Questions & Koans

Zen

Rinzai 110

You say the Buddha has the six supernatural powers and that they are miraculous.

Commentary:

It is a popular belief that we cannot be like the Buddha even if we attain enlightenment since we, as human beings, cannot achieve the six supernatural powers that he had. This incorrect idea is from the misunderstanding of the six supernatural powers; the ability to see anything regardless of distance, the ability to hear any sound regardless of distance, the ability to go anywhere in no time, the ability to know all people’s minds, the ability to know all people’s previous lives and the ability to be free from all illusions.

The most common misunderstandings regarding the six supernatural powers are as follows.  One who obtains the ability to see anything can see anything that is happening in any far corner of the world if he wants. One who has the ability to hear any sound can hear anything that is happening in any far corner of the world if he listens. One who has the ability to go anywhere can reach any place in the world in no time. One who achieves the ability to know all people’s minds can read any person’s mind in the world at any time; for example he can know what the president of the United States is thinking about at this moment. And finally, one who has the ability to see people’s previous lives can know what a person’s previous life was like; how many previous lives he lived, or whether he was a man or an animal.

In fact, the six supernatural powers are employed to describe what perfect enlightenment is like. Masters illustrated enlightenment with the six supernatural powers. When we attain enlightenment, that is, when are not deluded by illusions, or when we can see everything as empty, we realise that everything is one as Emptiness and that we are also part of Oneness. When there is nothing but Oneness, whatever you hear, whatever you see, it is just Oneness, nothing else. This is to see and hear everything. When there is nothing but Oneness as Emptiness, wherever you may go, no matter how far you may go, there is no difference whatsoever between going and not going. In the Avatamsaka Sutra a Bodhisattva says, “I can see all the Buddhas all around the universe at any time if it is my will. However, I don’t go to them nor do they come to me.” When there is just Oneness as Emptiness, there is no past, no present, and no future because they are only illusions. Then, there cannot be any previous lives. In short, to know that there are no previous lives is the ability to know people’s previous lives. To know that all people’s minds are also Oneness as Emptiness is the ability to know all people’s minds. In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha said to his disciples, “I know all sentient beings’ minds because I know that their minds are not minds.”

To conclude, the six supernatural powers, appearing to be multiple, are no other than the ability to see everything just as it is, that is, to see everything as empty, which is available to anybody who tries to achieve it.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Q. My question to you is regarding happiness. I find myself seeking for something else, which I don’t know. Is happiness itself a practice, or should it just come naturally from our innate nature? Please help me.

A. Your saying that you find yourself seeking something else that you don’t know explains well the way we live our lives. Why do you think we are looking for something we don’t know? It is because we cannot see things as they are. Only when we can see things as they are can we see and know what we are struggling to attain.

The historical Buddha discovered that we cannot enjoy happiness although we are happiness itself only because we cannot recognise it, since we cannot see things as they are. We should remember that we cannot enjoy happiness not because it is hidden, or far away from us, but because we cannot recognise it even though we are surrounded by it. What you need now is your ability to see and recognise what you want rather than seeking something diligently.

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Zen

‘Ordinary Mind Is the Way’ (2)

Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, “What is the Way?” Nanquan said, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”  Zhaozhou said, “Shall I try to direct myself towards it?” Nanquan said, “If you try to direct yourself towards it, you will move away from it.”

Student: “Why do we move away from Ordinary Mind if we direct ourselves towards it?”

Master: “If you knew Ordinary Mind, you would not ask me the question. If you don’t know it, how can you direct yourself towards it, not knowing where it is?”

Student: “What shall I do then?”

Master: “Direct yourself towards me and I will direct it towards Ordinary Mind.”

Commentary:

Don’t try in vain to make gold out of gold.

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Zen

Rinzai 109

Rinzai said that the historical Buddha said, “The Buddha revealed himself as a physical body only for adaptation to the sentiments of the world, and, fearing that otherwise men might fall into thinking that the Buddha is gone forever with his physical body dying, He mentioned the thirty-two marks and eighty characteristics by producing fake names as expedient means. Temporarily the thirty-two marks and eighty characteristics are spoken of.  In themselves, they are empty sounds. The physical body is not the body of realisation; no- form is the true shape.”

Commentary:

All the words used to describe and explain the true-Self are just expedient means for leading sentient beings to enlightenment. The thirty-two marks and eighty characteristics are not exceptional. Let us suppose that a three-year child brings a piece of paper and asks you what it is and that you, answering, “Paper,” draw a two-winged boy on it. The thirty-two marks and eighty characteristics are like the two-winged boy you drew on the paper, which was drawn by you for the purpose of showing, or demonstrating what paper is. You didn’t mean that the picture of the two-winged boy is paper. In fact, you can not only draw many other things, such as a flower and a lion, but also write various words on the paper. This is why there are a variety of names representing the true-Self. Ancient masters would even say that all names of things are the names of the Buddha.

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Zen

Q. During my meditation ‘what am I?’ I had a very scary experience. The crown of my head ached for days afterwards and I kept hearing an angry thought that ‘you are a dog!’ I am now afraid to continue practising because I could not control the voice. I thought I may have conjured up a demon that hates me. Can you offer comment or help?

A. There are some practitioners who go through similar phenomena to yours; some people have unusual experiences such as seeing terrible things and hearing strange sounds, whereas others have very wonderful and fantastic experiences during meditation. No matter how wonderful a voice you may hear, or how holy a scene you may see you should not be attracted by them. No matter how horrible a voice, or a figure may sound or appear, you should neither try to control nor be scared of them.

Just leave them alone and don’t be concerned with them. Instead, focus all your attention on your question and all the illusions will disappear by themselves. Ancient masters would say that even if one hundred Buddhas appear, we should not be attracted by them.  

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

‘Ordinary Mind Is the Way’ (1)

Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, “What is the Way?” Nanquan said, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”  Zhaozhou said, “Shall I try to direct myself towards it?”  Nanquan said, “If you try to direct yourself towards it, you will move away from it.”

Student: “Why do we move away from Ordinary Mind if we direct ourselves towards it?”

Master: “Directing yourself towards your destination without knowing where you are standing makes no sense at all.”

Commentary:

Be sure to know where you are before directing yourself towards Ordinary Mind.

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Zen

Rinzai 108

The Buddha, where is he now? You should know clearly that like us he lived and died and so is not different from us. You say that the thirty-two marks and the eighty characteristics distinguish the Buddha, but then Chakravarti Raja, a mythical Indian god, should also have been the Buddha. Clearly all this is just fantasy and illusion.

Commentary:

When Rinzai said, “The Buddha, where is he now? You should know clearly that like us he lived and died and so is not different from us,” he meant that the historical Buddha is not different from us sentient beings in the least in that he lived on food and passed away just as we do. Rinzai tried to instil us with confidence that we can attain enlightenment just as the historical Buddha did, not only because none of us are inferior to him as humans but also because all of us have the same true-Self that he had.

Then, what is the difference between the historical Buddha and us? He realised that the essence of our being is not the physical body that is subject to birth and death but the true-Self that transcends birth and death. The true-Self is referred to as the Buddha and so many people mistake the historical Buddha as the true-Self. In order to prevent them from being confused, the historical Buddha said, “He who seeks me through seeing my figure and hearing my voice cannot see me.” We should know that the Buddha is formless and not be deluded by the words ‘the Buddha has the thirty-two marks and the eighty characteristics.’ As mentioned previously, words, no matter how wonderful they may sound, are just imaginary labels, illusions.

Student: “Why is it said that the Buddha has the thirty-two marks and the eighty characteristics?”

Master: “It is also said that the Buddha is dry shit.”

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Zen

Q. If we are perfect from the beginning and will be perfect after enlightenment, then what is the purpose of this spiritual evolution? Why does perfection seek such experience?

A. Thinking and saying that we are perfect from the beginning is one thing and experiencing perfection in person is another. There is a beggar whose parents lost him, their only child, when he was very young and left an unimaginably huge fortune for him when they passed away. One day to his surprise he happens to hear the fact that he is the only heir of the rich couple. However, he never accepts the fact, believing that he cannot be so lucky. Over time he becomes convinced, little by little, of the fact as his acquaintances tell the same story to him repeatedly. In the end he thinks that he is very rich and says, “I know I am rich because I’ve inherited all of their estate” when he is told the same story by others who want to help him. However, in reality he is still a beggar since he doesn’t know where his wealth is, how much cash and how much real estate it consists of and how to use it because he doesn’t have even a notion of real estate and has never been to the bank not to speak of using a bank book. Then, can we say he knows that he is rich?

In the same way, the perfection you mention is not perfection until you experience it in person, just as food is not food to you until you feel full by eating it.

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Zen

Changsha’s ‘Returning to Mountains, Rivers, and the Great Earth’

Zen master Changsha was once asked by a monastic, “How do you turn the mountains, rivers, and great earth into your true-Self?” Changsha said, “How do you turn the true-Self into the mountains, rivers, and great earth?”

Student: “How would you answer if you were in Master Changsha’s shoes?”

Master: “There is no true-Self to turn the mountains, rivers, and great earth into.”

Student: “How would you respond if you were the monastic?”

Master: “There are no mountains, no rivers and no great earth to turn the true-Self into.”

Commentary: 

The reason why there is left to turn to is that there is right to turn to.

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Zen

Rinzai 107

There are certain shaved monks who tell their students that the Buddha is the ultimate and that the Way can be accomplished only when the effect of practising for three kalpas has ripened sufficiently. Followers of the Way, if you say the Buddha is the ultimate, how did it come to pass that at the age of eighty he died lying on his side between the twin trees at the town of Kushinagara?

Commentary:

This scripture says that we should not be fooled by the name ‘the Buddha’ and his image. Master Rinzai warned people not to confuse the Buddha with the historical Buddha, since many people made images of him and worshipped them at that time, just as many people still do now. The Buddha we are seeking is formless and so it is impossible to make its image. The Buddha is in fact nameless, although it is called the Buddha, or the true-Self for the sake of convenience. The Buddha cannot die because it was not born and so we should not mistake the historical Buddha who passed away at the age of eighty for the Buddha we are seeking.

What matters is that it need not take such a long time as three kalpas of practice to accomplish the Way, that is, to see the Buddha, since each of us is the Buddha. We cannot leave or escape from the Buddha even for a fraction of a second. The Buddha is always ready to be seen any time unless we forsake it. The purpose of Buddhism is not to seek the Buddha outside but to realise that we ourselves are the Buddha.

©Boo Ahm

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