Questions & Koans

Zen

Q. What does Zen say about coping with the passing of your wife, or husband?

A. There is a scripture that Buddha said on his deathbed so that he might teach his students how to see death. He said, “Take a close look at me. Those who think that I perish are not my students, but those who think that I don’t perish are not students as well.”

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In Zen, Buddhism, we see everything as empty. When everything is empty, not only death but also birth is empty. This means that death is not death and birth is not birth. In other words, everything is to Emptiness as winds are to air. Birth is compared to a wind coming into being and death is to the wind stopping. What is certain is that air, the essence of wind, is still where it was, not disappearing, although the wind stops. The disappearance of a wind never means the disappearance of air that is the essence of wind.

 

©Boo Ahm

 

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

 

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Zen

All the masters you met in other places are imposters

A monk visited a Master after meeting a lot of well-known masters around the country and told him what he had heard from them. The master said, “All the masters you met in other places are imposters.” The monk, very surprised, said, “How can you say so? Did you go to see all of them?” The master said, “Thanks to you.”

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Student: “Why did the Master speak ill of all the other masters whom the monk had met by calling them imposters?”

Master: “Because the monk saw only imposters without meeting the masters even though he visited them.”

 

Commentary:

Don’t mistake seeing an imposter for seeing the Buddha.

That is to disgrace the Buddha.

 

©Boo Ahm

 

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

 

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Zen

Rinzai 56

Followers of the Way, what Dharma do I expound? I expound the Dharma of the Mind. This pervades everything; it is in the worldly and in the sacred, in the pure and in the impure. The most essential thing is that you refrain from making labels, such as fine or coarse, worldly or sacred, and mistakenly think that by naming them you now know them. But the fine and the coarse, the worldly and the sacred cannot be known to man by such names only. Followers of the Way, realise this and make use of it as you please, but do not slap labels on it, for this is called deep meaning.

 

Commentary:

The worldly and the sacred, the pure and impure and the fine and the coarse, all these, regardless of whether they are good or bad, are not real but just imaginary lines created by your discrimination, that is, they are just labels. But people mistake names attached to things as being the essence of these things and so are entangled in them.

 

When all labels are removed, with there being no good and bad, no long and short, all things, when stripped of their names, become one. That is the Dharma of the Mind-ground called the Buddha, the true-Self, Emptiness, or Oneness. In short, enlightenment is to be able to see and hear things without being deluded by their names.

 

‘Realise this and make use of it as you please’ means that when you realise the Dharma, the true-Self by eliminating all labels, you can see, hear and feel it anytime as you please because you are aware that there is nothing but the Dharma. Then, what you say and do is the function of the Dharma and all you see and hear is also not anything but the Dharma.

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Student: “How is it when all labels are removed?”

Master: “Everything mentioned above disappears.”

Student: “If all the teachings disappear, what shall I learn and depend on?”

Master: “When all that you will learn and depend on has disappeared, the Dharma reveals itself.”

Student: “How can everything exist when there is nothing to depend on?”

Master: “Don’t be worried. The Dharma supports all mountains and oceans even though it has no bone.”

 

©Boo Ahm

 

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

 

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Zen

When the year changes, I feel depressed since it reminds me that I am ageing with the rest of my life decreasing.

As mentioned previously, everything is empty, that is, not real but imaginary. Time is one of representative examples illustrating this fact. Time, as you see, is only imaginary and it is invisible and intangible. This is why it can be possible that it is 4 p.m. in Seoul when it is 7 a.m. in London and 2 a.m. in New York.

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Thinking that the rest of our lives dwindles as we are getting older every year is just like picking up a hair of a turtle from a box made of the horn of a rabbit and putting it in another box made of the horn of a rabbit. Although it seems as if the number of the hairs of the turtle in the former box were reducing and  that of the latter box were increasing, nothing is happening in fact because there is no such things as the hair of a turtle and the horn of a rabbit.

 

Student: “How old are you?”

Master: “I have no calendar.”

 

©Boo Ahm

 

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

 

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Zen

Jojoo’s ‘cannot tell you the Dharma in the toilet’

One day Master Jojoo was in the toilet when he saw one of his students Moon-won passing by. He called, “Moon-won.” When Moon-won answered, “Yes”, Jojoo said, “I cannot tell you the Dharma in the toilet.”

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Student: “Why did the master call his student monk, Moon-won?”

Master: “He did his job as his master.”

Student: “Why did he say that he couldn’t tell the teaching of Buddha in the toilet?”

Master: “He was so talkative that he added a commentary to his former teaching.”

 

Commentary:

The Dharma can be told neither in the toilet nor in the Buddha hall.

 

©Boo Ahm

 

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

 

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Zen

Rinzai 55

What is Dharma? Dharma is the Dharma of the Mind. The Dharma of the Mind is without form; pervading everywhere, it is perceptible and active right before your eyes. But, people, lacking in complete faith, mistake names and concepts for it. They try to find the Buddha or Dharma in the text through their knowledge and speculate on the Buddha or Dharma which is as different from the true Buddha as the heaven and the earth are far away from each other.

 

Commentary:

‘Dharma is the Dharma of the Mind’ means that the Dharma is no other than the Mind which has various names such as the Dharma, the Buddha, the true-Self and Emptiness. The Dharma of the Mind is formless, but every form we can perceive is that of the Dharma, just as every wind we feel is the way the air is even though it is formless. There is nothing else other than the Dharma and even we ourselves are part of the Dharma. All we hear and see is just the Dharma and we can’t avoid seeing and hearing it even for a moment. ‘Complete faith’ means enlightenment. ‘Mistake names and concepts for it’ implies believing that the image of the Buddha brought up by names and concepts is the Buddha. So, ancient masters would say, “If you see the Buddha, kill him” in order to prevent people from being deluded by names and concepts. The Dharma can be seen only when all names, labels, or words which are imaginary lines are removed. Trying to find the Buddha in the text which consists of names, concepts and knowledge is building a barrier of bricks of words before your eyes, which prevents you from seeing the Dharma.

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Student: “What shall we do with the Sutras if we should not try to find the Buddha in the text?”

Master: “Don’t read the Sutras, because they are not texts but gates. The former is for reading and the latter is for entering.”

 

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All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

 

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Zen

Q. How can we escape from karma, cause and effect?

A. Karma is another Buddhist name for cause and effect. Whatever you may do, you cannot escape from causation. Although it is said that good deeds bear good karma and bad deeds yield bad karma, we cannot tell the former from the latter more often than not since the line between them is blurred. Sometimes the deeds we think of as being good can unexpectedly cause negative effects. Doing nothing has the effect of doing nothing. You can escape from karma even momentarily no more than you can avoid your shadow on a sunny day.

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Our problem is to be deluded by the shadows of us. We strive in vain to catch the shadows that look attractive to us and to run away from the ones that look unfavourable to us by all means possible. Attaining enlightenment doesn’t mean that all the shadows disappear but it means that we realise that the shadows are not real but just illusionary. When we have realised that they are illusionary, we are neither lured into struggling to catch them, however brilliant they may appear nor are we fooled into being so scared as to fall into mental turmoil, however terrible they may look.

 

©Boo Ahm

 

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Zen

Dongshan and Shenshan Cross the River

Zen master Sengmi of Shenshan crossed a river with his dharma brother Dongshan.

Dongshan said, “Don’t make a mistake with your steps and slip into the current.”

Shenshan said, “If I make a mistake with my steps, then I won’t live to cross the river.”

Dongshan said, “What is the state without mistakes?”

Shenshan said, “Crossing the river with the elder.”

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Student: “Who is the elder whom Shenshan said he crossed the river with?”

Master: “He is sitting with you.”

Student: “Who do you mean? Why can’t I see him?”

Master: “Because you slipped into the current.”

 

Commentary:

One man is enjoying swimming and the other man is drowning in the same river.

 

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All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

 

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Zen

Rinzai 54

All the Buddhas and patriarchs in the ten directions of the Three Worlds have appeared only for the purpose of seeking the Dharma. And today’s diligent Followers of the Way are also seeking the Dharma. Only when one has got it is there an end to reincarnation. As long as one has not got it, one transmigrates through the five paths.

 

Commentary:

‘The ten directions of the Three Worlds’ means endless time and space, with ‘the Three Worlds’ implying the past, the present and the future.

‘All the Buddhas and patriarchs in the ten directions of the Three Worlds have appeared only for the purpose of seeking the Dharma’ means that all of them are just expedients created for the purpose of helping practitioners to seek the Dharma. So, we practitioners who are also seeking the Dharma, should see all of them just as empty instead of being deluded by the illusions of them.

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‘The five paths’, more usually six paths, implies six stages of the cycle of reincarnation determined according to our good deeds and bad deeds; heavenly being, human, fighting demons, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell. All these are also just illusions that we meet with when we can’t see things as they are. These stages are not what we will go through only after death. All people belong to one of the stages at every moment and transmigrate two or three stages even during one day.

 

Student: “How can I escape from the six paths?”

Master: “Don’t be deceived by the Buddhas and patriarchs, and the six paths.”

 

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All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

 

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Zen

Q. Can animals go to Heaven?

A. Can you yourself go to Heaven? If you know clearly whether or not you will go to heaven, the answer to your question will work itself out. What you should be committed to at this moment is realising what Heaven is, that is, what it is like and where it is. This is because Heaven belongs to those who can recognise it. The Sutras say that if you attain enlightenment, the whole universe attains enlightenment along with you. In other words, when you can go to Heaven, all other things can also enter Heaven along with you. If you do hope animals go to Heaven, you yourself, first of all, should go to Heaven.

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Student: “Are you in Heaven now?”

Master: “Why don’t you know where I am while you are with me now?”

Student: “I still don’t know where you are.”

Master: “If you don’t know where I am, it means that you are not where I am.”

 

©Boo Ahm

 

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

 

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