Transmission of the Lamp

3. Shōnawashu

When Shōnawashu asked Ananda, “What kind of thing is the fundamental UNBORN NATUREof all things?” Ananda pointed to the corner of Shōnawashu’s kesa. Then, when he again asked, “What kind of thing is the fundamental NATURE OF THE ENLIGHTENED WISDOM of all the Buddhas?” Ananda took hold of the corner of Shōnawashu’s kesa and gave it a pull. At that moment Shōnawashu had a great awakening to his TRUE SELF.

Shōnawashu (S. Śāṇavāsa, ‘He of Hempen Clothing’) was a person from Mathura; in India he was called Shanaka which here means ‘He Who Is Naturally Clothed’ since he was born fully clad; this clothing later proved cool in summer and warm in winter. When his intention to realize enlightenment arose and he left home to become a monk, his clothing spontaneously changed into a kesa just as in the case of the female monk known as ‘She with the Hue of the Lotus’ who lived during the Buddha’s lifetime. This condition was not restricted to his present life for, in a distant past life, Shōnawashu had been a merchant who, out of respect, gave a hundred lengths of woolen cloth to a hundred Buddhas; as a result of this, he was naturally clad over many lifetimes. Although people are unclad during the intermediate existence — that period after people die but before they are reborn — Shōnawashu continued to be clothed even during such times.  

‘Shanavasa’ is a Sanskrit term for a type of fibrous grass we call ‘the nine-branched splendour’. Whenever a saintly person is born, this grass sprouts up in virgin soil. At the time of Shōnawashu’s birth, this grass also sprouted up, whence his name; he was born after having dwelt in his mother’s womb for six years. Some time before this, the World-honoured One, pointing to a verdant grove, commented to Ananda, “This grove is named Uruda (S. Urumaṇḍa, ‘Enrobed in Excellence’). A hundred years after my death there will be a mendicant monk, Shōnawashu by name, who will turn THE WHEEL OF THE LAW here.”  Shōnawashu was born there a century later; he received Ananda’s Transmission and abided in this grove where, by turning THE WHEEL OF THE LAW, he humbled a fire-dragon. In submitting, the fire-dragon gave the grove as an offering, out of deep respect, just as the World-honoured One had accurately predicted.  

At first Shōnawashu was a hermit who lived in the Himalayas; what happened in today’s story occurred at the time when he joined Ananda. His question, “What kind of thing is the fundamental UNBORN NATURE of all things?” is actually one that no one had ever asked before; it was Shōnawashu alone who posed it. Everyone has the fundamental UNBORN NATUREof all things but they do not know that they have IT and so they never ask. Why is IT called the UNBORN NATURE? Even though the myriad phenomena that comprise the universe are all born from IT, this NATURE is, ultimately, not something that is born which is why IT is called ‘UNBORN NATURE’. Therefore everything is completely the fundamental UNBORN NATURE; a mountain is not a mountain and a river is not a river; this is why Ananda pointed to the corner of Shōnawashu’s kesa.  

‘Kesa’ (S. kaśāya from which it comes) means ‘muddied colour’ or ‘the colour of the UNBORN’. You should actually not look upon it in terms of colour. One way to regard it is as the ‘colouration’ of the outer karmic conditions and the inner karmic tendencies of everything from the Buddhas on high down to the mole-crickets, ants, mosquitoes and horseflies. As they are not sounds, forms and colours however, there are no three realms of desire, form and beyond form to abandon and no fruition of the Way to attest to.   

Although Shōnawashu comprehended the matter in this way, he nevertheless put a second question to Ananda, “What kind of thing is the fundamental NATURE OF THE ENLIGHTENED WISDOM of all the Buddhas?” From the limitless stretch of time of past aeons, this NATURE has been unmistakable but our vision will be fatally obstructed if, at some time, we do not recognize ITS existence. To be clear, therefore, as to the place from whence the Buddhas come, Shōnawashu put the question as he did. In order to get him to know that, in response to his call, BUDDHA answers and, in response to his knock, BUDDHA appears, Ananda deliberately took hold of the corner of Shōnawashu’s kesa and gave it a pull; at that moment Shōnawashu had his great awakening to his TRUE SELF. Truly, even though this NATURE has been unmistakable from the limitless past, if you do not experience IT at least once, you will not know that you yourself are the mother of the enlightened wisdom of all Buddhas. This is why all the Buddhas, one after the other, have appeared in the world, and the Ancestors and Masters, generation after generation, have pointed IT out. The PROFOUNDLY ALONE DHARMA is not something that you confer on another or receive from another, that would be like searching your face to find your nose.   

The practice of meditation must be your very own training in enlightenment. When you fully awaken to your TRUE SELF, you will meet that PERSON; if you fail to meet HIM, you will be like a restless, disembodied spirit vainly clutching at reeds or clinging to trees for support. Truly, lest you practise your meditation to no avail and spend your life in vain, you should clarify what today’s story of Shōnawashu is about. Do not waste your time giving forth opinions on whether things arise independent of cause or are predestined; do not put your own self-centered views or your attachments to the past foremost. Should you entertain the notion that ‘since the Way of the Buddhas and Ancestors selects individuals according to their innate capabilities, there is no place where I am equal to the task’, you should know that, of all foolish ideas, this is the most foolish. Who amongst the ancients was a person not born of father and mother? Who did not desire affection or crave fame and gain? Nevertheless, once they had undertaken to practise, to be sure they practised thoroughly.   

From India to our country, therefore, even though the length of the three periods of teaching, the authentic, the superficial and the degenerate, may differ, the saintly and wise, who have proven fruit of their spiritual realization, rival mountains in greatness and fill oceans; thus, you, who all possess sight and hearing, are no different from the ancients.  Wherever you may go, in truth, you are this PERSON andyou are Makakashō and Ananda; since the four elements have never changed and the five skandhas are still five, how can you possibly be different from the ancients when it comes to the Way?   

By failing to penetrate to this PRINCIPLE and to carry through with practice in the Way, not only will you, to no purpose, completely lose your human body but you will ultimately fail to realize that there is the TRUE SELF. Having had the Buddha pass on to him that he was not to behave idly in this regard, Ananda took Makakashō as a second teacher and also accepted Shōnawashu as his disciple for, thereby, the Way of master and disciple was Transmitted.    

The EYE AND TREASURY OF THE TRUE LAW, the wondrous HEART of nirvana, which has flowed down to us in this manner has in no way differed from when the Buddha was in this world, therefore do not feel bitter or regret that you were not born in the land where the Buddha lived; do not be sad that you never met the Buddha whilst He was alive. Long, long ago you set down good roots in great abundance and created strongly favourable conditions for acquiring spiritual wisdom; as aresult, you are now gathered here into the community of Daijō Monastery: truly it is as though you are standing shoulder to shoulder with Makakashō and kneeling knee to knee with Ananda. Although we may be host and guest for just this one day, in a later life we willbe Buddhas and Ancestors. Do not get all wrapped up in past and present feelings. Do not stagnate in the phenomena of sound, colour and form.   Do not pass your days and nights idly. Carefully practise and train in the Way that you may realize the ULTIMATE REALM of the ancients and receive the Seal and prediction of Buddhahood this very day.   

As I wish to make clear what is happening in the present story, here again are my humble words. Do you wish to hear them?

From atop a ten-thousand-foot cliff
Piercing through rock, sweeping away clouds,
comes seething and gushing forth;
Though scattering the snow and flower petals,
making them fly in wild disorder,
This CLOTH-LIKE STRIP, pure white as cotton,
Is beyond the drab world of dust.

(from The DENKOROKU: The Record of the Transmission of the Light by Zen Master Keizan Jokin. Translated by Reverend Hubert Nearman, Shasta Abbey Press, 2001.)