We’re A Razor

forget what the masters wrote truth’s a razor
each instant sitting here you and I being here

—Ikkyū (trans by Stephen Berg)

Last week Ikkyū told us we are already happy. We don’t experience that happiness because our minds are focused on a whole lot of crap. Stop focusing on the crap—that which has no value in our lives—and we’ll be happy.

This week, with a little help from our Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, we’re taking a look at truth.

Ikkyū detested the conventional. He thrived in an environment that was free, stripped of authority. That was probably why he left the monastery and frequented the tavern and brothel. Life was more honest there.

Forget the Masters! Their dry, dusty tomes contain no truth— for truth’s a razor.

What does Ikkyū mean “truth’s a razor”? Let’s start with, first of all, the razor. Ikkyū is talking about a good old-fashioned straight razor. Basically a knife. A razor is very, very sharp. Razor-sharp is as sharp as it gets. Truth cuts.

Those dusty old tomes of the Masters cut nothing. They make good doorstops or paperweights. They’re dull and thick and perfunctory. The razor cuts. It can cut those old books into scrap paper.

But the razor’s edge can also divide. And it does so with an exceedingly fine line. Truth separates. It forms two camps. However, in Ikkyū’s mind these are not equally valid camps. And this can be seen when the razor is put to work shaving. It cuts away the facial hair. Truth is discerning. It cuts off that which is false. In a sense, that which is not me.

Which brings us to the second line. What are we to make of what Ikkyū is saying here? I think the best way to understand Berg’s rendition is to understand he’s using enjambment.

Let’s re-cast the poem this way:

forget what the masters wrote:
truth’s a razor, each instant sitting here—
you and I being here

In other words, we are the razor. We are the truth. You and I, together, cut off the dead crap of the authority figures. They are not the truth. We are. Which makes us the real masters.

Advent celebrates Immanuel—God with us. But that’s only half the story. Because the whole point of the New Covenant that Immanuel brought with him, was that the law would no longer be an external master—it would be written on our hearts.

That’s something to think about. Forget the masters. Forget the rule makers. You and I being here, we are the razor. We are the truth.

That’s why Ikkyū left the monastery after nine days of being abbot. It was all crap. He told the monks if they wanted to find him, he’d be in the tavern and the brothel. Where the real people were. Where the razors were. Where the truth was. And still is.

Comments are always welcome, and, until the next time, do some truth cutting!

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4 thoughts on “We’re A Razor”

  1. The tavern down the street from my apt is not such an elevated place really. Not worse than the monastery perhaps, but I doubt better. If Ikkyu lasted there nine nights (let alone nine days), I’d be surprised. You and I sitting together is not enhanced by alcohol though maybe not diminished. Fun though!

    What do I know? Happy Christmas everyone!

    1. Hi Andrew! Thanks for stopping by!

      In true Zen fashion, I’d say it’s not what you know or don’t know. It’s that there is nothing to know.

      And that’s Ikkyū’s point: the tavern and brothel aren’t more elevated, they are what is. They are where people are the most honest, as it were. Sure there might be a few blowhards and pretenders, but they are easily spotted.

      Most folks at the tavern and brothel aren’t pretending, like at the monastery where Ikkyū found nothing but empty ritual, pretense, and hypocrisy. He found the monks pretending, instead of being.

      So, wearing his monk robes, Ikkyū went to the tavern and visited the brothel. Those places were the temple, as it were.

      We are the truth. There is nothing to know.

      A happy Christmas to you!

  2. In other words, to hell with legalism! Unless legalism is a phase we must go through and transcend. Christianity possibly has spawned more rules than any other system, yet they all boil down to two, loving God, and loving one’s neighbor. Ikkyu’s razor is a little like Occam’s!

    1. To hell with legalism, indeed! I think Islam and Judaism have Christianity beat when it comes to rules.

      Whether or not we must go through a legalistic phase, Ikkyū was an abbot for 9 days, our friend is telling us it’s garbage. Truth is never from without, it is always from within.

      Love God and love your neighbor as yourself, are essentially innate truth. And what more do we need?

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