Questions & Koans

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Q. What happens in our life when we can see everything as empty?

Q. What happens in our life when we can see everything as empty?

A. Seeing everything and everybody as empty means seeing them as Buddha, or God and seeing every movement as Buddha’s action and hearing every sound as Buddha’s voice. Then, we can see Buddha anywhere anytime. Then, we stop struggling to please an invisible God or Buddha while forsaking our spouse, friends and neighbours who are visible and tangible Buddha or God.

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At the same time, you come to try to give help to others instead of trying to be helped by God or Buddha, since you are aware that you are God or Buddha. This is to live in the Pure Land in Buddhism and in the Kingdom of Heaven in Christianity.

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Tianhuang’s “Essential Dharma Gate”

Tianhuang’s “Essential Dharma Gate”

Longtan was making rice cakes for a living. When he met Tianhuang, he bowed and left his household.
Tianhuang said, “Be my attendant. From now on I will teach you the essential dharma gate.”
After one year passed Longtan said, “When I arrived, you said that you would teach me the essential dharma gate. I haven’t received any of your instruction yet.”
Tianhuang said, “I have been teaching you for a long time.”
Longtan said, “What have you been teaching me?”
Tianhuang said, “When you greet me, I join my palms. When I sit, you stand beside me. When you bring tea, I receive it from you.”
Longtan was silent for a while.
Tianhuang said, “When you see it, you just see it. When you think about it, you miss it.” Longtan then had great enlightenment.

Student: “What is the teaching that Tianhuang gave to Longtan?”
Master: “He joined his palms when he was greeted by Longtan and received tea when it was served to him by Longtan.”
Student: “Everybody can do that. You do it every day. Even I can do it. Who in the world couldn’t do it?”
Master: “You are right. Everybody can do it, but few can see and hear it.”
Student: “What is it?”
Master: “I am answering your question now.”

Commentary:
It is not the man who can show it but the man who can see and hear it that is enlightened.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

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Rinzai 27

Rinzai 27

When Master Rinzai was at the High Seat, a monk asked, “What is the first phrase?”
The master said, “When the seal of the three essentials is lifted, the vermilion points remain well imprinted. Before a thought has been brought in, host and guest are clearly distinguished.”

Commentary:
The first phrase means the first phrase that reveals the true-Self. Not only ancient monks but also modern monks often ask masters, “What is the first phrase?” instead of “What is the true-Self?” ‘The seal of the three essentials’ means the true-Self, Emptiness. The reason why the true-Self is referred to as the seal of the three essentials here is that the true-Self is described as its essence, its action and its form when it functions. ‘When the seal of the three essentials is lifted’ means ‘When the true-Self functions’. ‘The vermilion points’ means forms that are the functions of the true-Self. So, ‘When the seal of the three essentials is lifted, the vermilion points remain well imprinted’ means that when the true-Self functions, its forms appear clearly. ‘Before a thought has been brought in, host and guest are clearly distinguished’ means that we should be able to distinguish host, the true-Self from guest, form clearly in no time whenever we see things. In other words, we should be able to see and hear things in two ways; as the true-Self and as forms, at the same time.

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Student: “What is the first phrase?”
Master: “Before your question.”

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Q. Why did Jesus do miracles?

Q. Why did Jesus do miracles?

A. Because he wanted to show what you yourself should do. Your question should be ‘Why don’t I perform miracles as Jesus did?’ or ‘How can I do miracles as Jesus could?’

In order to follow Jesus’s teaching, you should not be deluded by words and so commit the error of interpreting metaphors like ‘walking on the water’ literally but rather grasp what is beyond the words. You should know that such metaphors are examples that show what you can and should do as one of his students.

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When we were young and we saw our parents or other grown-ups lifting heavy things easily, they appeared to do miracles. However, we can also find ourselves doing such things just as our parents did when we are grown up. We should know that Jesus did miracles not to show off his ability but to show us what we should do, just as parents and teachers demonstrate what their children and students should do in the future.

©Boo Ahm

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Linji’s “Blind Ass”

Linji’s “Blind Ass”

When Linji was about to pass away, he entrusted Sansheng, saying, “After I pass away, do not allow my treasury of true dharma to perish.”
Sansheng said, “Master, how could I have your treasury of the dharma perish?”
Linji said, “Later, when someone asks about my teaching, how will you answer them?”
Sansheng shouted.
Linji said, “Who would think that my treasury of the dharma would perish with this blind ass?”

Student: “Why did Linji say that his treasury of the dharma would perish with his student?”
Master: “Because Sansheng broke it.”

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Commentary:
What can be killed is not the Buddha.
If you kill Buddha who can be killed, you will see the true Buddha.
What perishes is not the treasury of the dharma.
If you break the perishable treasury of the dharma, you will get the true treasury of the dharma.

©Boo Ahm

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Rinzai 26

Rinzai 26

From the High Seat, the master said: “One is on the way for aeons without leaving his house; one leaves his house without being on the way. Which one is worthy to receive the offerings of men and gods?” Then he came down from the seat.

Commentary:
One who is on the way for aeons without leaving his house implies an enlightened person who has realised that everything is one as Emptiness and that there is nowhere to leave or to go to, or a person who attained enlightenment without becoming a monk. One who leaves his house without being on the way symbolises a person who left his house and became a monk to attain enlightenment but who is still not enlightened. Rinzai meant that getting enlightened is possible regardless of whether or not we become a monk if we practise in the right way.

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The answer to the question ‘Which one is worthy to receive the offerings of men and gods?’ is ‘One who is on the way for aeons without leaving his house’ when literally interpreted. However, Master Rinzai raised this question for the purpose of checking who among those present at the dharma talk was truly on the way, regardless of whether they had left their houses or not. He who is really on the way for aeons without leaving his house should not be deluded by sweet words like these. So, ancient masters would say, “If you are deluded by words, all the Sutras become Mara’s talk.”

Student: “Which deserves to receive the offerings of men and gods?”
Master: “The one whom men and gods cannot approach.”

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Q. How should we understand Buddha’s final words on his deathbed ‘Not a word have I said’?

Q. How should we understand Buddha’s final words on his deathbed ‘Not a word have I said’?

A. What did he do for forty-nine years if he didn’t even say a word? If all the talks he delivered for forty-nine years are not words, can we say that his final saying ‘Not a word have I said’ is words?

The core of Buddha’s teaching is that everything is empty. All he did for forty-nine years after his enlightenment was to try to teach how to see things as empty and show what Emptiness is like. When everything is empty, just as his teaching says, all the dharma talks he gave are also empty. So, his final comment means that we should not be attached to his words by realising that they are also empty. He said that his teaching is like a boat for crossing a river and that we should abandon it once we have crossed the river.

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Student: “Why did Buddha say that he had said not a word on his deathbed?”
Master: “He summarised what he had said for forty-nine years in a single sentence.”

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Lingzhao’s “Bright and Clear”

Lingzhao’s “Bright and Clear”

While sitting, Layman Pang asked his daughter Lingzhao, “A teacher of old said, ‘Bright and clear are the one hundred grasses; bright and clear is the meaning of the ancestral teaching.’ How about yourself?”
Lingzhao said, “How could someone who is mature and great say such a thing?”
Pang said, “How would you say it?”
Lingzhao said, “Bright and clear are the one hundred grasses; bright and clear is the meaning of the ancestral teaching.”
Pang laughed.

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Student: “Why did Lingzhao repeat Pang’s question as an answer to his question?”
Master: “Pang was caught hiding the true-Self by his daughter.”

Commentary:
Hiding the true-Self is much more difficult than revealing it because the action of hiding it is also the expression of it.

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Rinzai 25 From the High Seat, the master

Rinzai 25

From the High Seat, the master said: “One is on a lonely mountain peak with no track to come down; one is in the middle of a busy crossroads and cannot go forward or back; of these two, who is further on, who lags behind? Do not take them to be Vimalakirti or the great Master Fu.”
Then he came down from the seat.

Commentary:
The master is checking his students’ practice by raising seemingly two extremely opposite examples; one on a lonely mountain peak and one in the middle of a busy crossroads. The former symbolises Emptiness and the latter Forms. Those who have realised that Forms are Emptiness and Emptiness is not different from Forms, can easily grasp what the master means and answer his question wisely. Both are always one and can’t be separated and they do not have front or back. He was so kind as to give a hint by adding, “Don’t take them to be Vimalakirti or the great Master Fu.” He advised his students not to be deluded by his words into thinking that he meant Vimalakirti who, as one of Buddha’s best students, lived in secular world without becoming a monk or the great Master Fu who stayed in deep in the mountains aloof from the mundane world after enlightenment. You should know that the master is revealing the true-Self while explaining Emptiness and Forms with two metaphors.

Student: “Which of the two mentioned above is further on and who lags behind?
Master: “Which of the two, wind or air, is further on and which lags behind?

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Q. How should I practise when there is no time to sit?

Q. How should I practise when there is no time to sit?

A. Since I have already talked about how to practise and especially how to practise when you feel you have no time to sit before, I am going to give you a different answer this time.

If you think that there is no time to sit, can you say that there is no time to die as well? If you can say that there is no time to die, I will approve not only of your saying that there is no time to sit but also of your enlightenment.

To realise that everything is empty is enlightenment. Saying that everything is empty means that everything is just an imaginary line. So, if you can see time just as an imaginary line and realise that there is nothing such as time, you can be said to be enlightened.

Time and space are essential in order for a thing to exist or happen. Saying that there is no time is like saying that there is nothing. Saying that time is an imaginary line is just like saying that things are imaginary lines. When there is no time and time is just an imaginary line, there is no death and death is also an imaginary line. Being able to see everything in this way is enlightenment.

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