Questions & Koans

Zen

Q. My master’s talk is always excellent and he teaches us very well, but I hear that he sometimes behaves immorally. Should I continue to learn from him?

A. Let’s suppose that you are suffering from a fatal illness. Fortunately, you found a doctor who can cure you of the illness. He is really skilled and talented in saving people from the illness you have, but has a bad reputation as a human: He is a cheat and playboy. You have no evidence for this and have never personally seen him behaving badly. What do you think you should do; refuse to see him because of his immoral reputation thereby losing your life, or be cured by him despite it? I think that you should be helped by him. When you go to see the doctor, you don’t go to see him to evaluate his morality but to be cured by him. What you need from him now is his ability to save you from your challenge and not his perfect morality.

In the same way, you should continue to see your master if he can teach you something that you need. The purpose of your going to him is not to respect him for his exemplary morality but to learn, or get what you need. What is more important here is the Buddha’s teaching, which says that we should not be deluded by words and form. When we see things as they are without being deluded by them, there is nothing that is not the Buddha.

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Zen

Families Use It Daily (1)

Master Chen asked a scholar who studied the Buddhist Sutras, “In a Sutra it is said, ‘Families use it daily and yet do not understand it.’ What is it that they do not understand?” The scholar said, “They do not understand the Way.” Chen said, “How do you understand the Way?” The scholar couldn’t respond.

Student: “What is the Way?”

Master: “You are using it at this moment?”

Student: “Why don’t I know it?”

Master: “That’s it.”

Commentary:

The Way is not the Way but the Way.

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Zen

Rinzai 188

When the cook approached, Rinzai related what had just happened. The cook said, “The head monk did not understand you.” The master asked, “And how do you understand it?” The cook bowed. The master hit him, too.

Commentary:

When Rinzai tested the cook by relating what had just happened, the cook responded very wittily and sophisticatedly by remarking, “The head monk did not understand you.” By this, the cook didn’t mean that the head monk had not understood Rinzai but just revealed ‘this’ that Rinzai had asked the head monk if he could sell. He meant, “My answering is the very ‘this’ you presented to the head monk.” Rinzai asked him again so that he might confirm the cook’s answer. He made a proper answer by bowing, and Rinzai approved his answer through hitting him.

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Zen

Q. Would you please interpret ‘The Buddha Land is dirty when there are three poisons in our mind, and it is pure when there are not three poisons’?

A. When it is said that everything is empty, or when we see everything as it is without being deluded by illusions, imaginary lines, everything is the Buddha. If everything around us is the Buddha, where we are at this moment must be the Buddha Land. However, when our minds are contaminated with three poisons; greed, anger and ignorance, we cannot see the Buddha Land as pure as it really is because they cause us to be deluded by illusions. This leads us to fail to recognise the Buddha Land whilst already being there and to wander about in search of it possessed with an image of a pure and perfect place although we have never left it. It is not because the Buddha Land is really dirty but because we cannot see the Buddha Land as it is due to the illusions caused by the three poisons in our minds that it appears to be dirty.

Student: “How can I remove the three poisons?”

Master: “They are the Buddha as well.”

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Zen

Deshan’s ‘Assembly on Vulture Peak’ (2)

Deshan was once asked by a monastic, “Who was able to hear Shakyamuni Buddha’s talk at the assembly on Vulture Peak?” Deshan said, “The enlightened heard it.” The monastic said, “I wonder what was spoken at the assembly on Vulture Peak?” Deshan said, “The enlightened understand it.”

Student: “What did the enlightened hear?”

Master: “It is still heard.”

Student: “Why can’t I hear it?”

Master: “Because your ears are stuffed with words.”

Commentary:

Not a word did the Buddha say.

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Zen

Rinzai 187

One day Rinzai asked the head monk, “Where are you coming from?” The head monk said, “I have just returned from the prefecture where I sold rice.” The master asked, “Did you sell the lot?” The head monk said, “Yes, all of it.” The master drew a line before him with his stick, and said, “Can you sell this, too?” The head monk gave a Katsu — the master hit him.

Commentary:

When Rinzai asked the head monk where he was coming from, he tested whether he knew the true-Self that is the root of his being. The head monk, failing to grasp Rinzai’s intention, made an ordinary answer. Then, Rinzai, drawing a line before him with his stick, posed another question ‘Can you sell this, too?’. The key point here is to know what the ‘this’ Rinzai mentioned is. If you happen to think that it meant the line he drew, you are being deluded by the illusion Rinzai created as an expedient so that he might show the true-Self. Rinzai meant not the line but the function of drawing the line. The head monk, sensing Rinzai’s intention, responded by giving a Katsu, by which he implied, “Your drawing the line is not different from my giving a Katsu.” Rinzai hit him as an approval.

Student: “What would you say if you were asked, ‘Can you sell this?’?”

Master: “People cannot take it even if I give it away for nothing.”

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Q. What is the meaning of ‘When we are ignorant, there is sin, but there is no sin when we are enlightened’?

A. When we are ignorant, that is, when we cannot see things as they are, we are deluded by illusions. The Buddha said that sentient beings are drowning in the ocean of suffering because we mistake illusions for real things. For example, we are happy with the illusion of having what we don’t really have, feel unhappy, or frustrated with the illusion of losing what we don’t actually lose and become excited with the illusion of having achieved what we have not achieved.

Bodhidharma said that people, looking upon a stump of a tree as a ghost and seeing a rope as a snake in the dark, feel scared. In the same way, we feel guilty of the illusion of having committed what we have not committed. This is referred to as being deluded by illusions. So, ‘there is no sin when we are enlightened’ means that when we are enlightened, we come to realise that sin is also empty.

Student: “If sin is also empty, should I not mind committing a sin?”

Master: “When sin is empty, the purpose of committing a sin is empty as well.”

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Deshan’s ‘Assembly on Vulture Peak’ (1)

Deshan was once asked by a monastic, “Who was able to hear Shakyamuni Buddha’s talk at the assembly on Vulture Peak?” Deshan said, “The enlightened heard it.” The monastic said, “I wonder what was spoken at the assembly on Vulture Peak?” Deshan said, “The enlightened understand it.”

Student: “What did the enlightened hear?”

Master: “What do you hear now?”

Student: “What did they understand?”

Master: “It cannot be written down.”

Commentary:

Words are no more than a wrapper, not the contents.

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Zen

Rinzai 186

Rinzai had been invited to an army camp for a vegetarian banquet. At the gate post he happened to meet two of the officers. Pointing to the old post, the master asked, “Is this worldly or sacred?” The officers were speechless. Rinzai struck the old post and uttered, “Whatever you can say, it is but a block of wood,” and then went within.

Commentary:

When Rinzai, pointing to the old post, asked the officers, “Is this worldly or sacred?” he meant, “Is this post form or Emptiness in your view?” Rinzai answered his question in two ways. The first was by striking the post, by which he meant, “My act of striking this post and the sound from striking it are the functions of this post and the essence of its being.” The second way was by commenting, “Whatever you can say, it is but a block of wood”, by which he meant, “The essence of this post is neither worldly nor sacred since is nameless. My act of speaking like this is no other than the function of the post because everything is Oneness.” In other words, the purpose of his saying, “Whatever you can say, it is but a block wood” was not to transmit literal meaning but to use it as an expedient for revealing the true-Self that is the essence of the post.

If you apply this question to the things you see and hear in your everyday life, it can be good practice. When drinking tea or coffee, for instance, you can ask yourself, “Is this a mug or Emptiness? How can I see it as empty?”

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Zen

Q. Why is it said that all illusions are seeds of the Buddha?

A. Originally everything is the Buddha, and there is nothing else except the Buddha, which we have divided into many by using imaginary lines and put labels on them. Even though each of the many appears to be different from one another and has a different name, all of them are essentially the same as the Buddha. When we, not aware of this fact, think of the many diverse forms and names as real and attach ourselves to them, the forms and names are referred to as illusions. In fact, although everything that we see and hear is the Buddha, we don’t recognise it because we are deluded by illusions. So, ancient masters would say that the Buddha is hidden in illusions. This is why it is said that all illusions are seeds of the Buddha.

Student: “How can I distinguish an illusion from the Buddha when I see something?”

Master: “What changes is an illusion, and what doesn’t change is the Buddha.”

©Boo Ahm

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