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Zen for Americans, by Soyen Shaku, [1906], at

p. 189


IN one of his many previous births on this earth, Buddha appeared as a son of a Hindu prince. Desirous to gain spiritual insight into the ultimate reason of existence, he retired to the solitude and quietness of the mountains, as was customary in India, and became deeply absorbed in meditation. He thought: "Life is misery; it is nothing but a series of sufferings. How can I escape this everlasting torture? Unless I gain all-knowledge and grasp eternal life and realize perfect bliss, it is of no use to come here and live this life repeatedly. Of what worth is this life to me, to all beings, unless we escape the curse of ignorance by penetrating the ultimate foundation of existence? Until I gain enlightenment and immortality, I will not move from my seat which I have taken here under this tree, and I will bring all my spiritual powers into activity toward that end. If I am fortunate enough to realize it, I will not keep the spiritual

p. 190

bliss all to myself, but will proclaim it to all sentient beings on earth, and enlighten them, and make them happy as well."

It was midnight and silence reigned upon the earth. Buddha was deeply enwrapt in his thoughts. Suddenly he heard a voice which came from nowhere he knew. It did not sound like a human voice; it was clear, penetrating, and resounding; he thought the universe was filled with a resonant reverberation of this mysterious voice. As he listened to it he could understand these two lines of a gâthâ:

"All component things are transient;
The law is to be born and die."

When he could make out these two lines, a spiritual illumination came over his mind, and he felt in himself something superhuman, something divine. His mind became so widened as to embrace the entire universe, and he experienced a feeling of inexpressible joy. He looked across the valley, and lo! there his gaze fell on a hideous monster straightway confronting him. Buddha was bewildered and did not know what this all meant.

The monster was a Yaksha, so inhuman and awe-inspiring, with the eye so furiously glaring on Buddha, and the mouth stained with dripping blood. It was this monstrous devil that had just recited those two lines which had so greatly inspired him that he thought they came from a mouth other than that of this evil genius.

p. 191

This unexpected and altogether mysterious appearance, however, did not at all disconcert Buddha, as he was still under the spiritual spell induced by those two noble lines. His only thought which he had at that moment was that the lines were not quite complete and that something was needed to make them so. Stating only the fact of universal impermanence, they did not show the way to escape it or to transcend it. The reason why we mortals are groaning under the yoke of karmaic causation is that we are yet ignorant of its true significance, that we have not yet severed the tie of birth and death.

So said Buddha to the Yaksha: "Those lines which you have just recited are beautiful but incomplete. Let me have the remaining two, which will complete the gâthâ. For this is not only for my own benefit, but for the benefit of all mankind. Pray be good enough to disclose what is yet kept behind."

Said the monster: "I will gladly comply with your request, but at this very moment I suffer from a bodily need and have not strength enough to recite the remaining two lines for you. My empty stomach must be fed and I live on human flesh. Would you first satisfy my appetite? I should then be able to let you have what you desire."

Buddha said: "I am ready at any moment to sacrifice myself, O Yaksha, but when I exist no more, who in this world will transmit these

p. 192

lines all complete to posterity? The truth will then be eternally lost to mankind. I, therefore, beseech you to recite those two remaining lines before I die, and I will engrave the whole stanza on this rock standing near by. After this is done, you can dispose of my body as you please. The stanza thus left on the stone will be noticed some day by a passer-by and brought out to the world for the enlightenment of my fellow-beings."

The Yaksha said: "As you are so earnest and sincere, I grant your wish. Listen to my recitation:

"Transcending birth and death,
How blissful is the Absolute!"

When the Yaksha finished, Buddha made one of his fingers bleed, and with the dripping blood inscribed the whole stanza on the rock. This being done, Buddha threw himself over the precipice in order to fulfill his promise. But behold! at this crisis the hideous vampire suddenly changed his features, he became Sakrendra, a reigning god of the heavens and a most powerful guardian angel of Buddhism. Buddha, falling into the abyss, was miraculously received in the arms of this god, who now honored and revered him. The heavens showered flowers and the universe resounded with divine music.


189:1 From the Mahânirvâna Sutra (Nanjo's Catalogue, No. 1113). This story was told to explain the miraculous origin of the famous stanza beginning with "Anicca vata sankhâra." See the sermon "The Phenomenal and the Supra-phenomenal." (See p. 111.)

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