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Ashé Journal, Vol 4, Issue 2, 227-230, Summer 2005.

There Is No Trash

Soko Morinaga

 “Follow 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 of leaves.

“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 his instruction.

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 of leaves.

“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 earth.”

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.

Soko Morinaga (1925-1995) received the seal of dharma transmission from Sesso Ota Roshi and served as head of Hanazono University.

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