‘Not Knowing’ & ‘Destitute Mind’: Two teahouses of Nanzenji temple – Allan Marett

Once again I find myself writing out of the experience of pilgrimage to Shikoku. Like sesshin, pilgrimage has the capacity to shake up our lives: as we drop the regular routines and the concerns of our everyday lives and entering into a sustained period of practice, we create space for necessary truths to emerge.

Quite often these openings happen during periods when we are intensely focused, but not always. They are just as likely to happen while we’re pealing the potatoes or slogging our way up a hill, or they may even happen after or outside the retreat or pilgrimage.

During April and May I was walking pilgrimage in Shikoku with two dear sangha friends, Janet Selby and Jill Ball. At a certain point we broke off and went to Kyoto to view the cherry blossoms, which were then right at their peak. It was an unforgettable experience.

At Nanzenji temple, in northeast Kyoto, we bought tickets to view the famous Kano painted screens, which are set within Nanzenji’s wonderful gardens. It was here that I encountered the two teahouses, known as ‘Not Knowing’ and ‘Destitute Mind.’ Neither of them is particularly old, but their names have deep resonances. ‘Not Knowing’ is mushiki 無識、the answer that Bodhidharma gave to Emperor Wu of Liang, when he was asked, “who is this standing before me?” We usually translate Bodhidharma’s reply, “mushiki,” as “I don’t know,” but the “I” is completely redundant.

An information board in the gardens explained that the name of the second teahouse, ‘Destitute Mind’ (Kyuushin 窮 心) refers to the heart-quality that corresponds to wisdom- quality of “not-knowing.” That is, the not-knowing mind and the destitute heart are fundamentally one and the same. This was my lesson for the day, and for the pilgrimage.

I am reminded of a Case in the Wumenguan, Qingshui, Solitary and Destitute.

A monk said to Zaoshan, “I am Qingshui, solitary and destitute. Please give me alms.”
Zaoshan said, “Venerable Shui!”
Qingshui said, “Yes sir!”

Zaoshan said, “You have already drunk three cups of the nest wine in China, and still you say that you have not moistened your lips.”

For Qingshui, everything has fallen away—he is all alone in a universe totally devoid of things. Alone in this universe of absolutely nothing, he feels lonely and perhaps a little unnerved. Zaoshan kindly reminds him how rich this universe of utter poverty actually is, “you have already drunk three cups of the nest wine in China.”

This is not a matter of two sides or two dimensions of reality, one rich, one poor. Wumen’s “Not falling, not evading/Two faces of the one die,” (Wumenguan Case 2, Baizhang’s fox) can be misleading, as can Dogen’s two sides of the single moon: when you see one, you don’t see the other. It is not a matter of seeing either the poverty of emptiness or the richness of form. The richness of form is exactly the poverty of emptiness; the poverty of emptiness is exactly the richness of form. Not two. Remember what Dogen says (we recite this in our Precepts ceremony), “In the Buddha Dharma, there is one path, one Dharma, one realisation, one practice.“ Or, as Keizan so beautifully says, “One branch from the old plum tree extends splendidly forth.”

So for me, the lesson of the two teahouses was that destitution and richness are not the flip sides of each other. They are absolutely one and the same. It is in its utter poverty that the Nanzenji garden most clearly reveals its utter beauty.

Keizan again:

The wisteria has withered; trees have fallen down; Mountains have crumbled level with the plains. Flooding cascades have overflowed their banks; Fire flashes forth from the flint boulders.

What could we point to in order to show that this pair of couple’s refers not to two, but to one? That the withering wisteria is precisely the flooding cascades? That the fallen trees and crumbled mountains are none other than the fire flashing from the flint boulders?

‘Not two, not three. The path is put right.’


‘Encouraging Words from the Teacher’ was published in the August/September 2017 Newsletter
Painting of Nanzenji temple by Janet Selby, March 2017