From Dogen Zenji’s Shinji Shobogenzo: Case 3.27 Watch carefully
© 2006 Rev. Toshu Neatrour

If you tell me that you have come to judge living or dead, sheep or goat I have to ask: Does a live sheep need to be told it is a sheep, a live goat that it is a goat? Even if you say yes to both, still I ask: What of the dead?


A government officer asked Master Rozan Seiken (Xixian Faan of Lushan): When my army took the city of Kinryo (Jinling) countless people were killed. Did I do wrong?

Seiken replied: This old monk watches carefully.

Branch Comment

The government official already has a clue how clean are his hands. Else, he wouldn’t open his mouth. If he didn’t follow orders, the emperor could have given him permission to suicide and found a more enthusiastic general. Would more have died then? Were the townspeople innocents? We cannot know, we were not then, there. Perhaps the official is asking his slate to be wiped clean?

There is no absolute forgiveness in Buddhism. Freedom from precepts and purification from sin are disordered or outside doctrines. Another such is absolute responsibility. Many want to believe in absolutes and claim so. But few do even as they say otherwise. Forgiveness isn’t absolute. When a prisoner finds Absolution does a warden unlock the gate? Responsibility isn’t Absolute. One who kills defending self or others is treated differently from a predator. Absolutism of any sort misses the point of this case. Absolute condemnation of the official as lacking moral commitment is wrong. Absolute acceptance on the basis of severity of situation or freedom from precepts is wrong. Also Absolutely-Not-Having-An-Absolute is as wrong as Absolutely-Having-An-Absolute. Where is there left to stand?

Admiring old Seiken, he hands out no get out of hell free pass. Further, Seiken isn’t going to put the official on meat hooks eternally. Total-Forgiveness and Total-Non-Forgiveness are not in accord with Reality. What is? Absent a Complete-Answer one can say: actions resonate. Once done, good or ill, consequences resound to all places and times. Similarly, repenting of error and vowing for better resonate. But repentance and vow can’t erase past action entire. Clean the spot on the carpet but it still shows wear.

Coming up against the fundamental problem of how to teach, old Seiken starts from the time and place, moves forward, and passes all barriers. His questioner is not going to get a second head, only a clear pointer how Seiken himself walks a Way. In society, in herds, we often simplify our view to ease stampede in one direction. But with simple choices there is mere doctrine to follow rather than a living practice. Consequences follow resonantly from this too. Crossing to the other shore of the flood, do we needlessly strap our raft to our back?

Seiken is misunderstood: criticized for not handing out simple moral absolutes and mistaken as being free from the precepts. But who is there anywhere, capable to make a place to sit in Seiken’s eye? If a teacher (who is not?) hands out easy answers and others live by them, one light may shine but other lights are extinguished. Absolute-Trees leave no room for growing saplings. We may be tempted, but Seiken doesn’t fail. Do you understand that it is not difficult to know good from bad? The difficulty is turning garbage into compost into tomatoes! Do you understand that corrupt-politics is about power and money and that other-than-corrupt politics is about not interfering with abilities to watch carefully, discern and do good as seen, then learn from the consequence?

Root Comment

In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (ref 1) the Buddha teaches that his disciples must be lamps unto themselves. It is only to Reality that that we go for refuge, not to authority or dogma. We take refuge in nothing but the Light of Reality while never claiming that Light as ours. When one says fire does the tongue burn? In the case under discussion the government official may want old Seiken or his words to be a refuge. Seiken will not snare him in that pit. Instead watching carefully shows the function of taking refuge in Light without possession. It may or may not help the official, but that is his affair.
In the Sutta Nipata (ref 2) we read that one fetter that shadows us from Light is enslavement to our opinions. It is not that they cannot be had. They must be held lightly. Taking Reality as refuge and Light, we revise opinion as understanding changes. Even the “correct” view can get us stuck if we take it as a final resting place

When we measure some as equal, inferior, or superior to others on the basis of opinions held, we do violence to reality and equanimity. Correct opinion is no more than a picture postcard from Reality. To use a picture postcard from the Grand Canyon to measure the Canyon is futile, as is using opinions to measure people. It often creates useless contradiction, wasted energy: little value added, much subtracted. The accomplished who aim at accord and refuge in Reality have no need of arrogance or inferiority.


Not rare, truly wondrous: acorns grow into oaks,
Children resemble parents. A recipe without ingredients,
Neither cloying, nor bitter, feeds countless multitudes.
Who is there who cannot be nourished so?
Whether you desire to feed them all or not,
The first thing to do is just watch carefully.


Digha Nikaya 16: Mahaparinibbana Sutta: 2.26. The word dipa might be rendered as light, lamp or island. Compare The Long Discourses of the Buddha translated by Maurice Walshe p. 245 with the translation by T. W. Rhys-Davies in Teachings of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield p.122.

Sutta Nipata IV.5 Paramatthaka Sutta translated by Ven. Dr. H. Saddhatissa in The Sutta Nipata and by V. Fausb in Teachings of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield p.116.