Bookmark and Share
go back to Non-Zen Miscellaneous page


Zen Sand Preface

Zen Sand: The Book of Capping Phrases for Koan Study
Victor Sõgen Hori
University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003

The size of the present volume rather obscures the purpose of the original Zen phrase books on which it is based. They were hand-written notebooks small enough for monks to carry around in the vest of their kimono or, perhaps more accurately, to hide there. Before the use of these books was openly acknowledged, Rinzai Zen monks who were engaged in the kõan practice probably kept their phrase notebooks out of sight just as they kept private their sanzen diaries of meetings with the
Zen master. There is an old handwritten copy with incense burn marks on the pages, suggesting that its owner might have had to consult his manual in secret at night, using just the faint glow from a stick of incense to read the characters and dropping burning ash on its pages from time to time. These collections, the product of great and extended spiritual effort, fascinated younger monks, who would make a copy of any notebook a senior monk might let them see. In the course of time, as these notebooks were copied and recopied, more and more phrases were added, so that what started out as secret notebooks ended up becoming an indispensable reference for Zen practice. In time, printers got hold of copies and brought them to a still larger public, until at some point the Zen masters incorporated them into a new practice notebooks out of sight just as they kept private their sanzen diaries of meetings with the Zen master. There is an old handwritten copy with incense burn marks on for ordinary monastic training—the capping phrase.

To this day the books used in Japan are no larger than a paperback and still fit comfortably in the folds of one’s kimono. Translating the original text into English and supplying the necessary background material has transformed what weighed less than 100 grams into the cumbersome tome you now hold in your hands. The title of this book, Zen Sand, was inspired by one of its verses:

Gold—but to sell it you mix it with sand. (7.55)

An honest broker would not deceive a customer by mixing pure gold with sand, but in Zen things are different. The awakening itself is pure gold, undefiled by language,“not founded on words and letters.” To be conveyed to others, it has to be mixed with the sand of language.

In the Rinzai Zen tradition the practitioner is directed not to try to grasp a kõan by fixing on its words or looking for intellectual explanations. One has to embody the kõan so that self and kõan are one. Once a particular kõan has been completed, the rõshi will instruct the practitioner to bring a verse or phrase that captures the insight of that kõan. This phrase is called a jakugo, that is, a “capping verse” or “capping phrase.” Over the centuries handbooks have been compiled to facilitate the search for these capping phrases—sand to be mixed with the golden experience of enlightened seeing.

In a sense this book may be considered the godchild of the well-known volume Zen Dust. In addition to presenting a detailed account of the Rinzai kõan practice, the authors of Zen Dust, Miura Isshð Rõshi and Ruth Fuller Sasaki, provided translations for 210 capping phrases that give the reader some hint of their beauty, profundity, and humor. But without a complete translation of one of the traditional jakugo handbooks, which usually contain several thousand phrases, the practitioner who lacks familiarity with Chinese and Japanese is unable to carry on the full Rinzai kõan practice. When Ruth Fuller Sasaki died in 1967, she left behind in her temple of Ryõsen-an, located on the premises of Daitoku-ji, a stack of notebooks with the beginnings of a first draft for such a complete translation. Zen Sand takes up where Zen Dust left off and presents the entire contents of two standard jakugo collections.

I began this book in 1976 not with the intention of producing a book for scholarly publication but as an aid for my own personal Zen kõan training. That same year, after completing my requirements for a Ph.D. degree from Stanford University, I had asked Kobori Nanrei, the oshõ of Ryõkõ-in, Daitoku-ji in Kyoto, to ordain me as a Rinzai monk and to sponsor me in monastery training. I then began working on a translation of the Zengoshð (Zen Phrase Collection), the capping phrase book in use at the Daitoku-ji monastery. As I had had no formal training in classical Chinese (my doctoral studies were in Western philosophy), my ability to read and translate Zen verses from the original texts was quite inadequate. Nevertheless, with the help of dictionaries and grammars, I was able during that year as a Zen novice to struggle my way through to a rudimentary translation of the first half of the Zengoshð. On 8 April1977 (Šakyamuni’s birthday), the day when I begged for admission at the gate of the monastery, I had that translation in my monk’s bag.

Seven years after I entered the monastery, my rõshi died. I then wandered from master to master, until at last the winds of karma brought me in 1985 to the Nagaoka Zenjuku, a Zen boarding school, supervised by a traditional Zen rõshi. When I arrived, Asai Gisen Rõshi immediately set up a daily schedule of three sanzen (consultations) a day, a schedule that we maintained for five years. Freed of the usual monastic schedule, I was able to focus on kõan work and to return to my translation of jakugo. By 1987 I had a complete translation of the 3,040 phrases of the Zengoshð. After twenty years in Japan and thirteen years in full-time Zen practice, I returned to Canada and to academic life, this time in the field of religious studies rather than in Western philosophy. Convinced that I had in my possession a manuscript that would make a useful contribution to scholarship and to Western Buddhist practice, I set about revising it for publication. Lacking systematic training in classical Chinese Buddhist studies and Chinese literature, I am painfully aware of the inadequacy of my translations. In the Rinzai Zen kõan jakugo practice, day by day one follows up one’s insight into each kõan by selecting a capping phrase to put on the rõshi’s  iron anvil. As one of the few people from the English-speaking world ever to have gone through this practice, I feel a special responsibility to introduce this practice to the West. At the same time, I can only hope that someone with better scholarly preparation and a clearer Zen eye will see through the inadequacy of my translations and produce a superior edition.

When I look back at the complex web of people and events that went into making this book a reality, I see at once my greatest debt of gratitude is to my teachers in Zen: Kobori Nanrei Oshõ, the priest of Ryõkõ-in of Daitoku-ji in Kyoto, who first saw fit to take me in as a disciple, and Nakamura Kan’un-shitsu of Daitoku-ji, my first monastery rõshi, in whose forge I was tempered for my first seven years of Zen monastic life. In addition, I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to all the Zen teachers under whom I subsequently trained: Matsuyama Gaun-an, former rõshi of the Myõshin-ji Sõdõ in Kyoto; Hasegawa Daidõ, rõshi of the Entsð Sõdõ in Imari; Asai Gisen, rõshi of the Nagaoka Zenjuku in Nagaoka; and Sasaki Jõshð, rõshi of Mount Baldy Zen Center in California. In addition, Kobori Geppo, the present oshõ of Ryõkõ-in, has always let me use his temple as my monk’s home in Japan.The quality of one’s training depends as much on one’s fellow monks as on one’s master. At Ryõkõ-in, I was fortunate to find myself in a family of dedicated kyõdaideshi, brother monks. Besides  Kobori Geppo, who completed the kõan training at Rinzai-ji and is the present oshõ of Ryõkõ-in,  there was Machida Sõhõ, who spent fourteen years at the Daitoku-ji Sõdõ and went on to take a  Ph.D. and teach at Princeton University; Nishitai Sõkõ, who spent twelve years at the Kenchõ-ji and   Kennin-ji Sõdõs; and Naruse Shõryð, who completed the kõan training at the Eigenji Sõdõ. In particular I would like to mention the support I received from other Western Zen practitioners who were then engaged in kõan practice: Raymond Sõrei Coffin, Chris Sõju Jay, and John Sõgaku Toler, all of whom trained under Kan’unshitsuat Daitoku-ji; and Tom Daijõ Minick, who trained under Kan’un-shitsu at Daitoku-ji, Morinaga Sõko at Daishu-in, and Harada Shõdõ at Sõgen-ji. From 1990 to 1991 Neil McMullin of Erindale College, University of Toronto, and from 1991 to 1992 Lawrence Sullivan of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University arranged appointments for me as the Numata Visiting Professor in Buddhist Studies at their respective universities. Masatoshi Nagatomi of Harvard University encouraged me in my work and was instrumental in persuading the Harvard-Yenching Library to acquire further valuable research materials for me not available elsewhere.

My colleagues at McGill University—Professors Arvind Sharma, Katherine Young, and Richard Hayes—graciously rearranged their teaching schedules in order to give me a year of research leave in 1997. The Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies at the time, Donna Runnalls, gave her support and the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research at McGill University offered a small but helpful grant enabling me to spend the academic year from 1997 to 1998 at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya, Japan.

The community of scholars and staff at Nanzan contributed immensely to this book. James Heisig, then the Institute Director, sponsored my stay, reconfigured my computers, edited and typeset the entire manuscript, and in every way supported the project with energetic attention. Paul Swanson not only lent me the use of his office and his considerable personal library for an entire year while he was away on sabbatical, but he also read and commented on drafts of large sections of the manuscript and edited the phrase translations. The other senior researchers of the Institute, Watanabe Manabu, Okuyama Michiaki, and Robert Kisala, made me feel at home from the first. The team of junior research fellows—Iwamoto Akemi, Terao Kazuyoshi, and Kondõ Mitsuhiro—as well as Peter Knecht, the Director of the Nanzan University Anthropological Institute, generously let me share their daily dinner table and welcomed me into their circle of knowledge, experience, and good judgement. Whenever I could not track down an abstruse reference, I consulted Liang Xiao-hong, a research associate of both the Nanzan Institute and the International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism in Kyoto, and watched as she dissolved my problem into easily comprehensible parts. Okumura Hiroki proofread the Chinese character text of the entire manuscript.

As my translation progressed, I went back to consult with Zen teachers and students engaged in jakugo practice. The list of Zen teachers and students who have encouraged and assisted me over the years is a long one. Katõ Gessõ Rõshi of the Empuku-ji Sõdõ in Yawata read through with me the translations of two major sections of the book, the 10-character and 14-character phrases, corrected my interpretations, and helped me track down a number of difficult references. Yasunaga Sõdõ, who completed the kõan training under Hirata Seikõ Rõshi of Tenryð-ji and is currently the oshõ of Shõun-ji in the city of Ikeda, also proofread the 10-character and14-character phrases, correcting mistakes and offering advice on a wide range of subjects, including how to preserve rhythm when translating Chinese poetry into English. He also presented me with a copy of Yamamoto Shungaku’s Wakun Ryakkai Zenrin Kushð, published in 1920 and now virtually unobtainable.

Harada Shõdõ Rõshi of the Sõgen-ji Sõdõ in Okayama has been teaching traditional kõan Zen, complete with capping phrases, to Westerners in both Japan and America for many years. I am grateful for the confidence he showed in my book of translations by designating it for use by his students. I want especially to thank those students who, in the course of working with my translations over several years, have raised important questions and suggestions for improvement. I would single out in this regard Stephanie Sõzui Schubert, Mark Dõyð Albin, Larry Dõkyõ Zoglin, Sabine Shõe Huskamp, Murlidhare Bodhi Khobragadi, and Jyl Shinjõ Brewer. In addition, Frances Mitra Bishop, a teacher in the Philip Kapleau lineage doing further kõan study at Sõgen-ji, took on the enormous task of computerizing my early translations. Priscilla Daichi Storandt, Harada Rõshi’s right-hand monk and one of my closest friends for many years, was one of the very first, more than twenty years ago, to press me to prepare my private translations for publication. I wish also to acknowledge the encouragement I received from Gerald Kõzen Sonntag, training under Araki Kokan Rõshi in Ishikawa and Tokyo at the Ningen Zen Kyõdan; Michael Kruse, training as a layman at the Tokugen-ji Sõdõ in Nagoya; and those others who have asked to remain anonymous.

Fukushima Keidõ, Rõshi of the Tõfuku-ji monastery in Kyoto, generously found time to meet with me to explain certain aspects of Takujð kõan practice and to give me an inside view of how the Shibayama edition of the Zenrin kushð was edited. His long time kõan student Jeff Shore, now professor at Hanazono University, read early drafts of some of the introductory chapters with a very critical eye. For many years now the Institute for Zen Studies at Hanazono University in Kyotohas been publishing extremely useful Zen dictionaries and indexes. Toga Masataka, the director, actively supported my translation project and provided me with several useful research texts. The Institute has been engaged in developing a vast database of computerized Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen texts and dictionaries, with a search engine that facilitates character searches over a wide range of primary and secondary texts. I owe immense thanks to Yoshizawa Katsuhiro, director of research at the Institute, for allowing me access to a prototype of this database with search engine and for sharing his detailed research into the colloquial language of classical Ch’an texts. Nishimura Egaku of the Institute installed the database for me and cheerfully offered technical support. Maeda Naomi, the Institute’s librarian, on numerous occasions kindly ferreted out books from dark corners of the library and Nishiguchi Yoshio tracked down obscure references for me.

Several persons at the International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism (IRIZ), the second of the two Zen research centers at Hanazono University, also contributed to this book. Michel Mohr read drafts of parts of this book and Sanae Kensei offered guidance about the history of Kuzõshi texts. Usami Sachiko and Sakai Etsuko, the librarians for the IRIZ, hunted down texts for me and assisted me in photocopying. I would like also to thank Yanagida Seizan, the founder of the International Research Institute, and Iriya Yoshitaka of Kyoto University, for the enormous body of Zen historical scholarship they have produced.

I would also like to thank Asano Motoshige, leader of the Ashikaga Zendõkai in the city of Ashikaga, and his son, Asano Teruo, for information about Tsuchiya Etsudõ, the compiler of the Zengoshð, as well as Kurihara Morihito and Tsuchiya Shiomitsuof Utsunomiya, both grandsons of Etsudõ, for their helpful conversations.

Shinohara Kõichi of McMaster University helped me in translating Ijðshi’s postscript to the 1688 Zenrin kushð, and David Pollack of the University of Rochester read and commented on early drafts of the introductory chapters. Feng Liping of Johns Hopkins University checked many of my English translations against the original Chinese, and Nishimura Midori of Sasayama in Japan scrupulously checked every aspect of grammar, nuance, and choice of words. Tsuchida Tomoaki of Nanzan University advised me on kanbun readings and Chinese fonts.

Burton Watson, retired professor of Columbia University, has read almost every word that has gone into this book. Dr. Watson has produced many of the translations of the major Chinese classical texts on which my own research relied, and I am deeply gratified at the great personal interest he has taken in my project. I would like to thank the Asian Scholars Group in Kyoto and the Center for East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University for opportunities to present and receive feed back on some of my views about the origin of the kõan. McGill University provided both research and travel grants. The Japan Foundation gave me one of its Short Term Fellowships to support this research. I thank them both. Thanks also to the Rochester Zen Center, which gave its permission to use its translation of the Four Great Vows(14.320-1), and to the staff of the Nanzan University Library for help in tracking down texts.

Finally, I acknowledge my greatest debt of gratitude to my friend and colleague of many years, Thomas Yðhõ Kirchner. A monk who has trained at three different monasteries, Yðhõ long ago made his own translations of jakugo, all of which he generously turned over to me for my use. In addition, he has introduced me to his wide circle of friends, to whose assistance I turned at every step of the way. Over the years he has never let me forget this translation project and has done everything possible to help me complete it.

In spite of all the expert and learned advice I received from so many people, the translations and the views expressed in this book are my own, and the responsibility for errors that have survived the lengthy process of production lies with me.
Kyðhai (Nine Bows).
Victor Sõgen Hori
McGill University
1 July 2002