Blue Cliff Records-52, Joshu's Donkeys Cross, Horses Cross

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This is a brief edited summary of a Suzuki lecture.

Wind Bell Lecture — April, 1964

AI Summary: 



Checked by Gordon Geist using the Shaw translation Suzuki used- 1999

File name: 64-04-00: Blue Cliff Records-52, Joshu's Donkeys Cross, Horses Cross Footnote 1 added from an earlier transcript, pf 1-8-2015.; #no-audio, #approximate-date


With an Introduction and Commentary by Reverend Suzuki, Master of Zen Center

Introduction by Reverend Suzuki:

Joshu (Personal name: Sramanera) of this subject was a native of Northern China. When he was ordained (at quite a young age), he visited Nansen with his master. "Do you know the name of this monastery?" asked Nansen, who had been taking a nap in his room. The boy said, "Sacred Elephant Monastery." "Then did you see a sacred elephant? Asked Nansen. The boy replied, "I did not see any sacred elephants, but I saw a reclining bodhisattva." Nansen raised himself up and said, "Have you your own master now?" "Yes, I have," said the boy. "Who is he?" asked Nansen. To this the boy Sramanera made a formal obeisance which should be given only to his own master, saying, "Spring cold is still here. Please take good care of yourself." Nansen called up Ino-osho (who took care of the monastery) and gave him a seat.

One day Nansen allowed Joshu to meet him in his room. Joshu asked Nansen, "What is the true Way?" "Ordinary mind is the true Way," said Nansen. "Is it something to be attained or not to be attained?" asked Joshu. "To try to attain it is to avert from it," said Nansen. "When you do not try to attain it, how do you know the true Way?" asked Joshu. To this question, Nansen's answer was very polite. "The true way is not a matter to be known or not to be known. To know is to have a limited idea of it, and not to know is just psychological unawareness. If you want to achieve the absolute, where there is no doubt, you should be clear enough and vast enough to be like empty space." Hereby Joshu acquired full understanding of the true way of Zen.

When Joshu was sixty-one years of age, he heard that his former master in his hometown was not well, and he went all the way back from South China to take care of him. His parents heard about his coming back from the South and wanted to have him home. But as soon as Joshu learned of his parents' wishes, he left his old master before they came.

He used to say, "I must ask my way from a child of seven, if he is good enough. But I shall be a teacher of any old man of a hundred years." At the age of eighty he resided at Joshu (North China). He appreciated the bare life of ancient patriarchs and used only a broken-legged chair, repaired by a piece of firewood. Throughout the forty years during which he lived the simplest form of life in Joshu monastery, he never wrote a single page of a letter, begging for his support.

Main Subject

A monk said to Joshu, "The famous stone bridge, I have just seen it; but it was nothing but a simple stepping-stone bridge," and requested his answer. Joshu said, "You did see a simple stepping-stone bridge, but did not see the actual bridge." The monk then asked, "What is the stone bridge you mean?" Joshu said, "It is that which donkeys cross and horses cross."

Commentary by Reverend Suzuki

This monk came to Joshu ignoring the great master's prestige, and said, "I did not see anything but a common stepping-stone bridge," and requested his answer. Joshu in return gave him an interesting gift problem, saying, "You did not see the real stone bridge, but only a stepping-stone bridge." Now the monk was caught in Joshu's gift-box of duality (intellectual problem: right or wrong, this or that, phenomena or noumena, interplay of the subjective and the objective) and asked, "What is the real stone bridge?" Now Joshu, wishing to free the monk from the idea of some special stone bridge, answered, "Donkeys cross and horses cross."

This usual manner of instruction is not like Tokusan or Rinzai, who answer by means of sticks or scolding voice. Joshu just answered with simple common words. This 'koan' looks quite common, but it does not allow you to become accustomed to it.

Once Joshu asked a head monk of the Zendo (Zen practice hall) who it was who had built the stone bridge. The head monk said, "Riyo built it." Joshu asked again, "When he was building it, on what did he work? (i.e., did he work on subjective bridge or objective bridge or what?)" The head monk could not answer. Joshu said, "People talk about this stone bridge, but when asked this kind of simple question, they cannot answer."

One day when Joshu was cleaning the main hall a monk came and asked him, "Why is there dust in the hall to clean?" Joshu said, "because dust comes in from the outside." The monk said, "I cannot stand for a pure clean hall to have dust in it." Joshu said, "I see one more piece of dust here." Those were the old Zen master Joshu's way.

The Zen master is supposed to be tough enough to remain faithful to the way, but all the better to be not so tough and follow the way.

Appreciatory Word by Setcho:

Without setting himself up as an isolated peak,

Old Joshu's Zen is insurmountably high.

Who knows he is catching giant turtles1,

In the vast ocean of Buddhism?

That old scholar Kan-Kei2 may be compared to Joshu

Only to make us all laugh.

Suddenly breaking the arrows was quite futile.


1There is a myth about a giant who went fishing and caught six giant turtles. The that...giants might be expected to catch large turtles when they went fishing, but puny; little creatures should not expect such luck. The simple travelling monk who came to Joshu was not a...giant and could not expect to get big results from his questions...but when he came into the presence of Joshu's wide wisdom he had the luck to catch a giant turtle; in other words, he was given a magnificent reply to his little question. --Pg. 176, R. D. M. Shaw, The Blue Cliff Records: The Hekigan Roku. London: Michael Joseph, 1961.

2Kan-Kei (895) was a disciple of Rinzai, and contemporary with Joshu. He was asked a question similar to the one Joshu asked in the Main Subject. Kan-Kei's question and answer was as follows: A young monk: "I have just come from the famous Kan-Kei Valley, but I saw nothing but a small lake."

Kan-Kei: "But didn't you see the real Kan-Kei Valley?"

The young monk: "What is the Kan-Kei Valley you mean?"

Kan-Kei: "Breaking the arrow suddenly."