Questions & Koans

Zen

Rinzai 143

And yet, venerable ones, you run outside carrying your bag of excrement and rush about looking for the Buddha and the Dharma. Do you know him who thus runs about seeking? He is as lively as a fish in water and has neither root nor trunk; though you try to fold it up, it never shrinks; though you try to unfold it, it doesn’t spread. The more you seek him, the further away he is; and if you do not seek him, he is right before your eyes and sounds divine in your ears. If a man has no faith in it, in vain will he labour for a hundred years his whole life.

Commentary:

‘Your bag of excrement’ implies our physical body. ‘You run outside carrying your bag of excrement’ means that we, unaware that we, including our physical body, are also part of the Buddha, wander about following words. We should know that he who is running about in search of the Buddha is none other than the Buddha. ‘Has neither root nor trunk; though you try to fold it up, it never shrinks; though you try to unfold it, it doesn’t spread’ means that he has neither body nor limbs because it is formless. This is why he neither shrinks nor spreads himself.

However, he is always active before you since there is nothing that is not him. Everything you can see, hear and feel is the Buddha. Even you yourself are part of it and can escape from it no more than winds can from air. This is why all your efforts turn out to be futile if you try to find it somewhere else other than where you are, or from something else other than what you see and hear. The core of Buddhist teaching is not how to find and reach the Buddha somewhere far away out of our sight, but how to realise that you are the Buddha or that the things in your sight and hearing are the Buddha.

Student: “What is the Buddha?”

Master: “That’s it.”

Student: “I don’t understand.”

Master: “That’s it, too.”

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Zen

Q. If enlightenment is being free from the desires and cares of this world, wouldn’t it be boring? I love having desires and want to enjoy the material world with my friends and family.

A. Does the knowledge that novels are fictional make reading them boring? Does knowing that films are just pictures projected on a screen make it boring to watch them? What would you think of someone who, not aware that a film is only projected images, stormed out of the cinema, crying that a huge monster is killing people in there?

Which do you think enjoys the film more, a person who, aware that it is not real but just illusionary, appreciates the film to its end or a person who runs away like the one mentioned above?

Becoming free from the desires and cares of this world in Buddhism doesn’t mean that you become emotionless like stone but means that you see the desires and cares of this world as empty just like watching a film. Enlightenment doesn’t deprive you of the happiness you can enjoy with your family and friends but increases it through seeing what you have failed to see about them so far.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Joshu’s ‘Take a close look at what you cannot put down’

When a monastic asked Joshu, “How is it when I have brought nothing?”, Joshu answered, “Put it down.” The monastic said, “What should I put down when I have brought nothing?” Joshu responded, “Take a close look at what you cannot put down.”

Student: “What did Joshu tell the monastic to put down?”

Master: “That is what you should put down as well.”

Commentary:

Nothing is not nothing any more the moment you speak of it.

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Zen

Rinzai 142

Venerable ones, if a student has reached this, his enlightenment is so perfect that there is no crack for even air to pass through, and a spark from flint or a flash of lightning misses the mark. If you stare around, you miss it. All deliberation of heart misses the target. All movement of thought goes to a contrary end. To those who know this, it is not separate from what is before their eyes.

Commentary:

Once one has attained enlightenment, in one’s mind there is no crack through which even an illusion so tiny that it is as invisible as air can pass. If we have even an illusion as momentary as a spark from flint, or a flash of lightning in order to see the true-Self, we will miss it. ‘Stare around’, ‘all deliberation of heart’ and ‘all movement of thought’ imply to make an effort that is as futile as trying to squeeze the juice out of pictures of oranges. To the enlightened, the true-Self that is one with themselves is clear before their eyes all the time.

Student: “How can I not have any crack in my mind?”

Master: “Your mind is a crack.”

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Zen

Q. Sometimes I get the feeling that I am the only real person in the world, there is only me and the people around me are just my ‘projections’. Is this perspective correct?

A. Seeing yourself as real while seeing others as illusions is a phenomenon that practitioners can but not must go through. Even if you see all things as well as the people around you as empty and illusionary, you are still far from enlightenment if you cannot see yourself as empty. That’s why ancient masters would say that if there is even a single thing as tiny as a grain of dust left that is not empty, it is as far away from enlightenment as the sky is from the earth.

You should realise that not only the people around you but you yourself are also a projection, an illusion. Then, there cannot be any difference between or amongst all things, including yourself, because everything is merely an illusion. This means that everything is one in essence although each thing looks and sounds different.

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Zen

Daejoo’s ‘What sutra do you teach?’

Master Daejoo said to a sutra master, “What sutra do you teach?” The sutra master answered, “I teach the Diamond Sutra.” Then, Daejoo said, “Saying that there is something the Buddha preached is finding fault with the Buddha, but saying that the sutra was not preached by the Buddha is speaking ill of the sutra. Tell me beyond these two challenges.” The sutra master couldn’t say anything.

Student: “What are the suitable words beyond the two challenges?”

Master: “When the Buddha is, his words are, but when he is not, his words are not.”

Commentary:

Calamity begins when one breaks into many.

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Zen

Rinzai 141

When students flock to me from all parts, I sort them out according to three kinds of capability. If a middling to low one comes, I snatch away the phenomena but leave him the Dharma. If one with a middling to high ability comes, I snatch away both the phenomena and the Dharma. If one with an exceptionally high ability comes, I snatch neither the phenomena nor the Dharma nor the man. And if there should come one whose understanding is beyond the norm, I act from the wholeness without bothering about capability.

Commentary:

This paragraph shows how Master Rinzai teaches students, changing his expedients according to the capacity of each student. ‘I snatch away the phenomena but leave him the Dharma’ for a middling to low one means denying the existence of all phenomena, all forms that are all things which the student sees and hears by saying that they are not real but illusionary. ‘I snatch away both the phenomena and the Dharma’ for one with a middling to high ability means denying not only the existence of everything that reaches the student’s eyes and ears but also the Dharma, the true-Self by saying that there is no such thing as the Buddha, the Dharma, or the true-Self. ‘I snatch neither the phenomena nor the Dharma nor the man’ for one with an exceptionally high ability means saying that everything, including man, is part of the true-Self instead of denying its existence. ‘If there should come one whose understanding is beyond the norm, I act from the wholeness without bothering about capability’ means that if an enlightened man comes to him, he acts as oneness with him without bothering about his capability because he has transcended all forms and all expedients are meaningless to him.

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Zen

Q. I am haunted by my past and feel as if it is holding me back from my future. Repeatedly experiencing my past trauma is very infuriating and terrible. How can I let go of the pain that I feel?

A. Being haunted by your past is not different from being haunted by the nightmare you had the previous night. Both mean that you are being deluded by illusions since you cannot bring them to the present moment even if you are offered a huge reward for it. This attests to the fact that your past is not real but imaginary and cannot inflict on you unless you are deluded by it.

One day the Second Patriarch, before his enlightenment, said to the first Patriarch Bodhidharma, his master, “My mind is still not comfortable. Please, make it comfortable.” Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind and I will make it comfortable.” The Second Patriarch answered, “I cannot find it even though I’ve looked for it diligently.” The First Patriarch responded, “I’ve made your mind comfortable now.” This means, “If you cannot find it to bring, you don’t need to be concerned about it because it is not real but just illusionary.” At these words, the Second Patriarch attained enlightenment, which means that he realised that not only his troubled mind but also what troubled his mind was just an illusion.

I’d like to advise you to redirect and focus your attention on a koan whenever you are troubled by your trauma.

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Zen

Hong-hwa’s ‘You should hit the middle’

When a monastic asked Master Hong-hwa, “What should I do when birth and death flood from all directions?”, the master answered, “You should hit the middle.”

Student: “Where is the centre?”

Master: “Make no edges.”

Commentary:

Making edges is the source of all suffering.

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Zen

Rinzai 140

But if you take the moving as the true-Self, all the grasses and trees can move and so they should be referred to as the true-Self. Therefore, what moves is wind; what does not move is earth; and neither what moves nor what does not move has its own nature. If you try to grasp it in the moving, it is in the motionless. And if you try to grasp it in the motionless, it will be in the moving. It is just the same as a fish making waves in a pool. So, venerable ones, the moving and the motionless are two types of circumstance. But the man of the Way who does not depend on anything makes use of both the moving and the motionless.

Commentary:

We should not think that the true-Self is not in any specific realm such as what moves or what doesn’t move. Regardless of whether something is moving or still, there is nothing that is not the true-Self and nowhere without the true-Self. The reason why we don’t recognise the true-Self, although we are not only surrounded by it but are also the true-Self itself and cannot escape from it even for a moment, is that we are deluded by illusions.

Movement and stillness are also illusions. Movement is to stillness as right is to left. The conception of movement is impossible without that of stillness and the other way around. This is why it is said that movement contains stillness and stillness contains movement. Trying to see the true-Self while chasing illusions such as movement, stillness, purity, holiness and so on is as fruitless as trying in vain to catch a nimble fish in a pool with bare hands.

‘The man of the Way who does not depend on anything’ implies an enlightened man who is aware that there is nothing to depend on because everything is empty. Such a person can make use of both the moving and unmoving as he pleases instead of being deluded by them since he knows that they are illusions.

©Boo Ahm

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