Tuesday, June 12, 2007


A koan may present a fanciful situation.

A man is hanging from a high tree branch by his teeth. He is asked, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?” If he doesn’t answer he sidesteps his responsibility. If he answers he plummets to the ground. What does the poor guy do?

I’d like to talk about this last koan, which is known as Case 5 in the Mumonkan. Its formal title is “Up a Tree.” In modern terms it could be called “Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle.” Here’s how it goes.

Master Kyogen Osho said, “A man is up in a tree hanging from a branch by his teeth. Someone appears under the tree and calls out, ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?’ If the man does not answer he fails to respond. If he does answer, he will lose his life. In such a situation what would you do?”

Think about it for a moment. Don’t worry, I won’t call for answers.

According to Zen history Kyogen was, in his early years, a learned scholar of Zen, but his erudition kept getting in the way of full awakening. Instead of seeing a situation for what it was he had to analyze it six ways from Sunday and find validation after validation. All of that justification may have been instructive for a scientific mind, but it led Kyogen farther and farther from truth.

His master, Isan, realized what was going on, and he told Kyogen that all the book-learning in the world wouldn’t help in Zen. Isan said “I’m not interested in challenging your wisdom, but I want to ask you one question.”

“Fire away,” Kyogen said, oozing absolute confidence.

Isan asked, “What is your real self, the self that existed before you were born?”

Kyogen’s mind responded like a modern-day computer. It ran through all sorts of permutations and combinations, However, it couldn’t spew out a rapid fire, proper response. In desperation Kyogan asked Isan to explain the question, to reveal the answer.

Isan chuckled and said, “Look, my friend, what I say belongs to my own understanding. I’m not selfish about that and I’m willing to share it with you, but if I spell things out they won’t have any meaning for you."

Kyogen went to his room and combed through all of his books and notes for some comeback to Isan’s query. He couldn’t discover anything, so he trashed the texts and burned his notes. Believing that he’d never understand Zen, he left the area and became a caretaker for the tomb of Chu, a master who had been teacher to the emperor.

Kyogen was so disillusioned with intellectual matters he stopped actively seeking enlightenment, convinced it was far beyond his capacity. He didn’t attempt to decipher the koan, like a cryptologist unravels a scrambled message. He realized that such efforts would only drive the thing away from his comprehension. However, he did continue with zazen.

One day Kyogen was sweeping leaves off a garden path when his broom sent a pebble flying. The pebble struck a thick timber bamboo with a sharp clack!

The sound penetrated Kyogen’s consciousness, and in an instant his mind was unclouded. All the book-learning, all the acquired wisdom, was gone. His realization of the world and his place in it almost caused him to conk out. Instead he laughed until tears ran down his cheeks.

“Of course,” he said aloud. “Of course.” And he bowed in the direction of his former teacher, Isan.

“Distinguished master,” Kyogen said, “I thank you with my entire being. Years ago if you had explained to me the question of what is my real self, the self that existed before I was born your words would have been altogether wasted. Now I know.”

Years later Kyogen posed his koan of a man hanging from a tree branch by his teeth. What does the man do when he’s asked a compelling question?

This was the dilemma in which Kyogen found himself when, with all of his learning, he was unable to answer Isan’s question about his real self. Like the man in the tree, Kyogan had nothing to grab. Books and lecture notes were worthless. Any witty words he might have said would have been inept and would have led to his downfall.

Kyogen composed a verse celebrating his experience:

One clack made me forget my erudition.

What kind of sound was it?

A stone suddenly turned itself into gold.

So, what is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?


Zen koans make fascinating reading. Some koans are long, some short. They might be unambiguous or they might be enigmatic. They may be poetical in their language or earthy.

The first collection of koans was compiled more than a thousand years ago, and it numbered some fifty verbal paradoxes known as cases. Today there are thousands of koans, and they continue to multiply without being assigned case numbers.

That reminds me of a professor I had for college English. He was adamant about writers using the word “case” when they meant an instance of something or a condition. For example, saying “In case it rains….” rather than “If it rains….” He would shout, “Only whisky comes in cases.”

As I said, koans are verbal paradoxes, brain teasers that have no real solution. Conversely, a single koan may have dozens of answers, all of them satisfactory. Koans are challenges intended to boggle the mind until the mind stops functioning in a rational manner and grasps concepts intuitively.

Working out a koan logically is not comprehending it. A koan must have intuitive meaning.

Paraphrasing one writer, koans are reminders that existence isn’t rational. Things don’t always make sense, and life isn’t always understandable.

A koan may seem ludicrous. But doesn’t life sometimes seem ridiculous? Why are there wars? Why do good people die young?

My father was not a Zen person. In fact he probably never even heard of Zen. But he was a genius at coming up with questions that could very well be koans because of their absurdity. One example I remember pondering for days: Why is a duck?

Understanding, catching hold, perception. These are some of the terms for Zen awakening. Awakening doesn’t come with logical reasoning because Western logic is like dividing something in half repeatedly. There’s no end.

Zen master Robert Aitken (The Gateless Barrier) mentions that perception has no end either. Nor does it have any beginning. Perception is now, and now opens the entire universe. In that instant you become intimate with all existence. That’s Zen.

Zen isn’t magic. It’s not mystical. It’s not supernatural. Zen is the air we breathe and the smell of rain. Zen is ordinary fact.

Aitken states that koans are “… stories and verses that present fundamental perspectives on life and no-life, the nature of the self, [and] the relationship of the self to the earth….”

When you encounter a koan, through reading it or hearing it, the koan will immediate sense or else it will baffle you. If it baffles it will wedge in your mind like a chunk of a peanut lodges in your throat. It will nag at you, and you’ll find yourself thinking about the darn thing maybe not every minute but at unexpected times.

You’ll be backing your car out of a parking space, watching your rearview mirror for crazy drivers, and all of a sudden a neon sign will flash in your brain. “What is the sound of mu?”

If you back into another car, you’ll know the sound of mu.

In Rinzai Zen koans are all-important because they’re considered essential steps on the path to enlightenment. Soto Zen doesn’t emphasize enlightenment as a goal, so it doesn’t regard koans a means to an end. Nevertheless, koans are thought-provoking, and as long as you don’t become attached to them they can be illuminating.

Koans, Zen brush paintings, and haiku are all Zen inspired. They differ widely in their form, but they’re related in that each leaves an empty space. That empty space requires you, the observer, to participate for fulfillment.

A koan may relate a story or a legend. One tells about an old fellow who was reborn five hundred times as a fox because he was unable to answer the question of whether an enlightened person fell under the law of cause and effect,

Koans may describe a verbal exchange that at the outset makes perfect sense but ends in apparent foolishness. Case 33 is a good example.

A monk asked Ma-tsu, “What is Buddha?”

Ma-tsu answered, “Not mind, not Buddha.”

Figure that out. No, don’t try to figure it out. Either you get it, or you don’t.

A koan may pose a question, as in the following.

“When you meet someone accomplished in the Tao, do not make your greeting with words or with silence. How will you make your greeting?”

Saturday, June 02, 2007


Is Zen a religion, a faith, a creed? No, three times.

Is Zen a philosophy, a system of thought? No, and no again.

Is Zen Buddhism? Just plain no.

So what is Zen?

Zen is Zen. Nothing more, nothing less.

All this is implicitly understood in most of Asia, whose ways of thought are poles apart from those in the western world. Westerners are confused by the relation between religion and philosophy, and between Zen and Buddhism, neither of which is a religion or a philosophy, or a faith.

Most Westerners think of Zen as being Buddhist, which it is and it isn’t. Such contradictions are difficult for the Western mind raised on reason, on logic, and on the belief in the power of something other than one’s own being.

Westerners want to know if Zen makes one a better person. The answer is, not necessarily.

The same goes for Buddhism.

Some Zen masters, and many Zen monks—not to mention plenty of casual practitioners—are selfish, or venal, or bigoted. I personally know one Buddhist master who is bigheaded and arrogant.

In this talk—and in any other talk—I’m not out to emphasize the contrasts between Zen and Buddhism, or to say one is better than the other. I’m merely presenting some background that may help you understand what Zen is and what Buddhism is, and a few of the links that may or may not sometimes join them.

There is an implied contradiction in the term “Zen Buddhism” in that Buddhism hints at morality, and Zen goes way beyond morality. To use a fashionable word, Zen transcends morals, ethics, and integrity.

Zen becomes moral by becoming—another fashionable Zen


The Buddha himself hinted that right thinking, that is, self realization, was the way to enlightenment.

R.H. Blyth suggests (Zen and Zen Classics, Volume One) that this sort of interpretation can be chicken-and-egg thinking.

Question: Which came first? A chicken, or an egg? Can there be a chicken without an egg, or an egg without a chicken?

Zen’s would answer “yes,” “either,” “neither,” or “both.”

Buddhism says that suffering is the lot of all humanity. Christianity says that sin is the lot of humanity because sin is a subjective concept. Westerners can identify with sin because in this part of the world the ministers and priests, who are supposedly beyond sin, claim to know what sin is and can tell us all about it.

Buddhism asserts that life is suffering, and the misery is caused by desires and our wants. We want more money, or a better situation in life, or romance, and because we may not receive these wants when we crave them we become frustrated. We suffer.

Question: But what about the desire to help others, the desire for love, as opposed to romance, the desire to know ourselves?

Question: Does the desire to change the world include the desire to change oneself? If so, is that a self-seeking desire? And if that’s so, is it a bad desire?

Yes, or no?

Neither Buddhism nor Zen speaks of “good” or “bad,” so there is no yes or no answer to that question.

Most so-called religions preach renunciation. Rejection of one sort of mischief or another. In living a full life of self-knowledge, just what are we supposed to reject? If we are looking at springtime’s green leaf buds, are we to reject them? When the frog jumps into the pond, are we to reject the “plop”?

Is total rejection of the world an answer to escaping suffering? Is annihilation an answer?

Blyth suggests asceticism is found in every so-called religion, and is common in individuals who are bare and empty to start with.

“The desire to be nothing is particularly common among those who are already practically nothing.”

This has nothing to do with the Zen way of giving value to every second of our lives and every thing in it. A wildlower, the sound of a bell, the taste of pure water.

Zen is Zen. Buddhism is Buddhism, and one big difference is that Buddhism is an “ism,” which is defined as a doctrine, a system of morality.

According to one legend, Zen had its start in India when Guatama Siddhartha—now known as the Buddha, or “The awakened one”—was speaking to a gathering of people. At one point he paused and held up a single flower. No one understood except one of his followers—Mahakasyapa—who smiled, supposedly in comprehension. This silent teaching is claimed to be the first transmission of Zen from one person to another.

It’s a nice story, isn’t it? However, there’s no historical record of the event, so the tale shouldn’t be swallowed in one gulp.

D.T. Suzuki mentions that back in those days there was a reason for the invention of such a legend. Then, as now, there were many schools of Buddhism. How ever Zen started, as it grew and attracted more followers, other schools became resentful and criticized it as having no authorized records of any sort of direct transfer.

No paperwork.

But Mahakasyapa became known as the second patriarch of Zen, and the transmission continued for many years, down through a lineage of further patriarchs to the 28th, who we know as Bodhidharma.

That name itself is somewhat suspect because it’s so perfect as to be a cliché. Bodhi is the name of the tree Guatama Siddhartha was sitting under when he was enlightened, and Dharma is the entire teaching of the Buddha. Put the two words together and you have the idealistic handle, “Bodhidharma.”

Anyway, Bodhidharma supposedly left India to bring Buddhist teachings to China.

To wind this up, Zen had, and has, nothing in the way of doctrine. It isn’t a philosophy, or a collection of beliefs, or a bunch of convictions.

Zen is simply a direct expression of one’s inner life.

And one’s inner life is something each person has to find out for him or her self.

If all of this double-talk leaves you with more questions than answers, that is good.