Questions & Koans

Zen

Who got the Dharma from the fifth Patriarch?

Once a monk asked the sixth Patriarch, “Who got the Dharma from the fifth Patriarch?” The sixth Patriarch answered, “One who knew the Buddha’s Dharma did.” The monk asked, “Did you get it?” The sixth Patriarch said, “No, I didn’t.” The monk asked again, “Why didn’t you get it?” The sixth Patriarch said, “Because I didn’t know the Buddha’s Dharma.”

Student: “Why didn’t the sixth Patriarch know the Buddha’s Dharma even though he was a master?”

Master: “Because he was a master.”

Commentary:

What can be known or given and taken is not the Buddha’s Dharma.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Rinzai 91

You say that everywhere there is training and there is realisation. Do not be deceived. Although something (realisation) can be attained by training, it only creates the Karma of rebirth and death.

You say you train in the Six Perfections and the Ten Thousand Practices. As I see it, they are all productive of Karma.

Commentary:

This part can sound quite confusing since it can cause us to wonder what Buddhism is and why we should practise if there is no enlightenment to be attained by practice. He said these words for the people who are so involved in practice and enlightenment that they are likely to be attached to the forms of them, so that he might prevent people from being deluded by the illusions of practice and enlightenment.

The purpose of practice is to attain enlightenment, which is to see everything as empty. When everything is empty, not only practice but enlightenment is also empty. That is why ancient masters would say, “Once you’ve attained enlightenment, you will realise that all the practice you’ve done was of no use.”

Practising, no matter how hard we may practise, only creates the Karma of birth and death if we, unaware of its emptiness, are attached to the form of practice itself.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Q. Should we enjoy earthly pleasures, such as food, or is this simply being distracted by illusions?

A. Once a layman asked a master, “Should I have meat and alcohol?” The master answered, “Having them is a government salary and not having them is the blessing of the Buddha.”

‘Having them’ here implies to have them without realising that both the action of having them and the meat and alcohol, the objects of having, are empty. ‘A government salary’ symbolises karma since a government salary is the result of the cause, working for government. ‘Not having them’ means having them whilst being aware that everything is empty, which is referred to as eating without eating, which is the blessing of the Buddha since it is beyond making karma.

In short, what is more important than whether you do something or not is whether you are aware that what you are doing is empty. You should remember that the purpose of Buddhism is not to restrict our freedom but to give us perfect freedom. Whether you should enjoy earthly pleasures or not is up to you.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

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Zen

Why am I not allowed to worship the Buddha?

A monk asked his master, “I had my head shaved and became a monk to follow the Buddha’s teaching. Why am I not allowed to worship the Buddha?” The master answered, “It’s because doing a good thing is not as good as doing nothing.”

Student: “Why is doing nothing better than doing a good thing?”

Master: “Because doing a good thing is not different from doing a bad thing.”

Student: “How could we live without doing anything?”

Master: “Such worry occurs only when you live by doing something.”

Commentary:

All worries are products of doing things whether good or bad.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Rinzai 90

There is no Dharma outside the heart, nor anything to find inside. So, what are you looking for?

Commentary:

This scripture means that we should not look for the Dharma, the true-Self in vain by following words such as ‘outside the heart’ and ‘inside the heart’ since this is to be deluded by illusions. The Dharma is the source of everything and there is nothing that doesn’t belong to it. Even we who are looking for it are part of it, and everything we can see and hear belongs to it as well. In fact, we cannot recognise it, whilst seeing and hearing nothing except it, because we are deluded by illusions. That is why an ancient master answered, “Why do you say you are thirsty while drowning?” when he was asked what the Dharma is by one of his students.

Student: “What is the Dharma?”

Master: “Why do you ask me the taste of the food you are chewing?”

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Q. When we drink tea, it is said that we should look to the place where the mind arises, and that if there are thoughts there, we will not taste Zen. So, where does the mind arise?

A. There are thoughts where the mind arises because thoughts are the function of the mind. To realise where thoughts are from is enlightenment, which is to see the mind that is the root of all thoughts. You should not think that thoughts and the mind are apart from each other but know that thoughts are to the mind as winds are to air.

In fact, whatever you may do; drinking tea, doing the dishes, thinking over your personal matters, all that you do in everyday life is the function of the mind. The problem is that you do not know what the mind is while it is with you all the time. The purpose of Zen meditation is to realise what it is. That is why ancient masters would say that we should not try to avoid thoughts but try to see the mind, the root of them, through them.

When you drink tea, ask yourself what is controlling your body. What is balancing your body not to collapse? What is making your hand raise the cup to your mouth? And what is making your mouth feel that the tea is hot? Finding the answer to these questions is the way to see where the mind arises in person.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

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Zen

Nanquan’s ‘How do you plan to govern the people?’

At the end of a retreat, as governor Lugeng was preparing to leave, Nanquan asked, “Are you returning to your duties?”

“I am,” replied the governor.

“How do you plan to govern the people?” Nanquan enquired.

“With wisdom and compassion,” Lugeng replied.

“In that case, every one of them will suffer,” said Nanquan.

Student: “Why will everyone suffer when the governor rules the people with wisdom and compassion?”

Master: “Because he is deluded by wisdom and compassion.”

Commentary:

He who has wisdom and compassion is aware that there are no people to govern.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Rinzai 89

But, as I see it, the Dharmakaya cannot expound the Dharma. Thus, an old master said: “The Buddha’s bodies are set up with reference to meaning; The Buddha’s realms are differentiated with reference to the bodies.” The nature of the bodies and of the realms is clear; they are the temple of the Dharma, and so are only relative. Yellow leaves in an empty fist to entice unweaned children. By wringing a dry stick, or a dry bone what juice are you looking for?

Commentary:

Although three Buddhas; the Dharmakaya Buddha, the Sambhogakaya Buddha and the Nirmanakaya Buddha, are set up with reference to meaning and differentiated with reference to the bodies, they are, in fact, not apart from each other but just one; the temple of the Dharma, the true-Self. They are just names to explain the true-Self, no more than expedients used to teach ignorant sentient beings, in the same way that yellow leaves are used as money in order to stop children from crying. So, trying to attain enlightenment whilst following the three Buddhas is as vain as trying to get juice by wringing a dry stick or a dry bone.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

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Zen

Q. How can we tell if we are progressing towards enlightenment in our meditation practice?

A. We say that you can hear and see what you could not before. Buddhist scriptures, or the koans, Zen questions that previously sounded like nonsense can start to sound reasonable. Ordinary sounds you are used to hearing can sound quite different; positive, fresh and new. For example, your spouse’s calling you ‘Darling’, your dog’s barking, or a bird’s chirping sometimes sound so impressive that you can burst into tears. You can have similar experiences when you see things. With such changes, you can feel that your life is more stable than before.

However, you should not cling to new experiences but leave them alone, no matter how nice they are. Trying to have the same experience again is the last thing you should do since that would be to run counter to your practice. Just keep practising as usual.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

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Zen

‘I don’t know what the Buddha is’

A student asked his master “What is the Buddha?” The master replied that he did not know. The student asked, “If you do not know this then what do you know?” The master replied, “I do not know what the Buddha is, but I know the flower in the garden.”

Student: “What did the master mean by this?”

Master: “He made a kind and detailed answer.”

Student: “Why did the master say that he didn’t know?”

Master: “Because you drink only water and leave milk alone.”

Commentary:

Do not mistake a large cheque that can change your life for a piece of toilet paper.

©Boo Ahm

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