A vintage koan commentary by the Center’s founder, the late Roshi Philip Kapleau.

Mumonkan number 35: Sei and her soul separate

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The Case
Goso asked a monk, “Sei and her soul separated—which is the true one?”

The Commentary
If you realize the One, you will know that we pass from one husk to another like travelers stopping at an inn. But if this is not yet clear, don’t rush about wildly. When earth, water, fire, and air suddenly separate, you’ll be like a crab struggling in boiling water with its seven arms and eight legs. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The Verse
The moon among the clouds is ever the same;
different from each other, the mountain and the valley.
How wonderful! How blessed!
Is this one? Is this two?

The story of Sei’s two souls appears in various Chinese books of ghost stories; R.H. Blyth tells the story like this: In a place called Koyo lived a man, Chokan, whose youngest daughter, Sei, was very beautiful and the pride of her father. He had a handsome cousin named Ochu, and Chokan as a joke used to say they would make a fine married couple. The two young people, however, took this chaffing seriously, and thought of themselves as engaged, being in love with each oth-er. The father, however, intended to give her in marriage to another young man, Hinryo, and tragedy could not be avoid-ed. In indignation Ochu left the place by boat, and after several days’ journey, found one evening, to his astonishment, that Sei was on the same boat. Overjoyed, they went to the country of Shoku, where they lived several years and had two children.

Sei, however, could not forget her native place, and said she had deserted her father and wondered what he was thinking of her. So her husband decided to go back with her. When they arrived at the father’s house, her husband apologized to the father for taking his daughter away from her home, and begged him to forgive them. “What is the meaning of all this?” exclaimed the father. “Who is this woman?” “This is Sei,” replied Ochu. “Nonsense!” said Chokan. “Sei became ill and has been in bed for several years. That’s not Sei at all!” Ochu went back to the boat, and brought Sei to her father’s house. Being told of this, the Sei lying in bed, when the Sei came from the boat, arose from her bed and went toward her, and the two became one.

Chokan said that after Ochu had left, his daughter had never spoken, and had lain there as if in a stupor. The soul must have gone from the body. Sei said that she hadn’t known her body was in the house. When she had felt Ochu’s love and had seen him go, she had followed him as if in a dream, but after that had remembered nothing.

Here we see Master Goso present this story, and then he asks, “Which is the true Sei?” Of course, the real question is, “What is our true nature?” Most people really live a double life. There’s a life dominated by ego, doing all kinds of stupid, painful things. And then there is the courageous side, the compassionate side, the truly loving side. And there’s a constant war between these two in the breasts of most people. In fact, until awakening, all people lead this double life. And Goso is trying to make the monk see that until one rises above the untrue life of the ego, there’ll always be confusion.

In the story, having Sei be sick is also very much to the point. It’s really a ghostly life that most people lead. Of course, as soon as one believes that one is living a ghostly life, this is really the beginning of health. Most people won’t acknowledge it. There are moments of honesty, when we do get sick and tired of this double existence or, as we say in contemporary terminology, of all the game-playing, the rationalizations, the self-justifications. We’re wandering around, like a ghost.

What is the enlightenment experience? It is the experience where one transcends the duality of self and other, subject and object, true and false, one and two. The experience of seeing that our true nature is beyond oneness and multiplicity.

We often say there are two sides to our nature. One is the dualist, relative, or phenomenal side, where we have birth and death, coming and going, good and evil, and the karma of change, discrimination, and differentiation. And the other side, which we call the absolute, where there is no change, no differentiation, the unconditional. And then over above the two, what do we call that? Nothing stands outside of that! That is where all of the pain, the confusion, the frustration, and the discontent is transcended. We can’t really say that our true nature is one; we can’t say it’s two. We often say, “Our true nature is one.” But inevitably, this one has to stand against two, and so it is not a correct statement to say, “In our true nature we are one.” “We are not two” is perhaps a better statement. It can only be put negatively.

And to realize our true self, we go beyond this twoness and this oneness. And the real self turns out to be no self at all. As Hakuin says, “This self is no self.” We can’t say it is nothing, with a small “n.” A beautiful sunset, the vividness of a wonderful symphony, the beauties of nature, and of love, all come out of that. But of course, when we talk this way, we are still on a philosophic level. Without at least a glimpse into all of this, we’re still on a verbal level. We’re still vulnerable. One always falls back into dualistic modes of thought.

And now, Mumon’s commentary: “If you realize the One, you will know that we pass from one husk to another like travelers stopping at an inn.” In a way, this analogy is unfortunate. It gives the impression that we are changing clothes from one life to another, that it’s the same person who changes form. This is not so—that is reincarnation. In Buddhist rebirth, it is more like you’re playing billiards. And you take your cue, and you hit one ball. Well, if you know how to play well, it just stops. Nothing passes over except a certain pattern of energy. And this energy, or momentum, disperses the other balls. And this is it, exactly.

Yasutani Roshi uses the analogy of the seal that Japanese people use to sign their names. It is as though impressing a seal in mud, or like putting your foot in wet sand. The pattern left in the mud represents the energy, or the karma, of the previous life. What passes over? Certainly, your foot doesn’t pass over.

Or you might say that it’s rather like a flame. As it travels, it burns up various kinds of forms in its path. If you take a match, and you light a candle, what passes over from the match to the candle? Can we say it is the same light? Or it is not the same light? Or you might take a child when it is very young, and then when it becomes a forty-year-old, middle-aged person. Is this the same person when, even though it has the same name, every cell in its body is changed? Can we say it’s different? All we can say, as the Buddha himself said, is, “It is not the same, and yet it is not different.”

We must be very clear about this question of Buddhist rebirth. Time and time again when that subject comes up, particularly in workshops, the question is asked, “What is the difference between rebirth and reincarnation?” And if you say, “In Buddhist rebirth, nothing passes over,” well then, what’s reborn? The trouble is with the question; it assumes that some-thing is reborn. That is to say, it assumes that some concrete thing is reborn.

We don’t know what’s going to happen to us after we die. But depending on my karma, I will take a certain form. There’s a certain pattern of energy that has come from a previous existence. When it has exhausted itself, that particular energy will present a new pattern before it expires, depending on one’s last thoughts. It’s an energy that, depending on one’s past karma, takes a certain direction, and can come into a certain form. This is Buddhist rebirth.

For the enlightened, there is a completely, absolutely new karma, which moves forth into another kind of existence. For those who are not fully enlightened, well, there are various residues of pattern, which are propelled forth into another existence. Of course, for those who are the very highest, and this is what we mean by parinirvana, then the energy has been completely exhausted, and there’s no longer any more rebirths.

Mumon goes on here, and says, “But if this is not yet clear, don’t rush about wildly. When earth, water, fire, and air suddenly separate, you’ll be like a crab struggling in boiling water with its seven arms and eight legs.” As you know, the ancients believed that the body was composed of four elements: earth, water, fire, and air. When these are decomposed, this is death. In Buddhist terms, we say they disintegrate when our karma is exhausted.

This doesn’t mean that there is death in the sense of complete obliteration of that energy, because as we know, no energy is ever completely obliterated. The law of the conservation of energy tells us this, and all of the great spiritual traditions confirm it.

We must never forget that death and rebirth are going on at every moment, and that birth and death are of two kinds. There’s one kind that has to do with the physical body, which has already been mentioned. And then there’s the other, what might be called the momentary kind, which is going on every millionth of a second. Cells in our body are dying, and being transformed. Others are being reborn.

So what Mumon is saying here is that the great fears and anxieties many people experience at the time of death can be prevented. Through, first, understanding the whole process of death and rebirth, of momentary birth, and the birth of the body. And second, through awakening to the fact that there really is no death. They’re just two sides of the same thing: one marked Entrance, and the other marked Exit.

To die as so many of the masters die, with such complete concurrence, sitting up in the lotus posture, actually anticipating the day of death: this can only happen to one who has a deep understanding. This understanding of course is not an intellectual subject–object kind of understanding. And the full concurrence and acquiescence in the process can only come about when there is this understanding and experience.

Of course we are told these days, by people who are very carefully studying the whole subject of death, that no matter how much anxiety and pain there is, a reconciliation does finally take place, and a deep acceptance of the inevitable. As you know, no doubt, this has been divided into various stages: first the great resentment about having to die, then the great resistance of having to die, and then finally, the inevitable concurring, in which there is for most people a measure of seeming tranquility. But one would still question what the effect of the anxiety and the pain in the first stage is upon the quality of one’s rebirth, and the quality of one’s karma, so to say. Inevitably, it must have an adverse effect.

So here, Mumon is comparing this anxiety and this frantic thrashing about to a crab that is struggling in boiling water. And then he says, “Do not say that I have not warned you.” That’s another way of saying, “Now is the time to prepare. Don’t wait until you’re getting sick.” And furthermore, one never knows when one is going to die.

Is this one, is this two?

Then we have Mumon’s verse:

The moon among the clouds is ever the same;
different from each other, the mountain and
the valley.
How wonderful! How blessed!
Is this one? Is this two?

This is quite beautiful, really. “Ever the same, the moon among the clouds.” Of course, the moon always stands for our true nature. And it’s significant in this analogy here that the clouds, as we know, obscure the moon from time to time. There’s a certain darkness. (Although during a full moon, there’s a wonderful kind of soft light that comes out when the clouds go over the moon.) Yet, we always have the assurance that the moon is there, and the moon will come out. And it’s no different with our true nature: no matter how dark and cloudy our life becomes, the moon is always there shining underneath, the moon of truth, compassion, love, serenity, equilibrium, and equanimity.

Mumon says, “Different from each other, the mountain and the valley. How wonderful, how blessed.” How dull life would be if things were all the same! As we said a little earlier, our life is divided into this change aspect and this unchangeable aspect, or sometimes they are called the differentiation and the equality aspect. Mountains, valleys, flowers, trees: what would our earth be without them? But we must never forget that the mountain and the valley take on a peculiar radiance because of the moon. Can we really say that the mountain and the valley are different from the moon, or that the moon is different from the mountain and the valley?

How wonderful that we are all different from each other in our relative aspect! People who are still in darkness deplore people who are different from them, who have different cultures, or different colors of skin, because of a certain narrowness and ignorance. Cultural pluralism, instead of being deplored, should be cheered. We could all profit from each other’s cultures.

Everyone has this Buddha nature, this equality aspect. In that sense, we are all equal; one is no better than the other. Nobody’s higher, nobody’s lower than anybody else.

Often, we discuss these kinds of things on a purely sociological, psychological, or moralistic level, saying, “Well, all people should be treated the same, after all, they’re human beings, they suffer the same,” and all of that.

This is all right, certainly, but it takes on a much deeper significance if we discuss it from a spiritual point of view, and particularly when we’ve had some experience of this equality. To see that even something so relatively low on the sentient scale as a flower, or a tree, is no different from one’s self is a special kind of seeing, which takes more than an act of the imagination. This is what makes us have reverence for every single thing in the universe.

So Mumon says, “How wonderful, how blessed. Is this one, is this two?” What do you say? / / / 


Small photo of Roshi Philip Kapleau

Koan Commentary by Roshi Philip Kapleau (1912–2004) on the sixth day of the seven-day sesshin, June 1975