Bassui's Eremitism


an it be said that the Japanese Zen master Bassui (1307-1387) was a hermit? His life is known from the disciple Myodo, who published a brief biography and compiled Bassui's talks and lectures. The self-effacing Bassui, who never wrote anything, was surprised to hear of his disciple's work and reluctant to broadcast it. Urged by his disciple to give the work a title, Bassui replied:

Printing this was not my idea. What name can I consider for the title of such a coarse mixture of mud and water?

Thus, "Mud and Water" (Wadeigassui) became the title of Bassui's extraordinary talks, a designation referring to the inherent obscurity and clarity of whatever he had said. In combination with anecdotes from his life, these talks and lectures compliment the eremitism of Bassui Tokusho. It is an eremitic path in which external style of life is subordinate to philosophical thinking. Life, thought, and a complete dedication to what he interprets as the task of living is how Bassui crafts his life into an expression of eremitism.

Bassui's Life

The life of Bassui is superficially uneventful. The chronology is based on Bassui's goal, a trajectory towards knowledge and enlightenment. At the same time, it seldom refers to Bassui's actions or accomplishments, only to how his goal projects his life forward, relentlessly, to an ideal eremitism that balances self and world.

Bassui was born into the samurai class but never pursued its privileges. His mother had dreamt that she had conceived a demon, and exposed him upon birth -- whether ritually or literally. A servant fetched the child and raised him.

Bassui's father died at four. Already, the makings of a solitary etch their imprint on the unfortunate child, the cast-off and the fatherless. At his father's funeral, Bassui is precocious, asking the priest who will eat the fruit offerings and inquiring about the nature and existence of the soul. His childhood passes obscurely, and these anecdotes may be apocryphal, but Bassui doubtless spent his youth in solitary contemplation of great questions in the context of the Zen and Pure Land Buddhism of his day.

At the age of twenty, Bassui visits Fifokiyi Temple and is master Oko for instruction. But an eremitic pattern has already emerged. Bassui refuses to wear ceremonial robes, refuses to join the student-monks in sutra recitations -- only in meditation sessions. Finally, Bassui refuses to stay overnight in the temple and sleeps outdoors instead, a close distance from the temple. Abruptly, Bassui leaves, and begins to wander the countryside in search of a wiser teacher -- a pattern of the coming decades.

Bassui next visits Tokukei Jisha, a hermit who had spent twenty years in seclusion on a mountain. Bassui is impressed by Tokukei's experience and advice, and they develop a lasting friendship. Part of Tokukei's advice to Bassui is to seek certification as a monk, which will provide Bassui an external credential during his wanderings. By now, Bassui has spent ten years as a wanderer.

Bassui next visits Kozan Mongo at Kenchoji Temple. Here Bassui accepts certification and the wearing of robes on his continued wanderings. But otherwise he is not impressed by Mongo any more than Oko. He begins to doubt the authenticity of his certification. A visit to Fukuan Soki at Hounji Temple, a popular figure and site, leaves Bassui disappointed.

At this point, Bassui returns to his first mentor, the hermit Tokukei Jishi, clearly frustrated by his efforts and dubious of his certification. He was probably hoping to live a hermit life and quit his wanderings. But Tokukei wisely warns him to postpone seclusion in the face of his doubts and urges him to resolve his doubts once and for all. Tokukei shares his own story of difficulties with pride as a motivation to seclusion. He recommends visiting Kohokakumyo at Unjuji Temple.

Koho (as he was known for short) represented a rich intellectual heritage. He had studied under a student of Mumon Ekai, compiler of the representative collection of koans in Rinzai tradition, and also under a student of Dogen, founder of the Soto sect. Bassui sets out at once.

Koho receives Bassui well, but Bassui remains adverse to temple ceremony, and insists on staying in a nearby hut, visiting Koho daily. Koho confirms Bassui's certification, and within two months of training, Bassui has attained the insight he had sought for so long. Commentator Arthur Braverman  summarizes the incident:

One day during their meeting, Koho asked Bassui why Joshi responded to the koan "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" with the one word mu ("no"). Bassui answered with the verse:

Mountains, rivers, and the great earth,
Grass, trees, and the forests,
All are mu.

When Koho reprimanded him for responding with his rational mind, Bassui felt as though the foundation of his body and mind fell off like the bottom falling off a barrel. He expressed his experience in this poem:

Six windows naturally open,
a cold lone flower;
Unju strikes the rubbish from my eyes,
Crushes the gem in my hand right before me,
So be it, this gold has become iron.

Now Bassui returned enthusiastically to visit Tokukei and report his deep contentment with his time spent with Kohokakumyo. Bassui now concludes that he is ready for solitude -- this from a hermit (by any standard), one who had wandered Japan for nearly twenty years, never staying in the same place more than a few years, always eschewing temples, monasteries, cities and villages, to stay in his own isolated hermitage, without property or worldly stability.

Bassui now built a hermitage at Nanasda in his home province of Sagami, which his old friend Tokukei visited approvingly. Not much later, Bassui learns of Koho's illness. He visits him, but the obvious resentment of the students and disciples drives him away early.

Reflecting, Bassui decides that his hermitage is not far enough away and builds a new one at Ki on Mt. Sudayama. On this mountain, Bassui visits another hermit named Chikugan, who had profitably studied with Koho, too, and now lived, as it turned out, close to Bassui.

Contact with other hermits has never precluded a true eremitism. A reputation always follows a wise hermit, and Bassui's case was no exception. Jakushitsu invites Bassui to visit Eigenji Temple to address its students. He is invited to Eikoji Temple by Joseki to talk to students there. Bassui learns more Soto Zen and appreciates this knowledge, but finds Joseki's students too "idealistic" and demurs when invited to stay longer. Clearly, the training of contemporary masters was not sufficient for the inexorable hermit.

At age 51, Bassuie sets up a new hermitage, this time on the precipitous heights of Mt. Takemori in the province of Kai. The location suggests his intention to dissuade visitors. But his reputation is more attractive than his isolation is a barrier. Hundreds of aspiring students and disciples make the dangerous ascent to the hermitage, soon overcrowding the mountainside. Bassui relents, and decides to move the hermitage to a hospitable location in Kogakuan, at Enzan, and calls the place Kogakuji Temple -- or, rather, Kogaku-an. The suffix ji means temple, while the suffix an means hermitage -- Bassui refused to consider his place a temple.

Bassui now accepted the function of master -- though not abbot, for there can be no abbot at a mere hermitage. Even as more students appeared, Bassui was turning down offers to become abbot at large monasteries.

In the remaining years of his life, Bassui would conduct talks and present lectures in his open and informal style. His scruples about teaching were resolved in the life-model of the bodhisattva that had always been his inspiration. As early as his first meeting with Tokekei, Bassui had expressed a vow that must have underlay his eremitism and self-effacement, while foretelling his eventual station in life. He had told Tokekei:

I want to clarify the source of the great Dharma handed down by the Buddhas and the patriarchs. After attaining enlightenment, I want to save the bright and the dull, teaching each one according to his capacity. My true desire is to relieve others of their pain though I myself may fall into hell.

At his hermitage at Kagakuan, notes commentator Braverman,

Bassui developed great faith in the bodhisattva Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit). The name Kannon is the shortened form of Kanzeon, meaning the one who hears the cry of the ordinary people and immediately saves them. In the Wadeigassui, Bassui referred to Kannon as described in the Suramgama Sutra: "He was a person who for every sound he heard contemplated the mind of the hearer, realizing his own nature." ... Bassui had a shrine to Kannon built in the northern part of the Kagakuan temple ground and asked to be buried there.

In 1387, at the age of 61, Bassui died and was buried at the shrine.

Bassui's Teaching

How does Bassui's teaching -- or his lifetime pursuit of knowledge -- fit his solitary personality and eremitic habits? Since the teachings in Mud and Water represent a crystallization of years of searching and reflection on a path or trajectory culminating in the teachings, such a theme ought to be identifiable even when the teachings are entirely focused on philosophy and doctrine. Indeed, the simplicity of his thought, derived from Rinzai and Soto Zen traditions as well as elements of Pure Land, makes this pursuit both easier and more fruitful.

Bassui shows a preference for Chinese Chan brought to Japan over time and represented contemporaneously in Bassui's Japan by Chuho Mychon, who lived at Genjuanin Tenmokuzan. This Zen had a prediction for reclusiveness and deliberate dissociation from government-supported monasteries, opting instead for small mountain hermitages, especially the pattern of Bassui's own eremitism.

At the core of the Chan tradition is personal austerity and rigorous practice, called zazen, familiar today. Bassui found this combination in Jakushitsu, who had invited him to Eigen-ji to address its students. Jakushitsu had studied under Chuho.

In keeping with Zen as the transmission outside of scripture, Bassui's favorite reading was based on only a few key texts: the Suramgama sutra, the Record of Lin-chi, and the Blue Cliff Records. The heart of Zen was in seeing into one's own mind, seeing into one's own nature, what Bassui called "grappling with one's own koan." Zen does not get ensnared with scriptural recitations, rituals, or outside forms. It rejects the efficacy of "closely worded statements, the written word, reason and duty, discrimination and understanding." Bassui criticized traditional Buddhist sects for repeating traditional formulas of little use "when dealing with the great matter of life and death." Bassui likened these old nostrums to a picture of rice cakes presented to one who is starving -- not real nourishment and only a mockery of what is needed.

The emergence of a philosophy of eremitism is found in the experiences of Bassui brought to his advice and teaching as articulated in his later years. Thus, to a monk at the Shabo hermitage, Bassui writes:

So long as I live in the human world, I will stay nowhere except with great Zen masters and in the mountains.

Solitude has other implications, as he states elsewhere:

In practicing Zen I will not idle away my time thinking of life and death or waste one moment in trifling good works. Nor will I blind others to the truth by trying to minister to them so long as my own [spiritual] strength is insufficient to lead them to self-realization.

The rejection of good works prior to self-realization is not a pretext to being anti-social but the realization that self-knowledge is the only necessity. Even at this stage, Bassui leaves open the ramifications of self-realization in the bodhisattva option -- if it can be attained. Meanwhile, however,

If your mind remains attached to any form or feeling whatsoever or is affected by logic and reasoning or conceptual thinking, you are as far from true realization as heaven is from earth. (Letter to Lord Nakamura)

Bassui is emphatic that no activity or thought has value without enlightenment. Even living in solitude is a short cut: "Without understanding or awakening, living alone is of no value," he writes. He relates the story of 8th-century Chinese master Ma-tzu (Baso in Japanese) who lived in solitude in the mountains, meditated all day, but only achieved enlightenment when master Ejo came to his hut and sat outside polishing a tile into a mirror and laughing. Bassui concludes:

From ancient times up to the present, no one who has gone to live alone in the mountains -- before having attained enlightenment or having met a teacher of superior ability -- has ever passed on the wisdom of the Buddhas and patriarchs.

Bassui enumerates the many proposed methods along the path to enlightenment, from monastery life to ceremonies to intellectual study to left-hand practices (tantric). He includes physical austerities:

Others eat the fruit of trees and wear grass robes, and others eat one meal a day while their lives hang from thin threads. ... Some may leave, returning deep in the mountains, burying their names in a ravine, eating boiled wild roots, nourishing their spirits, not pursuing fame. Others may stay near their teachers and serve them, never seeking the ultimate quiet of sitting idly by themselves.

No method leads automatically to enlightenment. If temples and monasteries purport to be based on enlightened Buddhist practice, then why not directly embrace the practices? The three delusions of opinion, emotion, and speech have ordinary people in a sea of pain. The sutras and deities are metaphors for deeper understanding. The Pure Land is "not a fixed place" but represents the true mind, the pure mind, which emerges with "the cessation of analytical thought and the appearance of one's true nature."

A distinction remains between knowledge and even practices on the one hand and enlightenment on the other.

As long as students of the Way have not eradicated their conscious mind, all their activities and words and deeds of karmic consciousness, they are not in accord with the Way, whether they are bright or dull, knowledgeable or ignorant, thoughtful or thoughtless, with or without desires; whether they use expedient means or study the direct teachings, whether they are venerated or held in contempt, whether they perform miracles and have feelings of love and pity -- these are, after all, activities of the conscious mind.

Bassui's Path

How does Bassui propose cutting off the conscious mind as prerequisite to enlightenment? Over and over he challenges his listeners to find out who is thinking, who is speaking, who is listening, who is feeling. Probing into the mind is probing into Buddha nature. Bassui quotes Kyoshe: "To free oneself from bondage is easy, but the way of freedom is difficult." Aspiration not education is key. "Is it not reasonable," asks Bassui, "to start by leaving the ten thousand things for the moment and, after clarifying the understanding of one's inherent nature, pursue learning?"

This has been not only the path Bassui teaches but the way he has spent his life.

None of this advice sanctions a relativism of behavior. Bassui insists that the keeping of the precepts demonstrates aspiration for enlightenment, and is a prelude to seeing deeply. "The breaking and keeping of precepts penetrates body and mind equally, both externally and internally," says Bassui. No other prerequisites automatically assure progress. He illustrated this point in a letter to Iguchi:

The gurgle of the stream and the sigh of the wind are the voices of the master. The green of the pine, the white of the snow, these are the colors of the master, the very one who lifts the hands, moves the legs, sees, hears. One who grasps this directly without recourse to reason or intellection can be said to have some degree of inner enlightenment. But this is not yet full enlightenment.

It is not full enlightenment, concludes Bassui, but may be sufficient to end rebirth in one's successive lifetime. But when one does attain this point, one will see "that all the sermons of the Buddhas are nothing more than metaphors to point to the minds of ordinary people."


Bassui conditioned his advice and teachings on the eremitism that is the backdrop to his practices along the path to enlightenment. He notes with a stern warning that one must subordinate all to the clear goal of self-realization. This advice represents the cumulative wisdom of masters as well as the conclusion of years of solitary experience.

Bassui did not see solitude or practices automatically conferring enlightenment but only the blink of the eye to focus the object of the mind on mind itself. This goal would in turn make the path of solitude and meditation into a rich and worthy path, transforming delusion into insight, solitude into enlightenment, bondage and fear into freedom.


Works of Bassui in English are found in Mud and Water: a Collection of Talks by Zen Master Bassui, translated by Arthur Braverman. San Francisco, North Point Press, 1989; and in chapter 4, "Bassui's Dharma Talk on One-Mind and Letters to His Disciples" (p. 163-195) of Philip Kapleau: The Three Pillars of Zen. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967.