Questions & Koans

Zen

Jingqing’s Thirty Blows

Jingqing asked a monastic, “Where have you been?”

The monastic said, “Three Peaks.”

Jingqing said, “Where were you during the summer?”

The monastic said, “Five Peaks.”

Jingqing said, “I give you thirty blows.”

The monastic said, “What is my fault?”

Jingqing said, “The problem is that you go in and out of monasteries.”

Student: “Why is it a problem to go in and out of monasteries? We sometimes have to go in and out of monasteries to see other masters, or on errands for masters.”

Master: “Why are you out of the monastery in vain now? Come in quickly.”

Commentary:

There is no monastery in the monastery, but there are multiple monasteries out of the monastery.

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Zen

Rinzai 121

There is still another lot of blind old rascals who do not know good from bad. They distinguish the east from the west, like fine weather and fancy rain, and like hanging lanterns and uncarved pillars. Look – how many hairs of eyebrows do they have left? If the students do not know that all are supplied with concurrent causes, their hearts run like a dog. Teachers like this are all like wild fox sprites or demons. But the good student gives a deep chuckle and merely says: “Blind old fools, beguiling the people.”

Commentary:

‘Blind old rascals who don’t know good from bad’ indicates unenlightened teachers who pretend to be enlightened. ‘They distinguish the east from the west, they like fine weather and fancy rain, and like hanging lanterns and uncarved pillars’ means that although unenlightened teachers like to talk about koans including the words indicating direction and weather such as the east and the west, fine weather and fancy rain, and the words signifying things in temples such as hanging lanterns and uncarved pillars, they, not knowing the core meaning of them, give wrong explanations to students since they don’t have the eye of wisdom to see things as they are. ‘Look – have they any eyebrows left?’ implies that such fake masters cannot have any eyebrows left since they have told too many lies, because according to a Chinese saying, telling lies causes the hairs of the eyebrows to fall out. ‘If the students do not know that all are supplied with concurrent causes, their hearts run like a dog’ means that if students just follow such poor teachers’ explanations without knowing that those koans have deep meaning different from these inadequate interpretations, they are like a dog which chases after a lump of clay while mistaking it for a lump of meat.

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Zen

Q. Is it possible to attain enlightenment with love and hate?

A. Why do you think that you cannot attain enlightenment with love and hate? Love and hate are essential to enlightenment. Without them, enlightenment is impossible. The problem is not that you have love and hate but that you don’t know what love and hate are.

When you, unaware of the root of them, are deluded by them, they are referred to as illusions, whereas they are compassion itself when you, having realised that they are the functions of the true-Self, can enjoy them without being deluded by them, in the same way that you watch a film. Remember that enlightenment is not to remove them but to realise that the essence of them is no other than the true-Self, itself.

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Zen

Shitou’s ‘Ask the Pillar’

Shitou was once asked by a monastic, “What is the significance of Bodhidharma’s coming from India?”

Shitou said, “Ask the pillar.”

The monastic said, “I don’t understand it.”

Shitou said, “I don’t understand it, either.”

Student: “Why did Shitou tell the monastic to ask the pillar instead of answering his question?”

Master: “He was compassionate enough.”

Student: “What did Shitou mean when he said that he didn’t understand it, either?”

Master: “Poor Shitou is blamed for being too compassionate!”

Commentary:

The most valuable is not the rarest but the commonest.

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Zen

Rinzai 120

There are everywhere teachers who do not distinguish the false from the true. When a student comes to question one of them on enlightenment, on Nirvana, on the Trinity, on illusions, or wisdom, the blind teacher at once begins to explain them verbosely to the student. And if the student abuses him, he takes his stick and rudely beats the student while shouting, “How rude you are! Where are your manners?” It is because the teacher doesn’t have the eye of wisdom that he is poorly treated. He should not be upset with the student.

Commentary:

Here Master Rinzai talks about the prevalence of unqualified teachers who, pretending to be enlightened, are misleading students. Such teachers, when asked about core aspects of Buddhism such as enlightenment and Nirvana, just beat around the bush, simply quoting from the Sutras without presenting clear-cut answers. This is because they don’t have their own wisdom from enlightenment. Such teachers are bound to be found fraudulent by students whose practice is well ripened. Unfortunately, when their incompetence is uncovered, they blame the students who disclose it for their bad manners so that they may hide their own ignorance.

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Zen

Q. Why does Zen Buddhism use meaningless words?

A. You seem to be referring to words used as koans, Zen questions that may even sound ridiculous not to mention making no sense. For example, when a master was asked what the Buddha is by a monk, he answered, “Dry shit!” Interpreted literally, this answer might not only appear meaningless but also seems to sneer at the question.

However, the fact is that the master gave a perfect answer. The master made such an answer in order to express what can’t be expressed with words. To the enlightened, the answer leaves nothing to be desired. The reason why the answer is meaningless to you is that you try to grasp, through words, what cannot be expressed with words. If you really want to taste the core of Buddhism, you should comprehend that which is beyond what words portray.

Following words is no better than just licking the peel of a delicious apple without experiencing the true taste inside the peel. This is why ancient masters said that all the Sutras are just Mara’s talks if we merely follow their words.

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Zen

Josan’s ‘Buddha’

A monastic said to Master Josan, “How is it before the Buddha comes out into this world?” Josan answered, “I am not as good as Him.” The monastic asked again, “How is it after He comes out into this world?” Josan said, “He is not as good as I am.”

Student: “Why is the Buddha better than Master Josan before the Buddha comes out into this world?”

Master: “Because the monastic doesn’t know the Buddha.”

Student: “Why is the Buddha not as good as Master Josan after the Buddha comes out into this world?”

Master: “Because the monastic recognises the Buddha.”

Commentary:

Worshipping the Buddha is despising oneself.

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Zen

Rinzai 119

When a student comes to a teacher for a teaching, the teacher presents tricky words or acts and plays them before the student. But the student sees through it; immediately he becomes the host because he does not fall into the trap. The teacher then reveals half of himself; the student shouts a Katsu. Or again, the teacher shows all kinds of differentiations to test the student. The student says: “You bald old rascal, you do not know good from bad.” The teacher is pleased and responds: “A true follower of the Way.”

Commentary:

‘The teacher presents tricky words or acts and plays them before the student’ implies that the teacher tests, or checks the student’s practice with words or actions that allure the student to be deluded by illusions. ‘Immediately he becomes the host because he does not fall into the trap’ means that upon seeing what the teacher presents, the student sees through what the teacher signifies by becoming the host who can distinguish guests, illusions from the host, the true-Self and makes a suitable response without falling into the teacher’s trap. ‘The teacher then reveals half of himself’ implies that the teacher reveals the true-Self through very plausible and tempting words, or acts, so as to check whether the student can distinguish the true-Self from illusions. ‘The student shouts a Katsu’ means that the student says, ‘I know what you mean. My Katsu is not different at all from what you are revealing now’. Then, the teacher can give him more intensive tests with a variety of tricky words which are often called koans. The student never fails to make a correct response to every koan presented by the teacher and says, “You bald old rascal, you do not know good from bad”. This means ‘I am never fooled by you, whatever you may say or do. Your trying to deceive me is rather making illusions’. Then, the teacher approves of the student’s enlightenment by praising him.

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Zen

Q. Whenever I meditate, I start crying. What does this signify?

A. In the beginning of your meditation as a novice, you can undergo such experience for a while when you are involved in strong concentration. There are people who start laughing, or even singing. These phenomena are the surfacing of your repressed emotions stored in your unconsciousness.

However, if you continue to start crying every time you practise, you are not practising in the right way. I’d like to advise you to refocus on your question, koan when you sense that you are on the point of starting to cry, or to trace back where your crying is from. If you can find the root of your crying, you will be said to have finished your practice.

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Zen

Yangshan’s ‘High and Low’

One day Zen master Yangshan joined his teacher Guishan in ploughing the rice field. Yangshan said, “Master, this place is low. How can I level it with the higher place?” Guishan said, “Water is level, so why not use water and make the entire field level?” Yangshan said, “Water is not necessary. Master, high places are level as high and low places are level as low.” Guishan approved.

Student: “What did Yangshan mean by ‘high places are level as high and low places are level as low’?”

Master: “He knew how to make long rabbit horns and short ones the same size.”

Commentary:

The rice field flows but the soil never flows.

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