Bassui and the Way

Fourteenth-century Zen master Bassui relates the story of a certain patriarch who took one meal a day, never lay down, spent the day in worshipful practice, and lived a life free of impurity or desire. His disciples considered him to surely have attained the Way. But an older patriarch told the disciples of this man something that startled them. On the contrary, he said, the teacher’s practice is merely “the foundations of delusion.” The disciples challenged the old man. “What deeds allow you to slander our teacher?” they demanded to know. The old patriarch replied thusly:

I neither follow the Way nor depart from it. I neither worship the Buddha nor have contempt for him. I neither sit long hours in meditation nor sit idle. I neither eat just one meal a day nor am I greedy for more. I desire nothing, and that is what I call the Way.

When the younger patriarch learned of this reply, he rejoiced, was grateful, and considered this statement his enlightenment. So concludes Bassui.

When our path is not a means but an end, the necessity of defining our object no longer has any urgency. Such an object would have been separate from one’s life, remote, like a far-off object of worship or any object engendering desire. Desire is desire for something that one does not have and considers separate from oneself. To desire is to create a dichotomy between oneself and everything else. This is what is today called spiritual materialism because it parallels so closely that vain desire to possess and enjoy material objects. When we neither desire ends nor cultivate means that are but rote practices, then our daily life is both sufficient and meaningful enough that we have no need to separate what we do from what we ought to do.