Ashé Journal, Vol 4, Issue 2, 227-230, Summer 2005.
There Is No Trash
me,” directed the roshi, and he assigned me my first task: to clean the
garden. Together with this seventy-year-old master, I went out to the
garden and started sweeping with a bamboo broom. Zen temple gardens are
carefully designed with trees planted to ensure that leaves will fall throughout
the entire year; not only the maples in autumn but also the oaks and the camphors
in spring regularly shed their foliage. When I first arrived, in April,
the garden was full of fallen leaves.
The human being (or, my own mind, I should say) is really quite mean. Here
I was, inside my heart denouncing this “old fool” and balking at
the very idea of trusting so easily; yet, at the same time, I wanted this old
man to notice me, and so took up that broom and swept with a vengeance. Quite
soon I had amassed a mountain of dead leaves. Eager to show off my diligence,
I asked, “Roshi, where should I throw this trash?”
The words were barely out of my mouth when he thundered back at me, “There
is no trash!”
“No trash, but…look here,” I tried to indicate the pile
“So you don’t believe me! Is that it?”
“It’s only that, well, where should I throw out these leaves?” That
was all that was left for me to say.
“You don’t throw them out!” he roared again.
“What should I do then?” I asked.
“Go out to the shed and bring back an empty charcoal sack,” was
When I returned, I found Roshi bent to the task of combing through the mountain
of leaves, sifting so that the lighter leaves came out on top while the heavier
sand and stones fell to the bottom. He then proceeded to stuff the leaves
into the sack I had brought from the shed, tamping them down with his feet. After
he had jammed the last leaves tightly into the sack, he said, “Take these
to the shed. We’ll use them to make a fire under the bath.”
As I went off to the shed, I silently admitted that this sack of leaves over
my shoulder was perhaps not trash; but I also told myself that what was left
of that pile out there in the garden was clearly trash, and nothing but trash. I
got back, though, only to find Roshi squatting over the remains of the leaf
pile, picking out the stones. After he had carefully picked out the last
stone, he ordered, “Take these out and arrange them under the rain gutters.”
When I had set out the stones, together with the gravel that was already there,
and filled in the spaces pummeled out by the raindrops, I found that not only
were the holes filled but that my work looked rather elegant. I had to
allow that these stones, too, failed to fall into the category of trash. There
was still more, though: the clods of earth and scraps of moss, the last dregs. Just
what could anyone possibly do with that stuff, I wondered.
I saw Roshi going about his business, gathering up these scraps and placing
them, piece by piece, in the palm of his hand. He scanned the ground
for dents and sinks; he filled them in with the clods of earth, which he then
tamped down with his feet. Not a single particle remained of the mountain
“Well?” he queried, “Do you understand a little bit better
now? From the first, in people and in things, there is no such thing as trash.”
This was the first sermon I ever heard from Zuigan Roshi. Although it
did make an impression on me, unfortunately, I was not keen enough to attain
any great awakening as a result of simply hearing these words.
From the first, in people and in things, there is no such thing as trash. These
words point to the fundamental truth of Buddhism, a truth I could not as yet
conceive in those days.
“Wonder of wonders! Intrinsically all living beings are buddhas,
endowed with wisdom and virtue. Only because they cling to their delusive
thinking do they fail to realize this.” This was Shakyamuni Buddha’s
exclamation at the instant of his enlightenment. To put it in other words,
all beings are, from the first, absolutely perfect, but because people are
attached to deluded notions, they cannot perceive this innate buddha-nature.
In the classical Chinese sutras it is written that Shakyamuni said, “I
attained buddhahood together with all the grasses, the trees, and the great
In a split second, the mist before his eyes cleared, and Shakyamuni Buddha
could see the true form of reality. “Up to now, I thought all beings
in this world were living only in pain and misery, in deep unhappiness. But,
in reality, aren’t all beings, just as they are, living in buddhahood,
living in a state of absolute perfection? And doesn’t this apply
not only to those who are healthy and sound of body, but also to those who
are blind, to those without hands, to the ones who are barely dragging themselves
along? Isn’t each and every one, just exactly as he or she presently
is, a perfect and flawless being?” Awed and astonished, the Buddha
called out in the voice of satori.
Every year, I go to Hokkaido to lecture, and one year, there was a woman present
who asked to meet me after the talk. The young woman, an ardent believer
in Christianity, had this to say: “Listening to your talk today, I could
see that about all Buddhism tells us to do is throw away our desires. On
the other hand, Christianity says, ‘Ask, and it shall be given you. Seek,
and you shall find. Knock, and the door shall be opened to you.’ This
teaching answers the hopes of young people like myself. What do you think
about this, Roshi?”
I answered her with a question of my own. “Is that to say that
no matter how you knock, no matter how you seek, you shall receive and the
door will be opened to you? Is it not the case that unless one knocks
and seeks in a way that is in accord with the heart of God, the door surely
will not be opened, nor will one’s desires be granted?”
I have heard the Christian teaching, “You devise your way, but God directs
your steps”—you desire and choose and seek as you please, but it
is God who decides whether or not your wishes are to be granted.
So, too, Buddhism does not say only to throw away all desire, to toss aside
all seeking. It is especially in the Zen sect that we seek, that we knock
at that door through a practice so intensive as to be like carving up our very
bones. Buddhism points out, however, that after all the seeking, what
we attain is the realization that what we have sought was always, from the
first, already ours; after all the pounding away, we awaken to the fact that
the door was already open before we ever began to knock.
So you see, Zuigan Roshi pointed out the most basic truth right from the start
when he said, “From the first, in people and in things, there is no such
thing as trash.” Unfortunately, I did not understand him. I
went on pretending to be a disciple who trusts his roshi, while inside my heart
I criticized and resisted. To tell you the truth, I found almost everything
he said irritating.
Excerpt from Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own
Stupidity, translated by Belenda Attaway Yamakawa. Reprinted with
permission of Wisdom Publications.