Questions & Koans

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Q. I don’t want to be me anymore, but I

Q. I don’t want to be me anymore, but I don’t want to be anyone else either. What then is left?

A. What you want now is what Zen meditation pursues. That is to be had when you can see everything as it is, or when you are enlightened. When you are not you and neither anyone else nor anything else, what then is left is perfection itself, eternity itself, freedom itself and beauty itself, which is your true-Self. This is called God in Christianity and the true-Self, Buddha in Buddhism.

What do you think you are now? Is there anything that is innate, not given by others among the things that define your identity? In order to achieve what you want, eliminate all labels that define you from yourself such as human being, body, mind, man, woman, American, British, tall, short and so on. Keep asking yourself what you are when you are stripped of all these labels. Being able to see and hear yourself free from such labels is enlightenment.

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Xiangyan’s Great Enlightenment Zen maste

Xiangyan’s Great Enlightenment

Zen master Xiangyan was bright in nature. Being at the assembly of Guishan, he was well learned and had extensive memory.
Guishan one day said to Xiangyan, “Everything you say is what you’ve memorised from commentaries. Now I am going to ask you a question. When you were an infant—before you could even distinguish east from west – at that time, how was it?”
Xiangyan spoke and presented his understanding, explaining the principle, but could not get approval. He went through the texts he had collected and studied, but he could not find an answer that would satisfy the master.
Deeply grieved and in tears, he burned all his books and commentaries. Then he said to himself, “I will never understand Zen in this lifetime. I will become a hermit monastic and enter a mountain and practise.”
Thus, he entered Mount Wudang and built a hut near the grave site of National Teacher Nanyang.
One day while he was sweeping the path, a pebble struck a stalk of bamboo and made a cracking sound. At that moment he suddenly had a great enlightenment experience.

Student: “How did Xiangyan get enlightened by the cracking sound of a pebble and a stalk of bamboo?”
Master: “Ask a pebble and a stalk of bamboo in person. I am not as good as them.”

Commentary:
Hear your master’s words in the same way you hear the cracking sound of a pebble and a stalk of bamboo.

©Boo Ahm

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Rinzai 12

Rinzai 12

The monk hesitated. The master released him and said: “What a
shit-stick this True Man of no Status is!” Then he withdrew to his quarters.

Commentary:
Unfortunately, the monk failed to grasp the master’s meaning despite the master’s unsparing effort. The master, having compassion for the monk, answered his question by saying, “What a shit-stick this True Man of no Status is!”

‘A shit-stick’ originates from a dialogue between a respectable master Woon-moon and a monk. When a monk asked him, “What is the Buddha?”, the master answered, “A dry shit-stick.” When the master said, “A dry shit-stick”, he meant two things: revealing the Buddha and telling people not to follow words. This is because the word ‘Buddha’ is no better than a useless label, a name like ‘a dry shit-stick’ that is just an imaginary line.

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Likewise, master Rinzai revealed the True Man of no Status in person and advised the monk not to be deluded by the words ‘True Man of no Status’ at the same time.

Student: “Why did Rinzai talk as if the True Man of no Status, the true-Self were the same as a shit-stick?”
Master: “Because a shit-stick, in essence, is not different from the True Man of no Status.”

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

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Q. We practise meditation to reach enlightenment. If the process really works, then why don’t we see any monks becoming enlightened? I even sometimes feel that enlightenment is just a figment of man’s imagination. Have we lost the true technique?

Q. We practise meditation to reach enlightenment. If the process really works, then why don’t we see any monks becoming enlightened? I even sometimes feel that enlightenment is just a figment of man’s imagination. Have we lost the true technique?

A. That you have not seen an enlightened man is one thing and whether there is an enlightened man, or not, is another. Considering that only an enlightened man can recognise the enlightened, the odds are that there is no enlightened man at all, but chances are that you have not met any of them or have failed to recognise them even though there are a lot of enlightened men.

Can you recognise an enlightened man if you should meet him now? Can you tell the enlightened apart from those who are not enlightened? What do you think the enlightened are or should be like? If you can recognise an enlightened man, you are already enlightened, or at least very close to enlightenment. However, you cannot recognise the enlightened unless you yourself are enlightened, no matter how many they may be.

There is a saying ‘If you attain enlightenment, the whole universe becomes enlightened along with you’. Don’t think that there is no enlightened man but think that you can’t recognise the enlightened. Practise hard and you will understand what the words ‘If you practise sincerely, an enlightened man appears out of nowhere and helps you’ mean.

©Boo Ahm

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Touzi’s Moon

Touzi’s Moon

Once a monastic asked Zen master Touzi, “How is it when the moon is not yet full?”
Touzi said, “It swallowed up three and four.”
The monastic said, “How is it after the moon is full?”
Touzi said, “It spat out seven and eight.”

Student: “Why is the moon not full when it swallowed up three and four while it is full when it spat out seven and eight?”
Master: “Because you swallowed.”
Student: “How can I spit out?”
Master: “Don’t swallow.”
Student: “I have nothing in my mouth. What shall I spit out?”
Master: “Your mouth.”

Commentary:
When realising that you have no mouth, you’ll realise that there is nothing to swallow up and spit out.”

©Boo Ahm

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Rinzai 11

Rinzai 11

A monk came forward and asked, “What is the True Man of no Status?”
The master descended from the meditation cushion, grabbed the monk and said: “Speak, speak!”

Commentary:
Then, a monk, not grasping Rinzai’s meaning, asked what the true-Self is. As a response to the monk’s question, the master descended from his seat, grabbed the monk and spurred him to speak. This is the scene that shows how compassionate the master was. Though he could answer the monk’s question from his seat without bothering himself to leave it, he descended from his seat for the purpose of delivering a more concrete answer. Master’s action ‘Speak, speak!’, seemingly sounding as if he were urging the monk to speak, in fact, is showing that he was taking pains to give the best answer that he could by leading him to see, hear and feel the true-Self directly at the same time.

Student: “I still don’t understand Rinzai’s answer.”
Master: “You should know that Rinzai’s answer was completed at the moment he started to move to leave his meditation cushion.”

©Boo Ahm

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Q. What is the use of Zen to the poor who are hungry?

Q. What is the use of Zen to the poor who are hungry?

A. Thinking in that way is seeing Zen practice as separate from our lives and regarding Zen as something special that only people with decent income can practise. Don’t think that Zen practice is available only when we can sit in a quiet place. People who neglect their work in excuse of Zen practice, when there is work to be done, are those who don’t know how to practise Zen. Doing our best to make enough money to support our family can be good practice as well. We should know that there are no actions that can’t be practice.

Keeping curiosity about what is making your body work while working is Zen practice. Asking yourself what is driving your body to act in the way it does when you help those in need is no other than Zen practice. Helping those in trouble while trying to see them as one with yourself is Zen practice. The best practice is to make your practice one with your life.

Student: “What dharma talk would you give if a hungry person comes to you for a dharma talk?”
Master: “I’d serve him food.”
Student: “Why do you give him food when he wants a dharma talk?”
Master: “I hope that he will look upon my serving food as a dharma talk and his eating as practice.”

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Guishan’s “Great Capacity, Great Function”

Guishan’s “Great Capacity, Great Function”

Guishan said to the assembly, “People nowadays have great capacity but do not have great function.”
Yangshan related this to a temple priest.
The temple priest kicked over a stool.
Hearing about it, Guishan burst into laughter.

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Student: “What is great capacity?”
Master: “Great function.”
Student: “What is the great function?”
Master: “Great capacity.”
Student: “Why do people nowadays have great capacity but do not have great function?”
Master: “Because they have great function but do not have great capacity.”
Student: “Why did the temple priest kick over a stool?”
Master: “Because you have great function but don’t have great capacity.”

Commentary:
Great capacity is to great function as air is to winds.

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Rinzai 10

Rinzai 10

One day from the High Seat, the master said: “Upon the lump of red flesh there is a True Man of no Status who ceaselessly goes out and in through the gates of your face. Those who have not yet recognised him, look, look!”

Commentary:
‘The lump of red flesh’ symbolises our physical body, ‘a True Man of no Status’ the true-Self, and ‘the gates of your face’ our sense organs which are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. ‘Those who have not yet recognised him’ means those who have not yet recognised the true-Self. His saying ‘Look, look!’ can sound dubious because the master didn’t specify any object to look at and this can lead people to wonder what the master was telling them to look at. However, this, as the critical point of this paragraph, is the way he showed the true-Self to the assembly. You ought to be able to see the true-Self the moment you hear his saying ‘Look, look!’. In order to see the true-Self, you should be able to see with your ears and hear with your eyes. When seeing, you should be able to hear, and when hearing, you should be able to see. Then, you can hear dharma talks from the cup and the tea spoon put before you and see the true-Self from the barking of your dog.

Student: “I still don’t know what master Rinzai told the assembly to look at.”
Master: “You cannot stop seeing and hearing it even for a moment.”

©Boo Ahm

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Q. How should we accept the following part of the Bible found in Luke 13?

Q. How should we accept the following part of the Bible found in Luke 13?

‘Luke 13:4 What about those 18 people in Siloam who were killed when the tower fell on them? Do you suppose this proves that they were worse than all the other people living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did.’

This scripture causes us to have the following realistic questions. One is ‘Are those who were recently killed in wars or accidents worse than those who remain alive now?’. Another is ‘Did Jesus turn from his sin?’ considering that Jesus himself who stated this also couldn’t avoid death. The third is ‘If Jesus’s didn’t die and his death is different from ours, what is the difference between his death and ours?’ All these eventually lead to the questions: ‘What is to turn from our sin?’ and ‘How can we avoid death?’.

Turning from our sins means being freed from our discriminating mind, our original sin that began with the fruit of the tree of Good and Evil in the beginning of the world. This means to see things as they are without discriminating, which is to realise that everything is empty. When realising that everything is empty, we can see everything as one as emptiness. Then, we can truly understand what ‘John 14:20, When the day comes, you will know that I am in my Father and that I am in you just as you are in me’ means. This means that we are one with God and Jesus.

To sum up, to turn from our sins is to realise that everything is empty and that we are one with God and Jesus. To realise that death is empty is to avoid dying.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

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