Thursday, November 29, 2018

Seek What the Masters Sought: Kūkai (Kōbō-Daishi)

The phrase, “Do not follow in the footsteps of the Ancients; seek what they sought” has been popularly attributed to the Japanese poet, Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694). However, it appears that this phrase, or a phrase very similar to it, originated with the Japanese Buddhist monk Kūkai, also known by the honorific of Kōbō-Daishi (774-835), who transmitted the esoteric Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition from China to Japan and founded the Shingonshū, or “True Word” school of Buddhism.

First, we should acknowledge that this phrase:
古人の跡をもと めず、古人の求たる所を.もとめよ
(from: Kōhon Bashō zenshū. Volume 6, page 512)
has been popularly and variously translated as:
  • Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the masters; seek what the masters sought.
  • Seek not the footsteps of old; but seek what they sought.
  • Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the wise men of old. Seek what they sought.
  • Do not follow in the footsteps of the old masters, but seek what they sought.
  • Do not follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.
Regardless of the translation, the message seems to be clear. But is it? Without knowledge of how it  was first used, we are left with our own imaginations as to its meaning and how it should be applied. As I researched this phrase, I discovered a context and depth of meaning that was quite different than contemporary contexts and interpretations! I would like to share with you what I discovered.

The Kūkai-Bashō Connection
Although we will be examining Kūkai here, we need to reference Matsuo Bashō briefly to demonstrate that he is not the originator of this phrase. I have found three examples that illustrate this. The first example is a translation of Bashō's own writing. In his, “Words of Farewell to Kyoriku”, he says,
"In Kūkai’s writings we find, ‘Do not follow in the footsteps of the Ancients; seek what they sought.’ This is true also of haikai poetry." Sixth Month, 1693 (pg 138. Bashō’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō.)
And the second example is a commentary by John Strachan in William Wordsworth, Walking and Writing where he says:
One must see all of Bashō’s walking in the light of a walking tradition: he walked partly as an attempt to better understand the spirit of his literary heroes, to see the places that they saw and finally perhaps to receive the benediction of these special spots by making his own poems there. “Do not simply follow in the footsteps of the ancients, but seek what they sought!” was Kūkai’s maxim, which Bashō seems always to have kept close to his heart. (pg 76. William Wordsworth, Walking and Writing.)

A third example comes from the "Simply Haiku" journal:
What Kukai (774-835) had written (below) reads:
" Buddhist calligraphy it is the spirit of old that should be learned; the likeness in figure is not what should be thought as the token of good hand". (In Shoryo Shu, compiled ca. 840, recompiled 1079.). (Basho and Kukai. in Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry.)

Based on these three examples, it appears that it was Kūkai and not Bashō who originated the expression, “Do not follow in the footsteps of the Ancients; seek what they sought”. Before continuing, I must admit that I am relying on available translations and commentary. (See the References below.) In these works I have not found a translation of Kūkai's writings in which this phrase appears. Thus, the scope of my evidence is limited as will be my resulting understanding. However, even this limited exploration yields insights not typically associated with this phrase. With this meager evidence to guide us, let’s look at a few brief examples that illustrate how Kūkai may have arrived at this phrase.

Sample Treatises
Saeki no Mao, commonly known by his Buddhist ordination name of Kūkai, was born into an aristocratic family, was sent to university but became disillusioned with Confucian education, dropped out and “retreated” to the countryside where he began Buddhist meditation. By age 20 he was an ordained Buddhist monk. By age 24 he completed his first treatise Indications of the Goals of the Three Teachings in which he illustrates the superiority of the goals of Buddhism over the goals of Confucianism and Taoism. The following are brief excerpts from each of the three sections that, in my opinion, point to the essential point of the section:

Part One: Confucian
Shigsuga! Give up quickly your foolish attachments and follow my admonitions. You can then perfect filial piety and loyalty, widen your friendships, and extend prosperity down through your family line. What I have told you are the essential things you need to advance in this world and to gain fame. (pg 113. Kūkai: Major Works – Translated, with an Account of his Life and a Study of his Thought.)

Part Two: Taoist
When you realize the Way and master this art, your aged body and gray hair will be rejuvenated and life prolonged. Death will be postponed and you will live long in this world. Freely you will fly up to the sky and wander in the regions where the sun sets. (pg 119. Kūkai: Major Works – Translated, with an Account of his Life and a Study of his Thought.)

Part Three: Buddhist
(Referring to the Confucian and Taoist arguments above)
Their arguments are indeed miserable; they have no more strength in them than a drop of water. Their imaginations are like a tiny torch which illumines only a small area. Yet, they argue enthusiastically. But how much more qualified am I, the son of Buddha, to discuss these things. I am able to crush their idiocies, even though they pretend to be armed with sharp battle-axes that have the awesome power of a fierce tiger or panther. I know their attempts are as futile as a grasshopper’s leap to the sun. (pg 127. Kūkai: Major Works – Translated, with an Account of his Life and a Study of his Thought.)

From these brief excerpts, it is obvious that Kūkai has a disdain for Confucian and Taoist schools and a decided preference for Buddhism. And although an argument could be made that he is essentially expressing “Do not follow in the footsteps of the Ancients; seek what they sought” (Do not follow Confucian and Taoist teaching because both founders were seeking Buddha), these exact words do not yet appear in this treatise. It would be many years later and another treatise to see the formulation of this phrase.

Continuing, at age 30, Kūkai traveled to China and studied under an esoteric Vajrayāna Buddhist master in the Tang Dynasty capital of Chang’an (modern day Xi’an). At age 33, having fully absorbed the teachings, he returned to Japan and established the Shingonshū, or “True Word” (mantra) school of Buddhism. He also became renowned for his poetry, calligraphy and civil service.

In his treatise The Difference Between Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism, we can see the further developing of his idea of the superiority of Buddhism over Confucian and Taoist schools as well as the superiority of esoteric Buddhism over exoteric Buddhist schools.
QUESTION: If what you have said is really true and is given in the teachings of the Buddha, why have the former transmitters of the Dharma not discussed it?

ANSWER: The sermons of the Tathagata were delivered in accordance with the particular diseases in the minds of his audience; manifold remedies were provided, depending on their varied capacities. The sermons thus adapted to the capacity of his listeners were in many cases provisional and seldom final. When the bodhisattvas composed the commentaries, they wrote faithfully on the basis of the sutras which were provisional in nature. It is therefore said in the commentary on the Dasabhumika Sutra written by Vasubhandu that "only the way to enlightenment can be talked about [and not the enlightenment itself ]," 14 and also in the commentary on The Awakening of Faith written by Nagarjuna that "the perfect sea of enlightenment cannot be talked about."111 These works were based on the [provisional] sutras and were not intended to advocate the final truth. The masters of the Dharma who transmitted the Exoteric Buddhist teachings interpreted the [passages of] profound significance [appearing in the Exoteric Buddhist texts] in the light of their shallow doctrines and failed to find any Esoteric import in them. Faithfully transmitting the Exoteric Buddhist teachings from master to disciple, they discussed Buddhism according to the tenets of their particular schools. They so eagerly supported their beliefs that they found no time to meditate on those [passages] which might have been disadvantageous to their doctrines. In the meantime, Buddhism had spread eastward in China and gradually gained a significant role there. The Buddhist texts translated from the time of Emperor Ming of the Later Han Dynasty to that of Empress Wu of the T'ang Dynasty were all Exoteric. During the reigns of Emperors Hsüan-tsung and Tai-tsung, when Masters Vajrabodhi and Pu-k'ung were active, the Esoteric Buddhist teaching flourished and its profound meaning was discussed enthusiastically. The new medicine had not long been in use, and the old disease was not yet cured. [The Chinese masters of Exoteric Buddhism] - even when they came across passages [of Esoteric significance] such as the statement in the Lankāvatāra Sutra that "the Dharmakaya Buddha preaches,"16 or in the Ta-chih-tu lun that "the Dharmakaya Buddha is endowed with an exquisite form" 17 - interpreted them according to their imagination or were governed by the professed doctrines of their schools. It was indeed a pity that these wise masters of ancient times failed to appreciate the taste of ghee [the final truth]. (pg 154-155. “The Difference Between Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism”, in Kūkai: Major Works – Translated, with an Account of his Life and a Study of his Thought.)

Obviously, there are many sub-points being made in this passage with each leading to the main point that interpreting sutras according to the doctrines of a particular school, or according to one’s imagination, results in misinterpreting the true meaning of the sutras. It is certainly arguable that the phrase he uses here, “It was indeed a pity that these wise masters of ancient times failed to appreciate the taste of ghee [the final truth]” is getting closer to the more well-known phrase, “Do not follow in the footsteps of the Ancients; seek what they sought."

Elsewhere, in volume ten of the Complete Works of Kobo Daishi, translated below (KZ means the Kobō daishi zenshū), we see:
Also, people of old times sought the path for the sake of the path. People today do so to be famous. When fame is sought, seeking the path is not the aim. When seeking the path is the aim, one forgets oneself and becomes the path of the Dharma (KZ 10:616). (pg 181. Kūkai Founder of Japanese Shingon Buddhism.)
From this passage, another interpretation of “Do not follow in the footsteps of the Ancients; seek what they sought” could be an admonition to not imitate the behavior of the Ancients to increase your notoriety, rather, authentically seek the path as they did; for the sake of the path.

Kūkai’s final work, which is widely acknowledged as his magnum opus, The Ten Stages of the Development of the Mind was written around 830, or at age 56, about five years before he died. Whereas his earlier treatises focused on comparing and contrasting the various schools, his final work presented each school as representing a stage of spiritual development with Shingon being the most highly developed. For example, in the first stage, the lowest level, man is dominated by bestial instincts and has no sense of ethics. The next level, stage two, represents the awakening of the ethical mind as represented by Confucianism. Stage three represents an egoistic hope of rebirth and peace in heaven as represented by Taoism and some Buddhist and Indian schools. In stage four the mind is free from egoistic thinking but still accepts egoistic components, such as “perception, will, and consciousness” as real. Ultimately, the highest level, stage ten is conveyed by Shingon doctrine. (pg 67-69. The Life and Legend of Kobo Daishi (Kukai))
The Tenth and final Stage, conveyed by Shingon doctrine, was beyond verbal description, but the means to it could be acted upon… One discovered one’s true identity, and lived in that identity. None of the earlier stages needed to be despised, for each had been a necessary preparation. All early stages were contained within the final stage, just as all later stages were implicit in the first. From the very beginning the practitioner had been in full union with the Central Buddha, although oblivious to this fact. (pg 69. The Life and Legend of Kobo Daishi (Kukai))

Considering his earliest idea expressed in the Indications of the Goals of the Three Teachings and considering his final work, the Ten Stages of the Development of the Mind, one interpretation of, “Do not follow in the footsteps of the Ancients; seek what they sought” is an admonition to not follow the doctrines of any Confucian, Taoist, or the various Buddhist school but rather to follow Shingon because this, The True Word, is the spirit that was sought by their founders.

In the Shingon Texts, "The Precious Key" offers another hint as to the original meaning. (In this passage, sravaka means "hearer" or "disciple" and pratyekabuddha means the person who achieved enlightenment without the guidance of teachers or masters.)
“It is now evident that the wisdom of the śrāvaka and pratyekabuddha is narrow and inferior, and it should not be sought after.” (pg 182 The Precious Key, Shingon Texts)
From this passage, another interpretation of “Do not follow in the footsteps of the Ancients; seek what they sought” could be an admonition to not rely on being a traditional disciple nor wait for a spontaneous manifestation of the experience because neither will lead to the experience being sought.

Other Commentary
In the introduction to "The Weaving of Mantra", Ryûichi Abé explains that the esoteric Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition relies on "actual ritual experiences" to enable "practitioners to immediately grasp abstract Buddhist doctrines" and this is distinguished from the exoteric Buddhist schools which rely on language as the vehicle to lead to experience. Given this understanding, another interpretation of “Do not follow in the footsteps of the Ancients; seek what they sought” could be an admonition to seek the experience first. Do not rely on reading (with your pre-experience understanding) to lead you to the experience that others tried to describe, rather find someone who can guide you to the experience. The footsteps of the Ancients relied on reading. What they sought was the experience but their method was flawed.

Kūkai was also known for his calligraphy and poetry. In these practices he also applied this phrase.
Both Kūkai and Bashō address the paradox that the poet must confront: simultaneously seeking inspiration from the “ancients” while attempting to blaze their own path. Once again, somatic language is present, as Kūkai uses the sinograph for “body” 體 to refer to poetic “forms.” In his view, the ideal poet masters “ancient forms” (bodies), but does not imitate “ancient poems.” He extends this discussion to calligraphic practice, declaring that a calligrapher should master “ancient intent” (mind) 意, but refrain from mimicking “ancient remains” 跡. These statements treat calligraphy as an art, where the practitioner learns “forms” and “intents” and reinterprets them to create new works. (pg 197-198. Beyond Religious: Kukai the Literary Sage.)

Finally, Hakeda summarizes Kūkai’s Major Works as follows:
…Kūkai is remembered for the way he assimilated foreign culture to the indigenous way of thinking. Independence and originality of mind can be detected, for example, in his works of poetry in Chinese and in his calligraphy. The ideal attitude for learning poetry and calligraphy was that “a poet should learn the styles of olden times but not imitate them; a calligrapher should absorb the spirit manifested in ancient works but not copy them.”3 This attitude was further demonstrated in his uniquely creative systematization of Esoteric Buddhism; his planning of the monastic center on Mt. Koya; the artistic devices he applied to the Lecture Hall (kōdō) of the Toji in Kyoto; his interpretation of the Buddhist scriptures; and his curriculum for a school of the children of the poor.” (pg 4. Kūkai: Major Works – Translated, with an Account of his Life and a Study of his Thought.)
Application to Internal Gongfu
What lessons can we glean from the original context in which this phrase was developed and used that we can apply to our internal gongfu practice?

Kūkai's admonition to not follow the doctrines of any Confucian, Taoist or the various Buddhist schools can be abstracted to the admonishment to not become trapped or enmeshed in adherence to doctrines, dogmas, or methods of any particular school, but rather figure out for yourself what the founder of each was aiming for and then aim for that.

Considering the Ten Stages of the Development of the Mind, there are stages of development. It is not that these stages must be followed, but there is a natural evolution or development that occurs. The problem is believing that any one stage of development is the ultimate goal which results in an incomplete understanding of the sought-after experience.

Reading descriptions of others' experience and assuming your understanding of their experience will lead to the true experience (based on your never having had the experience) in fact will not lead to the sought-after experience. Understanding is a byproduct of the experience, not the other way around.

In this post we looked at the various texts that may have been summarized by this phrase, we've considered various context-based interpretations of this phrase, and we've looked at applications of these interpretations to an internal gongfu practice. Possibly the most profound example of this phrase is how Kūkai's life itself exemplified "Do not follow in the footsteps of the Ancients; seek what they sought”. He sought the experience and experienced what he sought. He then assimilated a foreign culture to the indigenous way of thinking. Rather than simply and mindlessly repeating foreign adages in a culture in which they had little or no meaning, his deep experience and understanding allowed him to "translate" foreign ideas using indigenous ways of thinking. He made the experience accessible.


Basho & Kukai. by Hideaki Hirano. Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry. Autumn 2005, vol 3 no 3.

Bashō’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō. Translated with an Introduction by David Landis Barnhill. State University of New York Press, 2005.

Beyond Religious: Kūkai the Literary Sage. By William John Matsuda. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, 2014.

Kūkai: Major Works – Translated, with an Account of his Life and a Study of his Thought. By Hakeda, Yoshito. Translations from the Asian Classics Series. Columbia University Press. 1972.

Kūkai Founder of Japanese Shingon Buddhism: Portraits of His Life. By Ronald S. Green. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Wisconsin – Madison. 2003.

Kūkai's Philosophy as a Mandala. By Okamura Keishin.Translated by Paul Swanson. The Eastern Buddhist. New Series, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Autumn 1985), pp. 19-34.

Shingon Texts. By Kūkai. Translated from the Japanese by Rolf W. Giebel, Kakuban, and Dale A. Todaro. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. 2004.

The Life and Legend of Kobo Daishi (Kukai), Chapter 3, pg 31-74 in, Sacred Koyasan: A Pilgrimage to the Mountain Temple of Saint Kobo Daishi and the Great Sun Buddha, by Philip L. Nicoloff. State University of New York Press. 2008.

The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. By Ryûichi Abé. Columbia University Press. 1999.

William Wordsworth, Walking and Writing. By John Strachan. in Creative Engagement with the Natural World. 第42 回(2016 年)全国大会国際セミナー.  (zenkoku taikai kokusai semina). pg 75-79.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Problem with Horse Stance

It occurred to me that of all the Asian martial arts practitioners that demonstrate and teach horse stance, none to my knowledge actually begin by first sitting on a horse and then proceed to explain how to replicate the feeling of sitting on a horse while not sitting on a horse, that is, while standing. In fact, many of those who demonstrate horse stance give me the impression that the person never rode a horse much less even sat on a horse!

My point is that there is a chasm of difference between the horse stance of someone replicating the feeling of riding a horse and the horse stance of someone who has never ridden a horse. When the latter presumes to mimic the experience of the former, the result is a gross mischaracterization.

So then, what is the primary experience of sitting on a horse? First and foremost is dynamic sitting! So if horse stance is intended to mimic sitting on a horse, then the primary intention of horse stance must be to practice the experience of sitting on a horse. While this seems obvious, many other purposes are frequently attributed to horse stance, the most common being developing leg strength. Ironically, this kind of leg strength is not needed when riding a horse - where this idea came from is anybody's guess.

The central question is, "How can I mimic the feeling of riding a horse while standing?"

And the answer is, get on a horse! Really! If you really want to sense the horse stance feeling, then you simply must get on a horse. There is no substitute! And I don't mean the ten minute horse ride around the corral or the basic riding lessons or the touristy trail ride. I've done all these and what I'm about to suggest is completely different.

You need to find a therapeutic riding center that teaches Centered Riding where someone else controls the horse, where you are coached on your posture and how your body is interacting with the horse, where you are coached to let go and relax with structure, where you are coached to focus on the feeling, where you learn how subtle changes in your body are reflected in the horse's behavior, where you learn to notice and play with these subtle changes in a kind of self-instructive, horse-human bio-feedback loop. The lessons learned from this manner of horse riding then become the basis of how to practice horse stance.

Centered Riding book cover 

I am speaking here from my own limited experiences following the Centered Riding approach to horseback riding. You see, my mother owned and worked with horses for years on her small family farm. She practiced Centered Riding and shared this method and her insights with me. (Yes, I finally listened to my mother.)

For all you horse stance people, if you haven't done so yet, go get on a horse. Get some lessons in Centered Riding. Discover how this experience transforms your understanding of horse stance! And depending on where you are in your training, the Centered Riding experience may even become part of your internal gongfu practice.


February 2022 Addendum

I consider this image to be a better representation of standing with relax, balance, structure than the often taught standing with a low and wide stance in which most practitioners more resemble a dead post than dynamically engaging relax, balance, structure.

(Image from 

Happy practicing, everyone!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Discovering the Wujifa Crossroads Blues

Here's a story of my musical life before I got into Chinese martial arts and how these two seemingly unrelated worlds are in fact connected.

At a very young age I began playing piano. Then somewhere around fifth grade I shifted to saxophone. Both were based on reading music. In junior high school I bought my first electric guitar and taught myself the notes following the same score-based method. After establishing this connection, I bought sheet music with guitar tabs and discovered the resultant sound didn't match the sound of the song on the record that I enjoyed. I then shifted to playing by ear; trying to replicate the song on the record as precisely as possible just based on what I heard.

Unable to understand nor reproduce the guitar parts, I switched to bass guitar which is relatively easier. I was able to copy most of my favorite '60s - '70s rock tunes pretty well. I then got into playing bass guitar in various "cover" bands; bands that played, or covered other well-known artists.

After years of this, I thought I was pretty good and wanting to expand my skillset, I investigated a group of improvisational jazz bass players. I quickly learned that I was not in their league and feeling a bit hurt (I'm not as good as I thought) and not knowing where the gap was nor how to bridge it, I hung up the bass guitar and started learning and practicing Tai-chi Chuan.

And then a few years ago I decided I wanted to get back into guitar after a thirty year hiatus. I wanted to learn how to play blues guitar but this time to really learn what I didn't learn the first time out. I stumbled into Griff Hamlin and his Blues Guitar Unleashed course which has been wonderful for me. Over the last couple years of receiving his daily email which includes tips, hints and examples and reading his blog, I've noticed how similar his message is to the message I was learning in Wujifa.

And here is the lesson at the crossroad, the Wujifa saying, "How you do anything is how you do everything."

The same copy-refine mindset or the way I originally approached music was the same mindset or way I initially approached my Chinese martial arts practice; copy, refine.

Reflecting on those early years, just as I never learned the principle of how music worked - how to make music, not just copy music - I never learned the principle of Chinese martial arts movement - how to move from the principle, not just copy the choreography.

I now see parallels between bar bands, cover bands, tribute bands and many Chinese martial arts practitioners who appear to follow the copy-refine approach where the so-called "more highly skilled" are merely a more refined copy than those with a less-refined copy.

The way I see things now is that martial arts fans, students, teachers and judges who were raised up through the copy-refine system and who never crossed over to explore, learn, or develop in a principle-based system, like Wujifa, are ill-disposed to recognize principle-based movement. Conversely, those who develop principle-based movement are better positioned to recognize those who are following a copy-refine approach.

And I'm standing at the crossroads...What I've learned of feeling principle-based movement in Wujifa has opened me to interpret the lessons of how to play blues guitar in a way I could not have with my former mechanical copy-refine mindset.

"How you do anything is how you do everything." until you do something different and then everything changes...

Happy practicing everyone!