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Zen Meditation: It's not what you think!

Zen Koans

The popular definition of zen seems to be anything that intentionally doesn't make sense. If it's absurd or illogical, it must be zen. I think this idea is popular largely because of what people have heard about zen koans. What is the sound of one hand? Or What is Buddha? 3 pounds of flax. Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? The oak tree in the garden.

Maybe these stories and sayings baffle us or maybe we find them curious, or maybe they are proof that zen is a fraud and anybody who talks enough nonsense can call themselves a zen master. Don't get your hopes up because I'm not going to be able to clear all this up for you. But I'll still talk about it a little.

From the very beginning Zen was described as

A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not based upon words or letters;
Directly pointing to the mind
Seeing into one’s true nature, attaining the Buddha way.
And yet here I have a few books of koans, texts that are specifically linked to zen Buddhism. It looks like there are a lot of words and letters!

One of the monumental accomplishments of early Chinese Buddhism was the translation from Sanskrit into Chinese of hundreds of Buddhist texts and sutras. This began about 150 CE and continued for literally hundreds of years. Some of the best known translations were taking place in the first part of the 5th century. So there was scripture study going on in China before the arrival of Bodhidharma around 500 CE and there was still a strong impetus to translate sutras into Chinese for study. I'm sure that copies of the sutras were rare, but they did exist and presumably wealthy patrons would have copies made.

After arriving in China Bodhidharma met Emperor Wu, a great patron of Buddhism. The emperor said, “I have built temples and ordained many monks, what merit have I earned for this?” Bodhidharma replied, “None whatsoever.” The emperor asked, “Then what is the highest meaning of the holy truths of Buddhism?” and Bodhidharma said “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” The emperor, perhaps a little angrily, challenged the monk, “Who is this standing in front of me?” And Bodhidharma responded “I don't know.”

This was not a scholarly discussion, not a story of explaining some philosophical or intellectual point. This was a face to face meeting, unpredictable and immediate. Imagine you are the emperor, you are looking for some recognition and reassurance like all of us do, and instead of getting what you think you deserve, this stranger pulls the rug right out from under you. According to the tradition, this was the very beginning of zen in China.

But the “special transmission outside the scriptures” that zen talks about goes back to the time of S B himself. At vulture peak the Buddha twirled a flower. Mahakashapa smiled. The Buddha said, “I have the treasury of the true dharma eye. .. I now entrust this to Mahakashapa.” Here again, a face to face, personal encounter. This one is more tranquil than the story of Bodhidharma and the emperor, but no less intimate or unpredictable. Did you feel your lips smiling when you heard it?

Stories like this must have circulated among the monks, and new stories would have been added. Eventually they would have been collected and written down. Teachers would re-tell them to illustrate a point. Eventually collections were made, the best known ones from the 12th & 13th century are these 3: Shoyoroku or The Book of Serenity, Hekiganroku or the Blue Cliff Record, & Mumonkan or the Gateless Gate. The two stories that I just told you appear in these books as well as many other stories of the ancient Chinese teachers. And several stories appear more than once in different collections, often in slightly different versions. The individual stories themselves were called gongan in Chinese which means “public case.” In Japanese gongan became koan.

A Public case is like a legal precedent. Today we use legal precedents as a way to save ourselves from having to study something fresh if someone before us has already done that for us. Koans, I think, are just the opposite of that. They say, “Look! In these stories our zen ancestors met face to face and the sparks flew! How about us?”

We can relate to these stories and identify with the characters in them. We can smile or have the rug pulled out or both. We can be left wondering. And we can grow and deepen our practice in this way. Not explaining or trying to understand, but putting ourselves there, breathing the same air. As ancient and modern zen teachers are fond of saying, having our eyebrows tangled up with theirs. Face to face until there aren't 2 faces any more, or even 1 face, but just this. Questioning, not in order to find an answer or solution, but just questioning, just meeting our lives with great attention and awareness. Not trying to run away when we're bored or uncomfortable and not trying to stop the world when we're feeling happy or satisfied. Not looking for an answer, the answer, but continuously being the activity of responding.

We don't really know how the ancient Chinese masters used these koans in their teaching. We do know that one master felt that the stories were being mis-used or misunderstood and so he burned the Blue Cliff Record.

We usually hear that the tradition of Rinzai zen uses koans and that soto zen does not, but this is not exactly true. In the Rinzai tradition a student is assigned a koan by their teacher. When the student goes to the teacher for a formal interview, they present a response to their koan. Time after time their response is rejected by the teacher and time after time the student returns to present a new response. Finally the student may present what the teacher considers to be an authentic response. Once that happens, the teacher assigns another koan to the student and off they go. I said the teacher gives a koan to the student, but the real practice is for the student to give themselves completely to the koan. This is the style of koan training developed by Hakuin, a great Japanese zen master of the 18th century. And it's the style of training with koans that is used in Rinzai zen today. Many zen teachers have specific curricula of koans that a student is assigned one after the other, until they have finished them all.

Modern Soto Zen teachers do not use koans in this way, but they still do study them and use them as teaching stories. After all many of the classic koans feature teachers from the Chinese Caodong (Japanese soto) tradition.

Eihei Dogen Zenji was the great Japanese monk who brought Soto Zen to Japan in the first part of the 13th century. He went to China as a young monk where he sought out and studied with one of the great teachers of the time. It is said that on his last day in China, he came across a copy of the Hekiganroku and he was so moved and impressed by it that he stayed up all night copying it before leaving the country. Dogen's writing is full of references to the classic koans. One of Dogen's most influential writings is called GenjoKoan which can be translated as “The koan of the present moment.” It challenges us to realize ourselves in this present moment and to completely give ourselves to out activity with the same intimacy authenticity and openness, and the same spirit of deep questioning that we read about in the stories of the ancient masters.

© 2006, Burai Rick Spencer

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