Seeing the World from a Casket

An excerpt from The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kōdō



A shower
In the middle of a fight
About irrigation

After a long drought, farmers fight over water for their rice fields. In the middle of the dispute, a shower hits. Since there’s no other reason to fight, when it rains the problem disappears. There will be no difference between the beautiful and the plain when they’re eighty. The original reality is empty and clear.


“Since there’s no other reason to fight, when it rains the problem disappears.” I’d like to read this sentence carefully and savor its meaning.

It’s quite possible that if I go out now, I may have a car accident that will immediately finish me off. This kind of unexpected death is more likely in modern times than before. If I were run down by a car, all the problems in my thoughts, such as “I want this, I want that”; my frustrated anger, “Oh . . . that fool!”; or my longing for a certain woman would be resolved quite spontaneously, as the argument about irrigation suddenly disappears when it rains.

As long as we’re alive, we’ll have all different kinds of problems. These troubles are the conditions of being alive. But I believe it’s important to take a fresh look at them given the assumption that in the next moment, we might be hit by a car and laid in a coffin. We can open our minds to live in a more leisurely way, knowing that we don’t have to get stuck in our self-centered opinions, gritting our teeth and furrowing our brows.

In short, zazen is seeing this world from the casket, without me.


Imagine looking back on our lives after we die. We’ll see that so many things didn’t matter.


Sawaki Roshi’s expression “the original reality is empty and clear” comes from “Xinxinming,” the famous Zen poem attributed to the Third Ancestor of Chinese Zen, Sengcan. The poem begins:

The supreme Way is without difficulty. It only dislikes picking and choosing. If there is neither hate nor love, It reveals itself empty and clear.

In a severe drought farmers cannot avoid picking and choosing. Their fields are not others’. If they cannot get water, their rice will die, and they’ll have no harvest. During droughts in ancient times, there were often fights among villages by the same river, and farmers in the same village, to get even a little more water for their fields. In the midst of the fight, the sky might suddenly darken, and it might start to rain. Then the farmers lost their reason for conflict.

When we soften self-centered discrimination and live without being driven by hatred and love, the supreme way beyond duality manifests itself. And when we see the true interdependent reality of all beings, we can relax and open our clinging minds. Our zazen is to sit in our own caskets and view things from nonduality, or complete interconnectedness.

As all rivers flow into the ocean, when we die we return to oneness. In fact, we always live within this ocean even though we experience our lives as separate. A Japanese poet wrote of rivers flowing within the ocean: river and ocean are both manifestations of the larger circulation of water. Depending on our perspective, we see them as separate or as one.

© 2014 Shohaku Okumura. All rights reserved.

Image by Dino Abatzidis [CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0], via Flickr

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