Relinquish Yourself – A Talk by Leland Shields (April 1, 2024)

Posted by on Apr 9, 2024 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Relinquish Yourself – A Talk by Leland Shields (April 1, 2024)

Daito Kokushi’s Admonition

Oh you [monastics] who are in this mountain monastery, remember you are gathered here for the sake of religion, and not for the sake of clothes and food. As long as you have shoulders you will have clothes to wear. As long as you have a mouth you will have food to eat. Be ever mindful throughout the [twenty-four] hours of the day, to apply yourself to the Unthinkable. Time passes like an arrow, never let your mind be disturbed by worldly cares. Ever, ever be on the look out…Oh [monastics], be diligent, be diligent.

D.T. Suzuki, The Manual of Zen Buddhism, 1935.

This is a portion of the reading that was recited before dharma talks in the monasteries associated with Daito Kokushi (1282-1336), a Japanese teacher in the tradition of Lin-chi. Note this isn’t the same person as Dai-o Kokushi, who wrote our chant, “On Zen.”

Daito Kokushi’s encouragement of diligence is not a call for grim rigidity. It’s reminding us to again and again, return here. Like when the phone rings while I’m dusting the living room, I look at who is calling, and then return to dusting. Then the doorbell rings and again I look up. There’s no one expected. My hand resumes sweeping movements of the dust rag on the mantel. Relinquishing myself to the dusting, is dusting for its own sake, without goal of completion. We may as well have started dusting on one end of the Buckingham Palace, and after reaching the other end we start again.

As we begin this 7-day retreat, it is not a 7-day retreat. It is only this breath.

When sitting in a 25-minute period, it is not a 25-minute period. There is only the sounds of the room. There is no kinhin. There is one foot extending, and body weight shifting to rest on the forward foot.

You are embedded in the whole universe, as one instrument within a vast symphony; there is no visible director. We each play the score at the pace of the piece, not too fast, not too slow. We walk kinhin not too fast, not too slow. This inhale and this exhale, not too fast, not too slow. Our body knows how to breathe without the need for us to figure anything out.

Relinquish yourself.

Distraction is not an error or problem; it is part of the symphony – as is relinquishing the distraction. Meeting with a teacher without having either a question or a response to a koan is not a problem. We can’t know how a new musical passage will resolve, but we can listen, play, and fully engage.

In Gateless Barrier case 47, Tou-shuai addressed the assembly this way:

The priest Tou-shuai set up three barriers in order to examine his students: “You make your way through the darkness of abandoned grasses in a single-minded search for your self-nature. Now, honored one, where is your nature? When you have realized your self-nature, you are free of birth and death. When the light of your eyes falls, how are you free? When you are free of birth and death, you know where to go. When your four elements scatter, where do you go?”

Aitken, Robert. The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan) (p. 342). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Notice the setup in the first barrier: Before asking a question, he refers to we who are listening as “honored ones.” He does not wait until we respond before honoring us. That honor is not dependent on how we make our way through darkness and abandoned grasses. He doesn’t have to wait, and neither do we, because we are already here, and self-nature is not separate from searching or being lost. There is a way this might be taken as saying we can stop searching, or at least stop searching somewhere else. And there is a way that searching is called for. If I’m looking for my keys, and I stop altogether, it may take longer before I check again and find them right here in my pocket.

This is the nature of zazen – we release seeking there, and through close examination we see what’s already here. And so today we are single-mindedly making our way through darkness and abandoned grasses. It’s a wonderful place to be, both when comfortable and when uncomfortable!

Tou-shuai goes on to offer his three barriers – where is your self-nature? When having realized your self-nature, how are you free in the moment of death? When dead, where do you go? These are the questions of death, loss, and existential conditions that provide a great source of fear and distraction through our days, and during some moments of zazen.

When dust mopping the floor, where is your self-nature? When sitting in the silence, where is your self-nature? You have already answered the question, whether or not you know your response to Tou-shuai.

Now honored one, as you lie in wait for death, how are you free? You don’t have to wait until death to know this freedom. How about now?

Wu-men commented about the three barriers this way:

If you can rightly give the three turning words here, you will be master in all the varied circumstances and will deal with your affinities in accord with the Buddha Dharma. If you have not resolved the matter yet, the food you bolt down won’t sustain you. Chew it well, and you won’t be hungry.

Thank you, Wu-men for your encouragement. You first describe for us what this freedom is that we speak of. Wu-men tells us that freedom is the experience of our fluidity in response, during each encounter with the sentient and non-sentient, when the light is clear, and when vision is obscure. In the last sentence I used the word “fluidity,” where the translation of Wu-men said we are the “master in all circumstances…” Check for yourself what you can take from Wu-men here. What might it mean to you to be the master in your own life, at home, on the eventful trips that can sometimes occur here on a city bus, with an ill loved one, with your own illness, and with your own laughter and joy? Being master is a congruent response to all this.

Chew it well, which is to say look deeply. Look deeply, which is to say fully engage. Fully engage, which is to say relinquish yourself to breath and step, taste, and bowl.

That same comment of Wu-men was translated this way by Nyogen Senzaki:

Whoever can pass these three barriers will be a master wherever he stands. Whatever happens about him he will turn into Zen.

Nyogen Senzaki; Paul Reps. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings (p. 104). Caramna Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Avoid tripping on the words of Tou-shuai, and tell me if you can find anything that is not Buddha.

Also, Wu-men kindly offers more in his verse:

One nien [frame of thought] sees eternity; eternity is equal to now; if you see through this one nien [frame of thought] you see through the one who sees.

Aitken, Robert. The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan) (p. 342). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Wu-men used the word “nien,” which Robert Aitken translated as “one frame of thought in the sequence of the thought movie.”

Please take Wu-men’s encouragement into heart-mind as you can. Take Tou-shuai’s barrier’s into heart-mind as you can. Make your own single-minded search for self-nature outside of master and servant, accord and discord, at the time of death and after death. Now what do you find?

In a 2023 Tricycle article, Susan Murphy says this about koan study in particular, but I’d add that it is about all of Zen training:

Zen koans help us grow skilled in tolerating a precarious state of mind, and not turning away but growing curious instead. That we can’t go forward in the usual way becomes the strangely valuable offer of the moment. Not-knowing, in the spirit of improvisation, accepts all offers! And the Zen koan turns every obstacle into the way.

Susan Murphy, “A Koan for These Times: How koans can teach us to embrace uncertainty in the face of the climate crisis.” By Susan Murphy November 27, 2023, Tricycle.

When not knowing, we are disinclined to impose our ideas on our own breath, or on the words we hear in talks and sutras. By not imposing our own ideas, self-nature is all that’s left. It can be so attractive to let what we do know gently cover everything, like snow falling on a landscape. The view with snow is beautiful in its own right, and it changes the landscape to something else.

The landscape doesn’t care what we call it, and calling it “landscape” adds nothing to grasses or trees, beetles or squirrels. Identifying “snow” doesn’t clarify our view. We can readily see without knowing, when we’re somewhere for the first time. To see without knowing yet again today is zazen.

In An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki says this about freedom and meditation:

If there is anything Zen strongly emphasizes it is the attainment of freedom; that is, freedom from all unnatural encumbrances. Meditation is something artificially put on; it does not belong to the native activity of the mind. Upon what do the fowls of the air meditate? Upon what do the fish in the water meditate? They fly; they swim. Is not that enough? Who wants to fix his mind on the unity of God and man, or on the nothingness of life? Who wants to be arrested in the daily manifestations of his life-activity by such meditations as the goodness of a divine being or the everlasting fire of hell

D.T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p. 41.


I used to sit for hours with my first Zen teacher, gazing out a window. My teacher was a 12-lb. gray cat named Cinder, who would lay on the top edge of a couch and face the street. His body relaxed, ears would rotate toward a sound without effort, eyes would turn to focus on what moved in this frame of thought, his head sometimes moving slightly right or left. Cinder took everything in without trying and without tension. Relinquishing himself to all that occurred, there was squirrel and sparrow, neighbor and trash can.

You are Cinder, chewing well each motion, thought, and sound, taking it in, body relaxed. Just being present is to hear and to see, to feel and to rise when it’s time.

A nineteenth century Japanese woman poet later to be named Ryonen spent years satisfying her family requirements before receiving permission to study Buddhism. She went on pilgrimage to Edo and again went to great lengths before being admitted to study with men in a Zen monastery at twenty five years old. At the time of her death she wrote this last poem:

Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing scene of autumn. I have said enough about moonlight, Ask no more. Only listen to the voice of pines and cedars when no wind stirs.

Nyogen Senzaki; Paul Reps. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings (p. 42). Caramna Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Listen to the voice of the pines and cedars when no wind stirs – this too is zazen. Through the opaque walls of the room, see the neighborhood children play. When washing your bowl at lunch, feel the minerals and earth, the support of many anonymous people who handed it to you.

I will end with a verse by Takuan:

A LORD ASKED Takuan, a Zen teacher, to suggest how he might pass the time. He felt his days very long attending his office and sitting stiffly to receive the homage of others. Takuan wrote eight Chinese characters and gave them to the man: Not twice this day Inch time foot gem.

This day will not come again. Each minute is worth a priceless gem.

Nyogen Senzaki; Paul Reps. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings (p. 32). Caramna Corporation. Kindle Edition.


Upon retiring, sleep as if you had entered your last sleep. Upon awakening, leave your bed behind you instantly as if you had cast away a pair of old shoes.

Nyogen Senzaki; Paul Reps. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings (p. 27). Caramna Corporation. Kindle Edition.