Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Here is a short koan from Cleary’s The Blue Cliff Record:
A monk asked Yun Men, “What is talk that goes beyond Buddhas and Patriarchs?”
Men said, “Cake.”

Think about it.

* * * * *
The Zen koan is not some sort of magic spell. Nor is it a string of verbal mumbo-jumbo. It’s an age-old teaching tool that originated in ancient China in the Ch’an school of Buddhism, and was passed on to Japan in the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen.
Zen koans are anecdotes that may seem simple but are enigmatic and hard to pin down.
In ancient days students might present a master with a question that related to Zen. The master could usually discern a student’s state of mind and could tell if the query represented a mental or emotional crisis. The master might provide a direct answer, but more often than not would give a response aimed at clarifying the novice’s thinking.
Over the centuries, many of the questions and answers were recorded. Unfortunately, these questions and answers invited scholars to analyze them and tack on a rational meaning. That is, intellectuals couldn’t leave well enough alone.
Fortunately, this didn’t mean the death of a koan. Koans have survived, and ancient questions and answers have been added to modern ones without too much harm.
The numbers of koans are countless because more old ones are being discovered, and new ones are being planted. One of the best collections is The Blue Cliff Record, translated by Thomas and J.C. Cleary. It’s a two-inch-thick, weighty volume containing one-hundred cases, as well as detailed biographies of the eminent Ch’an masters
There are, as well, bare-bone collections of Zen koans, the koans themselves and little else. Then there are collections that present a koan—often called a “case”—as well as a clarification, a verse, a capping phrase, a note, and a pointer.
All these trappings have been plugged into the bare-bones to increase the potential of the koans. They are intended to help a person work with the original story.
In approaching a koan, if the extras are not taken too seriously they may be a help, On the other hand, if they are leaned on, they may be a hindrance to one’s personal discovery.
Keep in mind that koan commentaries, verses, capping phrases, notes, pointers, and other add-ons are only fingers pointing to the moon. They are not the moon and should be taken with a pound of salt.
Over the years masters and scholars have included commentaries, and other sages have commented on the comments. Some take issue with a koan, while others totally agree. All this doesn’t matter because any koan can have dozens of different “answers,” none of them entirely right or entirely wrong.
Most of the recorded commentaries come from Wu-men, also known as Mumon. He was a thirteenth century Rinzai master who lived from 1183 to 1260. He never staying in one temple for long, and as a nomadic teacher he was called “Hui-k’ai, the lay monk.
Wu-men named forty-eight cases, or koans, and said in a verse that The Great Way has no gate.”
Wu-men wrote that the Buddha mind and words point the way, that the Gateless Barrier is the Dharma entry.
Then he went on to contradict himself, which is the prerogative of all Zen masters and teachers.
Wu-men said, “There is no gate from the beginning, so how do you pass through it? . . . foolish are those who depend upon words, and seek understanding by their intellect! When such individuals have itchy feet, they scratch their shoes.”
Contrasting to The Blue Cliff Record in size and in features, the book Zen Koans, compiled by Gyomay Kubose, founder of Chicago’s Buddhist’s Education Center, is a smallish volume. It contains a limited number of cases that are arranged in eight categories simply for easier reading.
However, the compiler reminds us that all koans are in then same category: finding the true self.
Robert Aitken, in The Gateless Barrier, hinted that there are no fast rules in koans, as in all of Zen. There is no right, no wrong.
Aitken wrote that . . . “every event is a path on that Great Way: the advice of a friend, the song of the thrush . . . , the smell of rain in dusty fields.”

* * * * *
Here is a koan from Kubose’s Zen Koans:
A monk asked Baso, ‘What is Buddha?”
Baso answered, “This mind is not Buddha.”

Think about it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


When it comes to Zen practice, I’m not an advocate of following formulas. In Zen, there is no standard operating procedure, no how-to-do-it.

However, the distinguished translator of Asian philosophy, Thomas Cleary, suggests, in his book Unlocking the Zen Koan, an exceptional five-step way to reading a koan. It isn’t a magic recipe, it isn’t a sure-fire formula, and it sure isn’t a shortcut to enlightenment.

It is one way.

To quote Cleary, “. . . Zen texts need to be read several times, in different states of mind, to achieve the degrees of absorption and penetration required to produce the optimum effect.”

He goes on to note that koans do not open up to a logical approach, or to analytical methods of understanding.

Here, in a truncated form, are Cleary’s five steps to reading a Zen koan.

1. Read no more than one or two koans at a time. Include the accompanying verses, but do not read any explanations. Read quickly, avoiding the tendency to read between the lines. No matter how tempting, do not predict, or anticipate, or criticize.

2. Read the same koans again, staying focused on the present. Let your mind mirror what comes to you, without drawing any conclusions or making any judgments.

3. Read the koans again. This time read the interpretations. However, avoid agreeing or disagreeing with what ever is written. Keep an open mind, and let everything sink into it.

4. Repeat Step 3. Yes, read the koans again without puzzling over them or second-guessing.

5. Now read the koans and their interpretations once more, this time more slowly. Without trying to make sense of any thoughts, try to intuitively grasp the essence of the koans. Do not force anything. Relax, mentally and physically.

This process may work for you. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. It’s worth a try.

* * * *

At this point in my talk someone asked, “What’s the point of working with a koan?”

That is a reasonable question. But why not ask what the meaning of existing is.

Does there need to be a reason, a rationale, or a motive?

My answer was that—if nothing else—the five-step exercise might help train us to avoid bending logic and making snap judgments in order to reach an answer.

Maybe there is no answer to working with a koan. Maybe there is no point. Maybe the “doing” is reason enough.

Someone else asked me to give an example of a koan, so I quoted a favorite of Keido Fukushima, Abbot of Kyoto’s Tofukuji Monastery.

“Two men are walking together when rain starts falling. One man is wet, the other isn’t. Why not?”

Everyone smiled and thought for a moment.

Finally someone asked, “Are you going to give us the answer?”

“No,” I said. “My answer is my answer. You must find your own answer.”

And that is the point of Zen.