Questions & Koans

Zen

Rinzai 97

Followers of the Way, you take the words that issued from the mouths of old teachers, saying “This is the true Way, this old sage is wonderful; I am but an ordinary fellow and dare not compare myself with such great masters.” Blind fools! Your whole life you hold such views, going against your two intact eyes, trembling like asses on ice, your teeth clenched with fear. I am not afraid of producing karma by speaking ill of masters.

Commentary:

You should not cling to the shapes of masters and their words however plausible they may sound. The historical Buddha, to prevent people from attaching themselves to his form and his words, taught them to kill him when they met him and, on his deathbed, he said that he had never spoken even a single word. Believing that you are inferior to the Buddha and great masters, clinging to their forms and words is going against the Buddha’s teaching that you are no less great than the Buddha and ancient great masters. ‘Going against your two intact eyes’ means failing to see things as they are, and ‘trembling like asses on ice, your teeth clenched with fear’ implies to be deluded by illusions. ‘I am not afraid of producing karma by speaking ill of masters’ means that master Rinzai himself is free from being deluded by the illusions of ‘masters’ and ‘karma’. In the same sense, many ancient masters would say to their students, “You should be able to scold and blame the Buddha and patriarchs.”

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Zen

Q. Can Nirvana be created and destroyed?

A. Nirvana that has been as it is, as the foundation of all things since time immemorial, can be neither created nor destroyed. We have been there all the time and are there even at this moment. There is no escaping from it even for a moment because everything, including us, is also part of it.

The reason why we cannot enjoy it is not that we are not there, but that we are not aware that we are already there, owing to us being deluded by illusions. So, people who are struggling to enter Nirvana are compared to those who are looking for their houses in their living rooms.

We can realise the truth that we are in Nirvana only when we are free from being deluded by illusions. Therefore, being fooled by illusions can be likened to destroying Nirvana. 

Student: “How can I enter Nirvana?”

Master: “It breaks if you try to enter it.”

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Zen

Where have all the ancient masters gone now?

When a monk said to Master Namwon, “Where have all the ancient masters gone now?”, the master answered, “They have gone either to Heaven or Hell.” The monk asked again, “What about you then?” The master said, “Do you know what I mean?”

Student: “What did the master mean by ‘Do you know what I mean?’?”

Master: “If the monk didn’t know where the master was, the monk was not where the master was although they seemed to be together.”

Commentary:

Being with a rich person is quite different from being rich.

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Zen

Rinzai 96

Do you not know that he who is right now listening to the Dharma is the true-Self? How would you attain and make it majestic by practising?  It is neither what can be attained by practising nor what can be made majestic. Moreover, if it would be exalted, then everything could be exalted. Do not be deceived.

Commentary:

He who is right now listening to this talk is none other than the true-Self you are struggling to find. In fact, you not only need not but also cannot attain the true-Self because it is none other than you yourself. That is why ancient masters would say, “The true-Self is neither what can be attained nor what can be lost. If you think you attained it, it is not the true-Self but just an illusion of it.”  Trying to approach it is like making futile effort to approach yourself. It follows that the harder you try to approach yourself, the further you become from realising what yourself is.

The true-Self is perfection itself. If someone tries to make it majestic or more beautiful, he will defile it rather than make it so, since ‘majestic’ or ‘beautiful’ is a kind of illusion. That is why an ancient master said, “Don’t soil it with ‘pure’,” when he was asked, “How can I keep it pure?” ‘If it would be exalted, then everything could be exalted’ means that everything we see and hear is no other than the true-Self that cannot be exalted.

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Zen

Q. Could it be that Buddha’s followers have misinterpreted his teaching and therefore lead people into greater confusion and suffering?

A. This question can be applied not only to Buddhism but also to all other religions, and no one can deny the likelihood of this being the case. Each of us makes his or her judgements depending on what he or she is. That’s why there are various religions and even diverse interpretations of the same scriptures. People can only understand within the limits of their own capacity.

What is certain is that Buddhism is not a religion that induces people into begging for happiness from an imaginary deity that does not exist but a religion that helps them to realise the fact that they are happiness itself and perfection itself, by enabling them to see things as they are. That is why the historical Buddha said to his students, “He who tries to see me through shapes and sounds cannot see me”, and ancient masters advised their students to kill the Buddha upon meeting him, in order to prevent people from idolising the image of Buddha.

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Zen

Zhaozhou’s ‘Eye That Grasps the Universe’

Zhaozhou said, “The eye that grasps the universe is so perceptive that it does not miss even a single thin thread. I want you to see into this. How do you understand it?”

Student: “What is the eye that grasps the universe?”

Master: “It neither opens nor closes.”

Commentary:

It sees everything in the daytime as clearly as at midnight.

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Zen

Rinzai 95

A patriarch said: “If you see quietude by staying in the heart, if you behold the outside by arousing the heart, if you make the inside clear by composing the heart, and if you enter Samadhi by concentrating the heart on one, all these are just to manipulate the heart.”

Commentary:

The state free of illusions is referred to as Samadhi which is another name of Emptiness. Having ideas such as ‘quietude’ ‘heart’ ‘outside’ ‘inside’ and ‘enter Samadhi’ is making illusions that block your view of Samadhi. That is why Master Rinzai said all these are just to manipulate the heart, which means that all these are just to make illusions.

Samadhi is not what can be entered because we are already Samadhi itself. Trying to enter Samadhi is as vain as trying to enter the earth. Realising that you are Samadhi itself, by removing all illusions, is enlightenment. Therefore, ancient masters said that whatever can be entered is not Samadhi and whoever can be met is not the Buddha.

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Zen

Q. Where does the karmic force reside? How can I escape from it?

A. It resides where this question is from. Where was this question prior to being asked by you in this way? If you can know where it was, you can know where the karmic force resides because not only asking this question but also reading this answer is the karmic force.

Only when you are aware of where the karmic force is can you escape from it since the reason why we cannot escape from it is that we don’t know what it is and where it is. To realise where the karmic force is, is enlightenment because seeing what the karmic force is, is seeing the true-Self, since the karmic force is also the function of the true-Self. In conclusion, the way to escape from the karmic force is to attain enlightenment.

Student: “Where does the karmic force reside?”

Master: “Where did your question come from?”

Student: “How can I escape from it?”

Master: “See it clearly.”

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Zen

Yaoshan’s ‘Birth of a Calf’

One night at the monastics’ hall of Zen master Weiyan of Yaoshan there was no lamp. The master said to the assembly, “I have a single phrase. When the iron ox gives birth to a calf, then I’ll tell you.”

A monastic in the assembly came forth and said, “An iron ox has just given birth to a calf. Still, you haven’t said it.” Yaoshan said, “Light the lamp.” The monastic returned to his seat.

Student: “What did the monastic mean when he said, ‘An iron ox has just given birth to a calf’?”

Master: “He said the master’s single phrase.”

Student: “Why did the master say, ‘Light the lamp’?”

Master: “In order to help the assembly to see clearly what the monastic showed.”

Commentary:

Iron oxen are giving birth to calves here and there and the calves’ cries are very noisy.

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Zen

Rinzai 94

There are shaven pates who eat their fill and then sit down to do sitting meditation. They arrest the flow (of the heart) and do not let it act. They dislike noise and seek quietude. These are the practices of other ways.

Commentary:

This part is advice for the people who are attached to sitting in a quiet place whilst regarding it as Zen practice, with the mistaken belief that to stop thinking is enlightenment.

‘They arrest the flow (of the heart) and do not let it act’ implies trying to stop thinking in order to cease to making illusions or to remove illusions. Thinking of this as right practice leads us to dislike noise and into being attached to quietude. You should know that the Buddhist way of ceasing to make, or to remove illusions is not to stop thinking but to realise that all illusions are empty, or that all illusions are the function of the true-Self. ‘These are the practices of other ways’ means that to arrest the flow (of the heart) and not to let it act is not the practice of Buddhism.

Student: “How can I get a lotus amidst flames?”

Master: “Flames are no other than the lotus.”

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