On one occasion, a monk came to Isan’s monastery to be taught, and, seeing him, Isan made as if to get up. “Please don’t stand up!” exclaimed the monk.
“I haven’t sat down yet!” said Isan.
“I haven’t bowed yet,” the monk said.
“You rude creature!” commented Isan.
On another occasion, Isan was watching a brush fire, and asked his disciple, Dogo, “Do you see the fire?”
“I see it,” replied Dogo.
The master asked Dogo, “Where does the fire come from?”
Dogo said, “I would like you to ask me something that has nothing to do with walking around or zazen or lying down” – at which Isan left off talking and went away.
Once, Isan was asked by Ichu to compose a gatha for him. Isan replied: “It is foolish to compose one when face to face – and, in any case, writing things on paper!”
So Ichu went to Kyozan, a disciple of Isan, and made the same request.
In response, Kyozan drew a circle on paper and wrote a note next to it that said: “To think and then know is the second grade. Not to think and then know is the third grade.”
Maneesha, before discussing your sutras, a little biographical note on Isan is essential. I say it is essential because unless you understand the man, his background, his upbringing, his qualities, you will not be able to grasp just the pure sutras. They are almost writings in the air, or, if you prefer, in the water. The man who has written the sutras or told the sutras, or managed these anecdotes, has to be understood to understand all that is connected with him, because his whole being covers and colors whatever he says. You cannot take it out of context.
Isan is a totally different personality than Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was a hard master; Isan was very polite. Naturally his politeness would affect whatever happened around him. He was a very humble person, never tried to convert anybody, but on the contrary slipped deep down into the forest, so nobody came to him. He felt it a little embarrassing to be the master and degrade somebody as a follower – a very nice, very delicate personality, the personality of a poet, of a singer, of a dancer.
Isan was a mellow and patient master in guiding his disciples to attain their enlightenment.
He never used shouting or hitting or beating; that was not possible for him. He was such a loving, compassionate being that to think of him hitting the way Zen masters hit is impossible. He was very humble; hence he had to create absolutely different devices than those of Bodhidharma or Nansen.
Isan was a mellow and patient master in guiding his disciples to attain their enlightenment. Unlike those Zen masters who preceded him, he did not use the stick or shout.