Questions & Koans

Zen

Q. What brings lasting happiness?

A. To realise what happiness is does. Nothing and no one can bring lasting happiness to you because you are in fact happiness itself. The reason why we cannot enjoy lasting happiness is not that it is far out of our reach but that we don’t recognise it although we are happiness itself because we cannot see things as they are.

We should realise that happiness is not what can be brought from outside, but it is just to realise that we are happiness itself. The purpose of Buddhism or Zen meditation is to lead people to realise that they themselves are happiness by helping them to see everything as it is.

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Zen

A master stripped himself naked

Once a master delivered a dharma talk at a special Buddhist service where his mother was present. On the high seat the master stripped himself of all his clothes, becoming completely naked. All the attendees, including his mother, were embarrassed and left the place in a hurry. Then, the master said to his mother who was leaving, “When I was young, you hugged and kissed me all the time. Why are you avoiding me now even though I am still the same son that you loved?”

Student: “Why did the master take off all his clothes?”

Master: “He showed them what they wanted to see.”

Commentary:

Much compassion caused misunderstanding.

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Zen

Rinzai 136

Or a student brings forward a phenomenon of purity before a master. The master, discerning it as just a phenomenon, grabs it and throws it into a pit. The student exclaims: “What a great teacher.” The teacher responds: “Bah! You don’t know bad from good.” The student then bows. This is called “a host sees a host.”

Commentary:

This paragraph shows how a master and a student see through each other. ‘A student brings forward a phenomenon of purity’ implies that a student reveals the true-Self with a tricky comment or a clever question that entices the master to follow the words. ‘Grabs it and throws it into a pit’ means that the master, sensing his intention, responds by revealing the true-Self with suitable words or an action that befits the situation. Then, the student, aware that he has already been seen through by the master, responds with words or an action that shows his admiration for the master’s enlightenment. Then, the master makes a comment like ‘Bah! You don’t know bad from good’ to check whether or not the student has grasped his intention. The student responds with suitable words or an action such as bowing, which implies, “I know what you mean. What I am showing you now is no other than what you mean”. When a master and a student see through each other like this, this is referred to as “a host sees a host”.

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Zen

Q. How should we understand the Biblical scripture ‘John 2:15 Don’t love the world or anything that belongs to the world. If you love the world, you don’t love the Father’?

 A. This reference doesn’t mean that we should not love the world but that we should love the world more than we do now. If we, following the literal interpretation, should forsake our loved ones in order to love the Father, this contrasts strikingly with another Biblical scripture ‘Mark 12:31 Love your neighbour as you love yourself’.

To rephrase this scripture, it says ‘Don’t be attached to the world or anything that belongs to the world. If you are attached to the world, you will not recognise that it is the Father’. For example, when you see your spouse, if you cling to the idea that he or she is just your husband or your wife as a person, you cannot recognise that he or she is part of the Father. In other words, when you can see the world whilst being detached from the stereotypical perspective, you can realise that he or she is more than your spouse as a person, that is, part of the Father. Then, even if your spouse sometimes behaves short of your expectation, you are not disappointed or upset because his or her misbehaviour is not misbehaviour. If you see and hear the world in this way, when you see a flower or a tree, you can see more than a flower or a tree and come to love it more than you do now. In short, John 2:15 means that we should not see the world just as a world to exploit but see the world as the Father and treat it as such.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

The one who is not busy

One day a master, seeing a monastic who was engaged in managing the temple, said, “How are you getting along these days?” The monastic answered, “I am as busy as a bee.” Then, the master said, “You should know that there is one who is not busy at all with you all the time.”

Student: “Who is the one that is not busy?”

Master: “He was not born from a woman.”

Student: “Where is he?”

Master: “Where is he?”

Student: “I asked where he is. Why do you ask me back where he is instead of answering my question?”

Master: “Why don’t you understand my answer while you answer my question perfectly?”

Commentary:

You are looking for an ox while riding it. Stop looking for the ox you are looking for and bring forth the ox you are riding.

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Zen

Rinzai 135

Or it may be that the teacher does not posit anything at all, but follows the student’s lead, and then snatches the question away from him. Though robbed, the student cannot drop it and clings to it till death. This is called ‘a host sees through a guest.’

Commentary:

This paragraph shows how a master sees through a student. A master just waits and sees what the student says and how he acts. When the student asks him a question, the master answers his question by revealing the true-Self with words that are beyond literal meaning instead of giving a doctrinal explanation. This is to snatch the question away. Words such as these that masters use in order to reveal the true-Self are referred to as words that cannot be put into action. I will give you an example. One day a monastic visits a master and asks him for teaching:

Student: “Sir, what is the true-Self?”

Master: “How long did it take to come here?”

Student: “It took three days.”

Master: “Thank you for coming such a long way, but I am sorry I cannot answer your question.”

Student: “Why can’t you answer?”

Master: “Because I don’t know.”

In this dialogue the student is just following the literal meaning without grasping the key point of the master’s answer. In other words, the monastic is fooled by the master’s words even though the master gave him a correct answer. In this way, when a monastic clings to the literal meaning of the master’s words, we say that he cannot drop it and clings to it. This is called ‘a host sees through a guest.’

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Zen

Q. Why do sentient beings have poor behaviour?

A. It’s not because sentient beings have poor behaviour but because you see their behaviour as poor. That is, you cannot see their behaviour as it is because you are deluded by illusions.

As long as you remain unable to see things as they are, even if the historical Buddha who passed away about 2500 years ago were to come to life, you would not recognise him because his behaviour would appear to be as poor as sentient beings’ behaviour to you. That’s why I always say that the Buddha is not enlightened until you are.

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Zen

Joshu visits two shrines

Once Master Joshu said to his students, “During one of my expeditions, when I visited a shrine, the head monk of it lifted his fist before my face, and I said, ‘The water here is too shallow for a ship to dock’. When I went to another shrine, the head monk of it also lifted his fist before my face, and I said, ‘The water here is deep enough for a big ship to dock’”.

Student: “Why did Master Joshu distinguish the two head monks from each other by saying the former was inferior to the latter even though both performed the same action?”

Master: “Because Joshu was so exhausted from his long journey that he spoke deliriously.”

Commentary:

Make the smallest distinction and you will be as far apart from the truth as heaven is from earth.

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Zen

Rinzai 134

In case a true student puts out a pot with sticky glue by shouting a Katsu, the master, not sensing that it is a trick, add various theories to it. Then, the student gives a Katsu one more time, but the master still doesn’t let go of his theories. This is a chronic disease that even a doctor cannot cure. This is called ‘a guest sees through a host.’

Commentary:

This paragraph shows how a nominal master, who is not enlightened, is seen through by a true practitioner. When a young enlightened practitioner raises the question ‘Do you know that this is the true-Self?’ by revealing the true-self through shouting a Katsu, the nominal master, missing the core of the question, tries to explain the true-Self with his knowledge, quoting from well known books on enlightenment such as the Sutras. Then, the practitioner gives a Katsu once more, which means ‘Sir, show me the true-Self directly instead of narrating such a redundant doctrinal explanation.’ However, the nominal master clings to his intellectual comprehension since he has no experience of enlightenment, that is, he cannot see things as they are. This is called a chronic disease that even a doctor cannot cure because he, lost in the belief in his enlightenment, has no intention to see a doctor to be cured of the disease. In this way, when a good student sees through a fake master, it is called ‘a guest sees through a host’.

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Zen

Q. Why don’t I get enlightened even though I have perfect understanding when a koan is explained?

A. You may think that you have perfect understanding, but the fact is that you are mistaking intellectual comprehension for perfect understanding, which is achievable only through experience. The former is different from the latter just as having perfect intellectual understanding of how to swim is one thing and being able to enjoy swimming freely in a deep river is another. 

If you had had perfect understanding of a koan as you said, you should be able to grasp other koans without explanation, just as you can solve other arithmetic problems easily once you have perfect understanding of arithmetic rules through an arithmetic question.

©Boo Ahm

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