Questions & Koans

Zen

Rinzai 84

Followers of the Way, you should be a manly man if you are to realise the true-Self. You should not be weak-minded and undetermined because even the best food cannot be kept in a cracked vessel. To become a great vessel, you should not be possessed by others but ought to be your own master wherever you may be. Then, the place where you stand will be the truth itself.

Commentary:

‘You should be  a manly man if you are to realise the true-Self’ means that in order to attain enlightenment, you should have a strong belief that you can become enlightened and firm determination to overcome any challenges to achieve your goal without fail. Such a person is compared to a great vessel for enlightenment. ‘You should not be possessed by others but ought to be your own master’ implies that you should not be deluded by words and forms but see them as illusions created by yourself.

Enlightenment is to not being deluded by illusions as the best food is to a great vessel. In the same way that the best food cannot stay intact in a cracked vessel because germs spoil the food by spreading into it through the cracks, enlightenment cannot be attained when we are deluded by illusions.

When you are not possessed by others then you are truth itself, which means that you are in the Pure Land.

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Zen

Q. Is Nirvana the same as heaven? Is that where Buddha is today?

A. Nirvana is to Buddhism as heaven is to Christianity. You should know that you are already in Nirvana all the time. The reason why you are not in Nirvana is not that it is far away from you but that you are not aware that you are there.

Regarding your second question, Nirvana is where Buddha is, that is, only Buddha, and no one else, can be in Nirvana. As mentioned above, if you are already in Nirvana, it means that you are already Buddha and that you need not seek any other Buddha since you are Buddha. The truth is that you are not Buddha, not because you are not Buddha but because you are ignorant of the fact that you are Buddha.

You have been and will be Buddha forever, and so you have been and will be in Nirvana forever. Whether you will be in Nirvana as Buddha or stay as a sentient being depends on whether or not you realise this truth.

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Zen

What is perfect?

Two young monks visited a well-known master in order to get his teaching. They asked the master “Sir, what is perfect?” The master replied “Both of you go out of this temple and bring me something within the next half an hour. Then I will show you what is perfect.” One monk quickly returned with a red flower, the other came back later with a stream-worn pebble. They showed the master their offerings and the master observed them, then he said, “One is perfect, the other is imperfect.”

Student: “Which one is perfect?”

Master: “The one who neither moved nor spoke is perfect.”

Commentary:

The ones who move and speak are all the servants of the one who does not.

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Zen

Rinzai 83

Just put your heart at rest and seek nothing outside. When things come towards you, look at them clearly. Have faith in the one who is functioning at this moment, and all things become empty by themselves. Followers of the Way, do you want to attain this Dharma? Then it is indeed necessary to become a man who has nothing further to seek.

Commentary:

‘Just put your heart at rest and seek nothing outside’ means that we should stop pursuing enlightenment in vain by discriminating or following words. Enlightenment is to realise that you are perfection itself and not to attain something perfect outside. ‘When things come towards you, look at them clearly’ implies that when seeing and hearing things, we should see and hear what is beyond the sounds and forms, which is to see and hear things without attaching any labels. ‘Have faith in the one who is functioning at this moment, and all things become empty by themselves’ implies that if you realise what is controlling your physical body at this moment, you can see all things as empty naturally, without extra effort. Then, you realise that you are perfection itself and eternity itself which has nothing further to seek.

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Zen

Q. Who created Nirvana or how did it come into existence?

A. Nirvana that symbolises the most ideal and perfect state imaginable, is another name for Emptiness, or the true-Self. In other words, Nirvana is the state in which we can see and hear without attaching any names to whatever reaches our eyes and ears. Your question should be ‘Who made a mess of Nirvana?’, or ‘Who turned Nirvana into the mundane?’ because everything was originally in Nirvana as part of it before our discrimination.

It is said that we made a mess of Nirvana with illusions we created by discriminating. The fact is not that we spoiled Nirvana but that we covered our eyes with illusions created by us. This leads us to be confused into seeing the Nirvana before us as an Ocean of Suffering and thinking that Nirvana is somewhere else far away. That is why sentient beings are compared to people with eye disease, and the enlightened are those whose eye diseases have healed.

Student: “What is Nirvana?”

Master: “You cannot get out of it.”

Student: “Why can’t I go there?”

Master: “Because you struggle to enter it whilst you are there.”

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Zen

The Master’s Portrait

Zen master Dizang held a memorial service for his teacher Xuansha. He invited Baoen and served him dinner. When Baoen looked at the altar, there was no picture of Master Xuansha. So, he asked, “Do you have a portrait of your master?” Dizang folded his hands, bowed, and said, “Look!” Baoen said, “There is no picture.” Dizang said, “It’s clear that you don’t see it, but it’s here.”

Student: “What is the portrait of Master Xuansha?”

Master: “You don’t see it, but it’s here, too.”

Student: “Why can’t I see it now?”

Master: “Because you can’t see me.”

Commentary:

He who cannot see what is right before him cannot see other things, either.

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Zen

Rinzai 82

If one comes to ask me how to become the Buddha, I respond to him with a state of purity. If one asks me what Bodhisattvas are, I respond to him accordingly with a state of compassion. If one asks me about Bodhi (Enlightenment), I respond by showing a state of pure mystery. And if one questions me on Nirvana, I show a corresponding state of quiet calm.

States (or circumstances) are manifestations; they are the differentiation into the ten thousand things; but there is only one who is always the same man, who does not differ at all. That is why the true-Self appears to be different in response to circumstances, just as the moon is reflected in different places.

Commentary:

You might wonder what Master Rinzai meant by his responses to the four respective questions, but his answers to the questions were truly clear. The problem is whether listeners, or readers can grasp his answers. The four questions may seem to be different from each other, but they are, in fact, the same question, one question: What is the true-Self? or What is Emptiness? Whatever he says, or whatever he does can be perfect answers to the questions. So, when he said, “If one comes to ask me how to become the Buddha, I respond to him with a state of purity,” we should be able to see that Rinzai was revealing the Buddha by saying, “I respond to him a state of purity.” In the same way, he showed Bodhisattvas to us by saying, “I respond to him accordingly with a state of compassion.” The other two questions should also be understood like this.

‘There is only one who is always the same man, who does not differ at all’ means that there is nothing else but the true-Self, Emptiness. Although it appears to be different depending on the situation, just like seen in four answers above, its essence never changes at all. This is just as if the moon were reflected in different places. When reflected in a lake, it looks larger than when it is reflected in a glass of water, and the shape of the moon reflected in calm water is quite different from that of the moon reflected in turbulent water. No matter how the shape of the reflected moon may appear, the moon itself is the same all the time without any change.

Student: “What is Bodhi?”

Master: “Take a close look.”

Student: “What is Nirvana?”

Master: “Why don’t you come in now?”

Student: “Why am I still lost?”

Master: “Because you are being deluded by the reflections of the moon without seeing the moon.”

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Zen

Q. What does Buddhism say about ‘the meaning of life’?

A. What Buddhism says is that everything is empty, which means that life is empty as well. To say that everything is empty, however, never means that everything is void and useless, but means that everything, in essence, is perfection itself and neutrality itself. That everything is perfection itself means that your life is essentially perfect no matter how it may appear superficially.

That everything is neutrality itself implies that the meaning of your life is not granted by god, or others but is of your own making. In conclusion, the meaning of life in Buddhism is that our lives may look different from each other, but they are in essence all equal since they are all perfect.

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Zen

Baizhang’s “No Means of Livelihood”

Baizhang was asked by Yunyan, “Master, you work on details all day.  Who are you doing it for?”

Baizhang said, “There may be someone who requires it.”

Yunyan said, “Why don’t you let that person take care of it?”

Baizhang said, “Because that person may not have the means of making a livelihood.”

Student: “Who is the person that doesn’t have the means of making a livelihood?”

Master: “The Buddha and all Bodhisattvas are also his servants?”

Commentary:

A king never harvests crops nor cooks food in person.

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Zen

Rinzai 81

As for me, if anyone comes with a question, I know him to the bottom, whether he be monk or layman. Whatever position he may come with, all are only words and names, dreams and phantoms. The aim of the profound teachings of all the Buddhas is rather to see the man who can ride all circumstances. The state of Buddha cannot say of itself “I am a Buddha-state.” It is rather the independent man of the Way who avails himself of all states.

Commentary:

All masters can see through anyone who comes with a question, a koan. In other words, they know why he cannot solve the question because he struggles with words, names, dreams and phantoms. Struggling with words, names, dreams and phantoms is compared to tripping over shadows, or lines drawn on the ground,  ‘The man who can ride all circumstances’, from a Biblical perspective, symbolises the man who can walk on water, who is not deluded by illusions; words, names, dreams and phantoms. In brief, the man of the Way who, having realised that all different states are the functions of the Buddha, can make good use of them, for others as well as himself, is none other than the Buddha.

Student: “How can I ride all circumstances?”

Master: “All circumstances are empty.”

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