Questions & Koans

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Rinzai 19

Rinzai 19

The master then said: “Monks, those who seek the Dharma should not shirk losing body and life. As for me, I spent twenty years with my late master Obaku. Three times I asked him about the essence of Buddhism, and three times he kindly beat me. It was as if he had caressed me with a branch of fragrant sage. Now I feel like being beaten again; who can give me a beating?”

Commentary:
‘Those who seek the Dharma should not shirk losing body and life’ doesn’t mean that we ought to think lightly of body and life but means that we should realise that they are empty. The reason why the master mentioned body and life is that they are the stickiest illusions for us to remove. So, enlightenment is likened to great death, which implies that all illusions die. Great death is identified with eternal life.

It is a well-known historical fact that Rinzai asked his master Obaku about the essence of Buddhism three times and that Obaku hit Rinzai whenever he asked him. The key point here is why master Obaku hit Rinzai when he asked him such an important question, instead of answering him. Thinking that he beat him is missing what he intended to show. We ought to know that he presented a perfect answer to his question by revealing Buddha in person. In fact, even Rinzai himself, disappointed with Obaku’s response, had decided to leave Obaku for another master because he didn’t grasp the meaning of the master’s beating at that time. Only after his enlightenment did he realise that his master, Obaku’s beatings had been a very compassionate teaching and that he had revealed the true-Self. So, when he said here, “I feel like being beaten again; who can give me a beating?”, he meant, “I’d like to see any of you revealing the true-Self as clearly just as my master Obaku did. Who can do it?”

Student: “How would you have responded to the master’s question?”
Master: “Why do you covet others’ food while vomiting yours?”

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Q. If you could only choose one way, kindness or Buddhism, which would you choose?

Q. If you could only choose one way, kindness or Buddhism, which would you choose?

A. This sounds like a koan, a tricky Zen question but is a very simple question to answer if you know the essence of Buddhism because whichever you may choose, you will make the same answer. Choosing one is not different from choosing the other because both of them contain each other as non-duality, Oneness.

Kindness in Buddhism means compassion, which is the function of the true-Self, non-duality that is the core of Buddhism. In fact, kindness and Buddhism are inseparable from each other because they are one. Kindness is to Buddhism as winds are to air.

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Master Langye’s “Original Purity”

Master Langye’s “Original Purity”

A monastic asked Zen master Langye, “Purity is originally all embracing. How is it that mountains, rivers, and the great earth suddenly appear?” Langye said, “Purity is originally all embracing. How is it that mountains, rivers, and the great earth suddenly appear?”

Student: “Why did the master repeat his student’s question when he was asked instead of answering his question by his student?”
Master: “Purity is originally all embracing. How does this question suddenly appear?”

Commentary:
The illusion of Purity blocks you from seeing the Purity before your eyes.

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Rinzai 18

Rinzai 18

Again, a monk asked, “What is the essence of Buddhism?”
The master raised his fly-whisk again.
The monk gave a Katsu.
The master also gave a Katsu.
The monk hesitated.
The master hit him with the fly-whisk.

The master answered the monk’s question ‘What is the essence of Buddhism?’ by revealing the true-Self through raising his fly-whisk. The monk responded to the master’s answer by giving a Katsu, which meant, “I know that what you mean is not different from just this Katsu.” Then, the master, dubious of the ripeness of his practice, gave a Katsu to check his practice once more. The monk, failing to make an instant answer to the second test, was at a loss for the right words. Master hit him both as a punishment for failing to make a suitable answer and as an answer to his own Katsu.

If you had been in the monk’s shoes, how would you have responded in the situation? A true practitioner should put himself in the monk’s shoes and ask himself how he would have reacted if he had been the monk.

Student: “What would you have done if you had been the monk when the master raised his fly-whisk?”
Master: “I would have snatched it away from him.”
Student: “How would you have responded to the master’s Katsu?”
Master: “I would have given it back to him.”
Student: “What reaction would you have made to the master’s hit with his fly-whisk?”
Master: “I would have said, ‘I should have broken it’.”

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Q. Doesn’t this world stay the same to others?

Q. Doesn’t this world stay the same to others?

A. Yes, it absolutely does. Everything stays the same to everyone all the time, but it doesn’t look the same to all of us because we can’t see it as it is. So, it can be said that there are as many worlds as there are living things that reside there since each of them has its own respective perspectives that are different from one another. In other words, each of us has his own world. To see the world as different and various, according to one’s karma, is to see the realm of forms and to see the world as the same, is to see the realm of Emptiness, Oneness.

When we can see it as the same, there can’t be any conflicts between individuals or between communities, such as nations. However, aside from whether it is good or bad, it is our different viewpoints that not just get us into conflicts but also make our lives colourful and exciting. The purpose of Zen meditation is to see the world in both ways; as both the same and different. That is to enjoy diversity without conflict.

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The Fire Dharma of Xuefeng and Xuansha

The Fire Dharma of Xuefeng and Xuansha

Xuefeng said to the assembly, “All Buddhas in the three worlds turn the dharma wheel in the fire.”
Xuansha said, “When the fire expounds dharma to all Buddhas in the three worlds, they stand and listen.”

Student: “How is it when all Buddhas in the three worlds turn the dharma wheel in the fire?”
Master: “Hidden.”
Student: “How is it when the fire expounds dharma to all Buddhas in the three worlds and they stand and listen?”
Master: “Revealed.”

Commentary:
When hidden, Buddhas have no intention to hide themselves.
When revealed, they have no intention to reveal themselves.
Whether they are hidden or revealed doesn’t depend on their decision but on your eyes and ears.

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Rinzai 17

Rinzai 17

At the High Seat, a monk asked: “What is the essence of Buddhism?”
The master raised his fly-whisk.
The monk gave a Katsu. The master hit him.

Commentary:
The monk asked Rinzai what the true-Self is, since the essence of Buddhism is to realise the true-Self. The master answered the monk’s question just by raising his fly-whisk. You should not think that he raised his fly-whisk. If raising a fly-whisk were an answer, who couldn’t raise it? On reading or hearing this phrase, you should feel as if it sounded like thunder and as if the whole universe collapsed down if you are a good practitioner. One step further, you should be able to make your own answer.

The monk, grasping what the master meant, responded to the master’s answer by giving a Katsu. The master, sensing that the monk got his intention, approved him by hitting him.

Student: “People often raise things in their lives: old men raise their walking sticks, we raise forks, or knives at meal time, we raise and wave something at someone a little away to say hello, good-by and so on. What is the difference between Rinzai’s raising his fly-whisk and ordinary people’s raising their things?”
Master: “Seeing ordinary people’s raising as the same as the Rinzai’s raising is seeing the treasure, and seeing Rinzai’s raising as the same as ordinary people’s raising is seeing the storehouse.
Student: “How do the enlightened see?”
Master: “In both ways at the same time.”
Student: “What would you have done when Rinzai raised his fly-whisk if you had been the monk’s shoes?”
Master: “I’d have taken it away from him and broken it into two pieces.”

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Q. All words point to the true-Self, but which word is the absolute word that points to the true-Self?

Q. All words point to the true-Self, but which word is the absolute word that points to the true-Self?

A. When all words point to the true-Self, there is no word that doesn’t point to it. Every word is the absolute word that points to it. Even the dirty words people use in calling each other names while fighting or abusing others, are pointing to it. Each of the words you used to ask this question is also pointing to it. Every single word I am using to answer your question at this moment is pointing to it as well.

Furthermore, according to the Sutras, there is nothing that is not the true-Self, which means that not only all words but also all actions point to it. The truth is that all words and actions are the functions of the true-Self. So, the expression ‘All words reveal the true-Self’, I think, is more suitable than the expression ‘All words point to the true-Self’.

What matters most is whether we realise it or not. Once we have realised it, our lives themselves become the Sutras since all the words and actions used in our lives are dharma talks that point to it.

Student: “What is the absolute word that points to the true-Self?”
Master: “You already said it.”

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Shoushan’s Stick

Shoushan’s Stick

Shoushan Xingnian held up a bamboo stick and said to the assembly, “If you call it a stick, you defile it. If you don’t call it a stick, you miss it. What do you call it?”
Shexian Guixing, who heard him, had great realisation. He went close to Shoushan, snatched away the stick, and broke it in two. He threw the pieces down on the ground and said, “What is this?”

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Student: “Why did Shexian Guixing break the stick and throw the pieces down on the ground?”
Master: “He showed what cannot be broken.”
Student: “What is that which can’t be broken?”
Master: “He broke the stick and threw the pieces down on the ground.”

Commentary:
It is in order to show what can’t be said that masters say.
It is in order to show what can’t be broken that masters break.

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Rinzai 16

Rinzai 16

To all his monks, he continued, “If you wish to understand my phrase of guest and host, ask the head monks of the two halls,” and came down from the seat.

Commentary:
His comment ‘If you wish to understand my phrase of guest and host, ask the head monks of the two halls’ is known as one of the most difficult koans, which is highly liable to be misinterpreted as Rinzai encouraging his students to ask the head monks directly instead of realising that he was answering the question in person. This is an additional answer which he showed to his monks while thinking that they couldn’t grasp his first answer. This answer is like a sword whose blade is so sharp that it is invisible and we can’t even feel it cutting us. This implies that Rinzai’s answer is so subtle and tricky that we are very likely to be deluded into discriminating by it. The fact is that the master showed guest and host to all his student monks one more time.

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Student: “Who is guest and who is host?”
Master: “Guest is host and host is guest.”

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