Again, a monk asked, “What is the essence of Buddhism?”
The master gave a Katsu.
The monk bowed.
The master said, “Tell me, was it a good Katsu or not?” The monk said: “The petty thief had a whacking defeat!” The master said, “Where then was the fault?”
The monk said, “It is not permitted to do it a second time.” The master gave a Katsu.
This is a beautiful dialogue, which is highly difficult to understand. When the monk asked, “What is the essence of Buddhism?”, Master Rinzai answered his question by giving a Katsu. The monk responded to the Katsu, the master’s answer by offering a bow. Rinzai, in order to see if the monk really knew what the Katsu implied, asked him another question, ‘Was it a good Katsu or not?’. This was a question luring the monk into falling a pit of discrimination. However, the monk was wise enough to see through what Rinzai meant, so he responded to Rinzai’s question not only politely but also wonderfully by saying, “The petty thief had a whacking defeat!”.
In the Zen community an enlightened man is referred to as a thief since he got the whole universe for nothing without being noticed. The monk lowered himself by calling himself a petty thief and admitting his defeat. However, this seemingly humble answer, you should know, implies a lot more than seen superficially. By calling himself a thief, the monk said that he was enlightened. And admitting his defeat doesn’t mean that he couldn’t grasp Rinzai’s intention, but means, “I know that even opening my mouth is the wrong to answer your question. So, I know that answering you like this is also my fault.”
Then, Master Rinzai, for the sake of reconfirmation, posed another question as sharp as a razor blade ‘Where was the fault?’, which means, “What was your fault if you admit your defeat?” However, the monk returned, ‘It is not permitted to do it a second time’ very courteously without embarrassment. This was an answer that was no less sharp than Rinzai’s question, which means, “I’ve already committed an error by opening my mouth to reveal the true-Self for courtesy’s sake, whilst aware that it was not right. If I made the same error again, I would disgrace you as well as myself.” Hearing this, Rinzai approved of the monk’s answer.
When you read this, you should put yourself in the monk’s shoes and ask yourself how you would answer if you were asked the same question.
Student: “What would you have said if you had been asked, ‘Was it a good Katsu or not?’?”
Master: “I would have said, ‘Are you good or not?’.”
All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway
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