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.


Blogger jackdibenedetto said...

I enjoy your site. I think I'm moving closer and closer to Zen. You site is very helpful.

Sunday, December 07, 2008 10:00:00 AM  

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