The No-Monument Monument

The Emperor Shukusho went to visit his Zen teacher, Chu, who was very ill, and said, "After your demise, and may that not be for a hundred years, what kind of memorial would you like?" Chu answered, "A plain, un-tiered monument." The emperor continued, "What shape?" Chu remained silent for a long time, then said to the emperor, "Do you understand?" "No," said the emperor. "Well," said Chu, "after I pass, send for my successor, Tangen, ask him what I meant." In time, Chu passed away, and the emperor sent for Tangen and asked him what Master Chu had meant. Tangen answered the emperor in this way: "South of Sho, north of Tan. Within that region is gold that fills the land. A public ferry boat sails right by the place; some see it, some do not. But in the emperor's palace all are blind."

Chu in this koan is Echu Kokushi, the National Teacher, advisor to both the country and the emperor in religious matters. Before being invited by Emperor Shukusho (of the Tan dynasty) to become National Teacher, Chu stayed at Hokugaisan Mountain Temple for forty years without once coming out of the gate. After Chu died, the emperor did call Tangen to explain to him what his teacher had meant. Tangen replied with a poem that cannot be understood by the intellect. It is beyond words; it is absolute, formless, shapeless, and some see it and some do not.

"A plain, un-tiered monument" is written in Chinese characters as "Muho to." "Muho" means a dress that has no sewed place, no seams. But not-sewed dress is impossible. "To" means monument. It is a no-monument monument. This monument is everywhere: "South of Sho, north of Tan." The place is filled with gold, and anyone can go there because the public ferry sails there. The truth of life is everywhere; everybody can see it, everybody can reach it, even though it is as precious as gold. That is the real Zen teaching of Chu.


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