate the deep meaning of this dialogue, which is beyond the realm of understanding.

Sansho asked Seppo, “What does the mysterious golden carp escaped from a fishing net eat?”  Now ponder what he meant.  What is the food for that golden-scaled fish?  Seppo, who was also a great master, said to Sansho, “I would like to wait for your coming out from the net and then answer you.”

Funyo1 called the kind of question that Sansho asked, “A question presenting one’s own understanding.”  In the Soto school they call this kind of question a “metaphorical question.”  You may say that Sansho was a real golden-scaled carp escaped from the fishing net with a great incomparable wisdom and activity.  However, Seppo, a skilled master, did not give Sansho full play, saying, “I will wait for your coming out of the net.”  Look!  Those two masters are standing at the top of a ten thousand foot cliff.

However, but for Sansho’s next instantaneous statement, the question and answer would not make full sense.  Sansho said to Seppo, “Although you are a teacher of 1,500 students, you do not know how to question and answer.”  To this Seppo said, “I may have been mistaken to listen to you, because I am very busy in managing temple work.”  Look, he became very droll!

In the manner of confrontation of the two great masters’ skill, there are no restrictions – sometimes grasping, sometimes granting, to the strong with the weak, to the humble with the polite.  According to the circumstances, they express themselves at their own will.  If you try to understand this subject with the idea of winning or losing, you will never see Sansho, even in your dreams.

“Such is the way of two well trained Zen masters,” said Engo, “at first they are tough, and later droll.  Do you still ask which has won or lost?  The way of confrontation between other Zen masters is not always like this.

In order to make clear what a good Zen master Sansho was Engo then said, “Once Sansho was a head monk of Rinzai’s monastery.  When Rinzai was about to pass away, he gave his students the last sermon and said, “After my Nirvana, you should not destroy the treasury of my true Dharma eye.”  Sansho came up to him and said, “How dare we destroy it?”  Rinzai said, “If someone asks you about my true Dharma eye, what will you say?”  Sansho gave a “Katsu!” (a loud shout).  Rinzai then said, “Who would expect that my true Dharma eye is going to vanish into that donkey’s belly!” Hereby, Sansho made obeisance to Rinzai (to show respect).  Sansho was Rinzai’s true successor, and questions and answers between them were like this.

Appreciatory word interpreted by Roshi

“Do not say that the golden-scaled carp which has jumped out of the fishing net is staying quietly in the water.  He is loosening the heaven, moving the earth shaking his fins, opening out his tail.”  This refers to Sansho’s statement, “You, who have 1,500 disciples, …etc.”  “Spouting water to a thousand feet, a great white whale will leap through the flood. “After a great thunderstorm, a cool wind came.”  This refers to Seppo’s statement, “This old monk is too busy…etc.”  “Oh this wonderful pure clean wind, who knows the mystery of such tremendous cleaning power!”

Question:  Is it necessary to go through thunder and storm in order to attain the calm, clear, healing wind?

Roshi: Not always.  If there is no thunderstorm, you cannot undergo it.  Once when I was traveling alone in northern Japan, I met a man accompanied by a dog held by a great dog chain.  The first thing he said to me (we were on a boat going to a small island) was, “Be careful, the dog is dangerous.”  We became very good friends.  He told me that if it was my business to save all common people, then I should know what happened to them.  I had to experience what they experienced.  He, for instance, had women and drank sake.  I should practice the same in order to understand him.

If the occasion comes to drink, it may be all right.  If you have to do something, if it is inevitable, then there is the possibility of real training.  But if I drank sake in order to train myself, then I would not be doing it in the same way as he, so it would not work.

It is a dangerous to undertake something on purpose in order to train yourself.  We monks go to Eiheiji monastery for training but it is not always successful!  If you go of your own will, often there is wrong motivation.  You expect something when you have completed it; you expect to gain enlightenment or improve your character or something.

It is quite dangerous.  You must be careful of your motivation when you do something on purpose.  If we have had wrong motivation, then when we come out of the monastery, we become arrogant or conceited.  We have spiritual pride in what we have done.  That is very dangerous.

There are many ways to train, the monastery is a good one.  While you are there, your garments will become wet, without any effort or being conscious of it, they quite naturally become wet.

That is why we begin training with the basic teaching of transiency: there is no self and all things are changing.  If you really understand these two points, and if you just remain faithful to the truth, you will be rid of useless ambitions and one day acquire good character.

Sometimes we work hard training.  If you are in discomfort or pain then it might be quite difficult to accept the fact of no-self.  If your legs hurt you want to have the stick on your shoulders.  It takes your mind off your legs; it is a very kind thing that stick.  Thus, sometimes we want hard training; but if you have the right attitude in all you do, you will be successful in your training of yourself.

But I do not ignore the thunder or the rainstorm.  It is quite interesting to walk in the storm and rain.

1 Funyo Zenshu, 947-1024, fifth generation after Rinzai.


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