Questions & Koans

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.

©Boo Ahm

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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.

©Boo Ahm

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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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Zen

Q. Why do some ‘enlightened’ teachers, do such unenlightened things? Their teachings are great, but sometimes this doesn’t reflect in their personal lives. This troubles me. What is the lesson here?

A. How do you know whether someone is enlightened or not? What do you mean by unenlightened things? What do you think enlightened teachers’ lives should be like? Have you ever considered that their behaviour doesn’t appear to be as respectable as you expect because you cannot see them as they are? There is a saying that if you attain enlightenment, all the universe also becomes enlightened along with you. In other words, once you are enlightened, you realise that everything is perfection itself, happiness itself and eternity itself. The purpose of your practice is not to check whether a person is enlightened or not but to become enlightened yourself.

Ancient masters would say, “Don’t avoid illusions. They are the Buddha you are seeking. Don’t follow the Buddha. It is an illusion you are trying to avoid.” What matters now is not why enlightened teachers’ lives are undesirable but why you cannot see the Buddha hidden in their poor behaviour. However sacred their personal lives may be, they are no better than Maras to you if you cannot see and hear beyond what reaches your eyes and ears.

Supposing that you have a serious illness and there is a doctor with the ability to cure you of your illness, who behaves poorly, will you see this doctor or not in order to save your life? If their teachings are good, accept them. See their offensive behaviour as expedients they present to teach you.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Guishan Laughs Twice

Shushan went to see Guishan and said, “Master, I heard that you had said, ‘Words are like wisteria vines coiled around a tree.’ When the tree falls down and the wisteria dies, where do the words go?”

Guishan burst into laughter. Shushan said, “I came four thousand miles, peddling cloths to get here. How can you fool around with me?” Guishan called the attendant monastic and said to him, “Bring some money and reimburse this elder monastic.” Later Guishan said, “In the future a one-eyed dragon will reveal the point for you.”

Shushan went to see Mingzhao and told this story. Mingzhao said, “Guishan should have said, ‘Head is right, tail is right.’ You did not meet someone who understood you.” Shushan said, “When the tree falls down and the wisteria dies, where do the words go?” Mingzhao said, “Guishan laughs again.”

Upon hearing this, Shushan had realisation. Then he said, “Guishan hid a sword in his laughter.”    

Student: “Why did Guishan burst into laughter when he was questioned by Shushan?”

Master: “Because your tree still didn’t fall down.”

Student: “Why did Shushan say, ‘Guishan hid a sword in his laughter’?”

Master: “Because Shushan’s tree fell down but your tree didn’t fall down.”

Commentary:

This is a secret not because it is hidden but because you can’t recognise it.

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Zen

Rinzai 106

What are you seeking in the realm of changing dependence? The Three Vehicles and the Twelve Divisions of the Teachings, all are just old paper to mop up mess. The Buddha is an illusory phantom. The patriarchs are old monks. You yourselves, are you not born of a mother? If you seek the Buddha, you will be caught by the Buddha-Mara; if you seek the patriarchs, you will be bound by the patriarch-Mara. Whatever you are seeking, all becomes suffering. It is better to have nothing further to seek.

Commentary:

‘The realm of changing dependence’ means the realm of illusions which are forms and imaginary labels, or words. This realm implies the worldly realm where we sentient beings reside. Enlightenment is escaping from or living beyond the realm of illusion. We should not fall into the trap of chasing after forms, or words whilst seeking to be freed from them. Words and forms, however holy and plausible they may appear, are just illusions, no more than that. So, seeking the Buddha and the patriarchs, following the illusions of them, is no other than being caught by the Buddha-Mara and the patriarch-Mara. No matter how awful Mara may appear, we should not avoid him, and no matter how holy the Buddha may appear, we should not follow him, because both of them are just illusions. Struggling to avoid the former, or seek the latter is the source of our suffering.

Student: “What should we do when the Buddha or Mara approaches us?”

Master: “See them as if they are your shadows.” 

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Q. Can I kill flies that are a nuisance inside my house?

A. You seem to be disquieted by the precept ‘Don’t kill any living thing’. If this is the case, should you then eat food such as meat, fish, bread, etc? As long as you eat such things, you cannot be free from the responsibility for having a lot of living things, both visible and invisible, killed. Even vegetarians cannot avoid this responsibility since countless microbes inhabiting vegetables are victimised. All living things, including human beings, are supposed to survive by consuming other living things. Even the Buddha couldn’t avoid this rule during his life.

What matters here is not whether you should kill the flies or not, but whether you can see everything, including the flies, you yourself who has the intention to kill them, and also your action of killing them as empty or not.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Xuansha’s ‘One Bright Pearl’

Zen master Shibei of Xuansha was once asked by a monastic, “You said that the entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. How can I understand the meaning of this?”

Xuansha said, “The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. Why is it necessary to understand the meaning of this?”

On the following day Xuansha said to the monastic, “The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. How do you understand the meaning of this?”  The monastic replied, “The entire world of the ten directions is one bright pearl. Why is it necessary to understand the meaning of this?”  Xuansha said, “Now I know that you are living inside the cave of demons on the black mountain.”

Student: “Why was the monastic wrong when he gave the same answer that the master had said?”

Master: “Because the monastic didn’t copy the master’s words exactly.”

Commentary:

Don’t mistake the sweet taste of sugar-coated medicine for the essence of the medicine itself.

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Zen

Rinzai 105

If you take these empty names as being real, you make a big mistake. For although they exist, they belong in the realm of dependent change and are like robes to put on and off. There is the robe of Bodhi, of Nirvana, of deliverance, of the Trinity, of objective wisdom, of Bodhisattvas and of Buddha.

Commentary:

All names are just imaginary labels we have attached, for the sake of convenience, to whatever reaches our eyes and ears. ‘They belong in the realm of dependent change and are like robes to put on and off’ means that all names do not exist on their own but are created by us. Such names are dependent on our decisions, and so they are compared to robes that are put on and taken off, or changed and even discarded as we please. There are a lot of names that sound attractive and plausible such as Nirvana, Bodhisattvas, Buddha and so forth. We should not be dazzled by such names, aware that they, however wonderful they may sound, are not the essence of the true-Self just as the clothing a man is wearing is not the essence of him.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Q. If Zen opposes dualistic thinking, does that mean that good and evil don’t exist? Can we do anything we like?

A. ‘Zen opposes dualistic thinking’ is a popular phrase in Zen meditation, which, if interpreted literally, can be highly likely to be misleading. How would it be possible to sustain our lives and our societies without dualistic thinking?

Zen doesn’t forbid us from having dualistic thoughts but discourages us from being attached to them through the realisation that everything, in essence, is neutral and that our dualistic thoughts are not immutable truth but just empty imaginary lines. This is referred to as wise dualistic thinking, or wise preference. An ancient master said to his students who were planting vegetables, “You are allowed to plant as many vegetables as you want, but you should not let them take root.”

Student: “How can I keep them from taking root?”

Master: “Plant them where there is neither day nor night.”

©Boo Ahm

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