Sakiyama’s Final Challenge

It was unlikely we would ever meet again. But training was not over. To continue, Sakiyama Roshi, abbot of Kozenji Zendo in Shuri, Okinawa, presented me with this:

He asked that I study it; penetrate its truth completely. He told me to visit his dharma brother when I returned to the US, train with him face-to-face, and see our project through to the end. 

Sakiyama’s note said:

億劫相別而須臾不離    盡日相対而刹那不対

“Even if one feels they are separated for a time that feels infinite,

the truth is they are not separated even by the tiniest amount”

“Furthermore, even if one says they are facing each other all day,

the truth is that they are not facing each other at all.”

There are several sources for these lines from the early years following the import of Zen to Japan from China, long ago. But there are thousands of lines from centuries of training, face to face, teacher to student, generation after generation. From the mountains of books and rivers of talk pouring out from the tradition beyond words Sakiyama chose these two lines. 

The lines are touching. Separation from people in our lives makes us unhappy. Attachment causes trouble. Separation is inevitable. What do we do with it? 

The mixture of emotion and idea, formulated for ignition in the laser light of samadhi, had my attention. No doubt it was a message to his dharma brother, as well as instruction for me. 

The two of them, years before, as young men, sat face to face all night long, practicing in the great temple where they trained. How clear and present the memory was to him, the memory of the two of them, as novices, enchanted by enthusiasm, pouring their hearts into practice, encouraging each other, challenging each other, their aspirations spreading before them, vast and sunlit.  His nostalgia was poignant: the passing away of lifetimes, the old world vanished, naïve hope solidified in the shape of a life already lived. Did he hope I would be the bridge that would connect them once again?

When I met his dharma brother later that year, I showed him a photo of Sakiyama Roshi, which I had taken before I left Okinawa. He held the snapshot, looked at it with curious, warm attention. As he gazed at it, surprise flickered across his princely face. “He got old!” he said. 

I had not gotten old. I did not know the experience of seeing an old friend after a long separation, and in the changed but familiar face, seeing the passing of time mixed with the vivid pleasure of recollections of things past.

The lines Sakiyama wrote were deeply moving to me. I was young, meeting an old, respected teacher. His presence was imposing. His karate once was powerful. He was a direct student of Miyagi Chojun. His Zen students included Nagamine Shoshin, founder of Matsubayashi Ryu, who introduced me to Sakiyama Roshi. 

In the lines he gave me to study Sakiyama’s warm-heartedness was evident in a way it rarely was in person. 

He asked me to investigate these ideas because, he was telling me, they are true:

“Even if one feels they are separated for a time that feels infinite,

the truth is they are not separated even by the tiniest amount”

“Furthermore, even if one says they are facing each other all day,

the truth is that they are not facing each other at all.”

Examining this statement, gaining insight into it, penetrating it thoroughly, becoming accustomed to a new way of seeing, is how we can use lines like these. Not by intoning the words as if they possessed some magic power of their own. Not by repeating them until their sound dissolves into gibberish. Not by defaulting to perplexity, jangled or placid, using paradox to subvert your rational mind. Not by rejecting discursive thought, or abandoning language. 

I was to use these lines as a tool to understand their proposition, and through this understanding, the nature of my own heart and mind.

These two lines express two plain ideas. One is the non-separation of subject-object-action. The other is the no-self nature of persons. Both are predicated on the seamless, undivided nature of reality. Both are accessible to reason, and to direct experience. Understanding them is the gate to freedom. 

A thumbnail of no-self nature of persons: We are made of parts. There is no person within the person. No part is the person by itself. Even the aggregate of the parts is not the person. We change. We are real. We act. We are subject to conditions. We create conditions. Our lives matter. They are of infinite consequence. They extend in time and space. There is nothing esoteric or mysterious in these ideas. (See end note 6.)

Although it is different from the way we customarily think about ourselves, it is accurate and supported by reason. It does not take years of meditation, an altered state, or genius to understand it. We can all make good use of this. 

Understanding it establishes the imperative for moral and ethical conduct, the rationale for developing a calm, clear mind, and the necessity for penetrating the truth. These three together yield freedom from alienation, confusion, conflict and suffering. Insight begins and ends with understanding no-self nature. That is what Sakiyama’s “koan” was pointing to. That is why it was so moving and so important that he chose this as his way of saying goodbye.

This rational explanation is no spoiler if you want to use these two lines for your own kensho, because knowing about this and thoroughly penetrating it are different. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

So, what to do?

This probably won’t get done in an hour a day, like homework or a hobby. It’s more like D-Day.

The accumulation of insight, pressure, refinement and focus, drilling deeper and deeper consciously and unconsciously, devoting your intelligence, humanity, will and power, continually, and then settling down and letting the words of the koan operate in your heart and mind without manipulation, leads across the phase boundary to insight. 

Then, like ice becoming water, or water transformed into vapor or plasma, new properties emerge in your experience. The body and mind you always had, the world you always lived in, the words of the instruction themselves have new life and new meaning which were untapped, unusable, and invisible before. They were raw materials. Something happened to change them. 

When 15th century Tibetan master Tsong-kha-pa achieved his enlightenment, he said it was completely different from what he expected. He was a genius. If anyone would know what to expect you would think it would be him. You would think. But he didn’t. He expected to get out of the mass of suffering. But it turned out he did not “get out.”  He got in, becoming completely enmeshed in the infinity of living beings. He said:

When you have thus trained well in the teachings associated with a person of medium capacity and have made this practice firm, consider the fact that just as you yourself have fallen into the ocean of cyclic existence, so have all beings, your mothers. Train in the spirit of enlightenment which is rooted in love and compassion, and strive to develop this as much as you can. Without it, the practices of the six perfections and the two stages are like stories built on a house with no foundation. …

Tsong-Kha-Pa. The Great Treatise On The Stages Of The Path To Enlightenment Vol 3, p 362

The main flaw in the dissemination of Zen was the premise that cultivating a special state of mind via meditation is the key to freedom. This is the assumption on which Zen-influenced martial arts base their soteriology. The assumption that perfection will come if you persist – in sitting, in training, in something – is not supported. People who take this on faith are disappointed. Persistence is not enough. Saying “There is no goal!” is not an adequate instruction. Saying “Just sit!” misleads untrained people. 

I did not work on my koan with Sakiyama’s dharma brother. I visited with him several times but I found no reason to continue. The warning appears in the oldest sources, including the Samyutta Nikaya:

Gain, honor and praise are dreadful.

An obstacle for beginners who attract devotion,

And for accomplished practitioners…

After 2,500 years the advice is still fresh. When novices enter a religious life, people think they are holy, even though they really are just beginners, learning their way, easily tempted, distracted and confused. When experienced people achieve prominence, they are subject to flattery. It is pleasant. It feels deserved. They too can lose their way. It is a long road back to the austere iconoclasm of mountain Ch’an. And there are no signs pointing the way.

It may be that there was no golden age to return to. It may be that there were people, great and small, trying to find their way.  Whatever there was, the Ch’an school in China undermined its practice imperative with theory, long ago. The effect persists. (This philosophical subversion of technical knowledge and practical experience is explained by Carl Bielefeldt in Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation.)  It led to confusion.

The cult of the Zen master as the sole source of wisdom and authority, the exclusive claim of “mind-to-mind” transmission within the tradition, the rejection of ideas and inference, exaggerated it. Eager neophytes in our time, educated in post-modern anti-language and habituated in self-regard, may have failed to grasp the non-grasping mind. 

億劫相別而須臾不離 盡日相対而刹那不対

“Even if one feels they are separated for a time that feels infinite,

the truth is they are not separated even by the tiniest amount”

Is this pointing to the Dharmakaya, the truth body, one nature, no separation in time, space or mind, no one to be separated? 

Sakiyama Roshi’s dharma brother presented me with his own shodo calligraphy: 一 法 “Ippo” One Truth, One Law, One Dharma, One Reality.

“Furthermore, even if one says they are facing each other all day,

the truth is that they are not facing each other at all.”

Does this point to the no self-nature of persons?  Although we are people, real and alive, the boundaries and character which we assume define us are more fluid, subtle and magnificent than what we, by habit, see. Who is it we see?


The point here is not to judge practitioners, past or present. I do not know their minds. The literature they left us is not always illuminating. But we have to make judgements and choices for ourselves, choices of what to pick up and what to set aside.

The myth in Zen-influenced martial arts is that you can reach ultimate human perfection by cultivating a clear mind, or a still mind, or a content-free mind. Distracted by an imaginary ideal of perfection, practitioners neglect the real rewards of practical transformation offered through wonderful traditions.

Profound transformation comes when you understand that your conduct, your ethics, your moral commitments, your personal responsibility for the well-being of others, and the cultivation of a generous heart is indispensable for reaching the goal. Then you can stop at nothing to acquire technical skill. Then you will be moved to push beyond your limits, mastering your body and mind and skill, to devote all to the service of the people who need you, now.

There is no separation between us and what we have done. There will be no distance between what we do and what we will face.

This is not easy to find in Sakiyama’s farewell koan. But it is there. 



  1. Thanks to Jeremy Blaustein for translation assistance. 
  • The source of the quotation Sakiyama chose is linked to Kamakura era priest Shuho Myocho, later Daito Kokushi 大燈国師. National History Univ. Encyclopedia cites him: 

“They’ve been separated for a long time, for eternity,

but haven’t been separated even for a short time.

Moreover, they are facing each other all day long,

but they are not facing each other.”

  • The four dhyanas of the Buddhist eight-fold path “right meditation” scheme are not the same as mushin or  “no-mind.” Sources vary in interpretation of the dhyanas but they include concentration, awareness and mindfulness of objects of consciousness. Mushin, no-mind as described in the Japanese budo traditions, is also not nirodha samapatti, the cessation of experience, sensation and consciousness. While the subjective experience of the engagement of the will and cognition will vanish, the practitioner remains engaged in purpose and action, even in the experience of Mushin.
  • 8th Century Chinese priest Ha-Shang Mahayana’s Ch’an position on ‘no-thought’ is addressed in Tsong Khapa’s Lam Rim Chen Mo, vol 2, p87. This reference includes the omission of the cultivation of bodhicitta and the six perfections in Ch’an. This is reflected in the Zen budo of Musashi, Takuan and many others. This fact does not diminish their budo. It addresses the claim of ultimate liberation and fulfillment of human potential through their budo. 
  • The “content-less mind” of Ha-Shang may not be an emptiness meditation at all. “(Jigme Lingpa) argues that, if the meditator attempts to stop conceptual activity without distinguishing between mind (sems) and awareness (rig pa), the result is a blank indeterminacy (lung ma bstan). In awareness, he argues, conceptualisation is neutralised in a state that is “like a crystal ball”, a simile which points to clarity and vividness, rather than indeterminacy and blankness. – Sam van Schaik
  • For the Mahayana view of no-self nature of persons: p289, vol. III Lam Rim Chen Mo; for the Theravada view: Selfless Persons, by Steven Collins
  • This critique applies to misunderstood Zen applied in Zen-budo, not to religious traditions, which have adherents of various abilities, understanding and inclinations. 


Post and photo Copyright © 2021 Jeff Brooks, author of The Good Fight – The Virtues and Values of the Martial Arts – available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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