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Long ago, there was a monk in Meditation Master Hōgen’s monastic community named Gensoku who was a subordinate under the Temple’s administrative director.
Master Hōgen asked him, “Director Gensoku, how long have you been in our community?” Gensoku replied, “Why, I’ve been in the community for three years now.”
The Master asked, “As you are still a junior monk, why have you never asked me about the Buddha Dharma?”
Gensoku replied, “I will not lie to Your Reverence. Previously, when I was with Meditation Master Seihō, I fully reached the place of joyful ease in the Buddha Dharma.”
The Master said, “And what was said that gained you entry to this place?”
Gensoku said, “I once asked Seihō what the True Self of a novice is, and Seihō replied, ‘Here comes the Hearth God looking for fire.’”
Hōgen responded, “Nicely put. But I’m afraid you may not have understood it.”
Gensoku said, “A Hearth God is associated with fire, so I understand it to mean that, just as fire is being used to seek for fire, so the True Self is what is used to seek for the True Self.”
The Master said, “Just as I suspected! You have not understood. If this is what the Buddha Dharma was like, it is unlikely that It would have continued on, being Transmitted down to the present day.”
Gensoku was so distressed at this that he left the monastery. While on the road, he thought to himself, “In this country, the Master is known as a fine and learned monastic teacher and as a great spiritual leader and guide for five hundred monks. Since he has chided me for having gone wrong, he must undoubtedly have a point.” So, he returned to his Master, respectfully bowed in apology, and said, “What is the True Self of a novice?”
The Master replied, “Here comes the Hearth God looking for The Fire.” Upon hearing these words, Gensoku awoke fully to the Buddha Dharma.
It is quite clear from this that an intellectual understanding of ‘One’s very Self is Buddha’ is insufficient grounds for saying that you have understood the Buddha Dharma. Mere understanding of the words are of no use but actual realisation of the truth is required. Though the replies given by both the masters to Gensoku were the same, Gensoku was able to go beyond the words the second time.
The Hearth God was a nickname for the temple boy who attended to lighting the lamps. Temple boys, who ranged in age from seven to fifteen, had not yet taken the Precepts and were not monks.
1. Shōbōgenzō: - Eihi Dogen (On Doing One’s Utmost in Practicing the Way of the Buddhas.) – Tr. By Rev. Hubert Nearman, O.B.C.,
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