Daido Roshi

Not a Single Word

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi
True Dharma Eye, Case 165

The World Honored One Did Not Speak a Word

Featured in Mountain Record 24.3, Spring 2006


 The Main Case

When the World-honored One was about to enter parinirvana, Manjushri asked him to give a sermon once more.1 The World-honored One scolded him, saying, “I have not spoken even a single word for forty-nine years.2 Now you’re asking me to speak once more. Have I ever said a word?”3 Manjushri was silent.

The Commentary

For forty-nine years, the World-honored One addressed hundreds of assemblies, yet he says, “I have not spoken even a single word for forty-nine years.” What is his meaning? The transmission to Mahakashyapa was indeed wordless, as was the teaching given to the outsider. But what about the countless sutras that are said to have come directly from the mouth of the Buddha? Are these not words? We should understand that the sutras are the entire universe itself. There is no space and no time which is not the sutras.

We should investigate thoroughly the fact that although the Buddha did not speak a single word, it cannot be said that he remained silent, either. Wordless is not the same as expressionless. All phenomena of the universe, audible and inaudible, tangible and intangible, sentient and insentient, are the clear and ceaseless expression of the buddha nature. These teachings are like thunder resounding through space and time down to this moment itself. Can you hear it? They transcend affirmation and negation, being and nonbeing. They are a reality that’s neither dualistic nor monistic. Can you see it? Words and ideas are a description of reality; silence is a negation of reality. What is the reality itself?

The Capping Verse

Without falling into speech or silence,
he completely brings up the true imperative.
The clear solstice moon
settles its frosty disc among the distant pines.


This is one of those koans that, on the surface, appears to be very simple, and is usually the cause of many misconceptions. The major misconception here is to take the “special transmission outside the scriptures,” or “no reliance on words and letters” to mean the holding up of a fly whisk, the blinking of the eyes, a shout, pointing—but that’s not what special transmission outside the sutras is about. That’s not what direct pointing to the human mind means.