Questions & Koans

Zen

Q. Where does what you know end and who you are begin?

A. Everything depends on you. All that you know are just illusions of your own creating. None of them have any original nature of their own that is not granted by human beings. Where they start and end depends on you. Fighting with them, or struggling to escape from them, without realising this fact is compared to drowning in the ocean of illusions.

If you define your physical body as yourself, then your identity begins at the moment you are felt by your mother in her womb. If you identify yourself with the universe, as part of the universe, who knows when and where your being started? You are eternity itself.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

All of them are impostors

One day a young monk visited a master. He had already met many other famous masters before. The master asked him, “How many masters did you meet before you came here?” The young monk listed the names of the ten masters who he had met previously. The master said, “All of them are impostors.” The monk asked, “How do you know that they were impostors if you did not see them?” The master replied, “Thanks to you.”

Student: “Why did the master refer to the other masters the young monk had met as imposters?”

Master: “Because they were not masters.”

Commentary:

The more masters you meet, the slimmer the chances are that you will see the Buddha.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Rinzai 93

The Buddhas and patriarchs are men who have nothing further to seek. So that whether the heart moves or does not move, and whether consequently there is action or not, all are pure deeds.

Commentary:

‘The Buddhas and patriarchs are men who have nothing further to seek’ means that enlightenment is no other than to realise that there is nothing to chase after, or avoid, since everything is empty and there is nothing to gain or lose. That is why ancient masters said, “Enlightenment is not enlightenment if you think that you attained it.”

‘Whether the heart moves or does not move, and whether consequently there is action or not, all are pure deeds’ means that when we are enlightened, our deeds are free from Karma, whatever discrimination we may make, that is, whatever we may think or speak, or whatever we may do, because we know that they are all empty.

The Buddhas and patriarchs are not different from or superior to us sentient beings in essence and we are no less than them at all once we have realised that there is nothing to seek by seeing everything as empty.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Q. Who am I? Why am I here?

A. Although these two questions may sound different from each other, they are in fact the same. If you find the answer to one question, the other is solved by itself. In other words, if you realise who you are, you naturally come to see why you are here, or if you realise why you are here, you naturally realise who you are.

In order to find the answer to your questions, ask yourself what you are when all the names attached to you, which define your identity, are removed. Try to see and hear things without attaching the words describing them to them. They are all just imaginary labels created by people and not the essence of your or their being. That is why ancient masters would say, “Remove all you can from yourself, until only what cannot be discarded is left and you will see the essence of your being.”

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Fayan’s ‘Sound and Form’

Fayan was once asked by a monastic, “How can we pass beyond sound and form?”

Fayan said to the assembly, “If all of you can understand the meaning of this monastic’s question, it will not be difficult for you to pass beyond sound and form.”

Student: “How should we understand the monastic’s question?”

Master: “Pass beyond sound and form.”

Commentary:

How can there be any difference between the Buddha’s talk and the monastic’s question when you pass beyond sound and form?

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Rinzai 92

To seek the Buddha, to seek the Dharma, those produce only Karma in hell. To seek the Bodhisattvas is again producing Karma. Reading the Sutras and Treatises also produces Karma.

Commentary:

‘The Buddha’, ‘the Dharma’ and ‘the Bodhisattvas’ are just names invented for the sake of teaching sentient beings and not the essence of what Buddhism says. To follow these words is also to be deluded by illusions, which is also to produce Karma that we are anxious to escape from. Reading the Sutras and Treatises also is no better than producing Karma if we cling to the words without grasping what is beyond the words. That is why the Buddha said, “Not a word have I said” on his deathbed, and ancient masters said, “Why do you look at the finger instead of the moon when it points to the moon?”

Once a monk asked the sixth Patriarch, “Who got the Dharma from the fifth Patriarch?” The sixth Patriarch answered, “One who knew the Buddha’s Dharma did.” The monk asked, “Did you get it?” The sixth Patriarch said, “No, I didn’t.” The monk asked again, “Why didn’t you get it?” The sixth Patriarch said, “Because I didn’t know the Buddha’s Dharma.” This story shows well that the enlightened are not deluded by the words such as the Buddha’s Dharma.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

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Zen

Q. If searching for happiness doesn’t bring happiness, then why should we seek answers in the first place?

A. All that we human beings do is to pursue happiness, to meet our desires. Even reading this writing is also a kind of act to search for happiness. Buddhism doesn’t discourage people from pursuing happiness but encourages them to do it in the right way.

In order to search for happiness, we should at least know what happiness is first of all; what it is like and where it is. However, unfortunately we don’t know what it is like and where it is since we have never seen it before. In other words, we are struggling in vain to attain something we don’t know. This is why we don’t succeed in achieving happiness.

Buddhism says that prior to searching for happiness, we should attain the way to recognise happiness, which is to see things as they are. When we can see things as they are, we can realise that we are happiness itself. Buddhism encourages people to realise this truth by seeing things as they are, instead of searching outside for happiness in vain. That is why it is said that searching for happiness doesn’t bring happiness.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Who got the Dharma from the fifth Patriarch?

Once a monk asked the sixth Patriarch, “Who got the Dharma from the fifth Patriarch?” The sixth Patriarch answered, “One who knew the Buddha’s Dharma did.” The monk asked, “Did you get it?” The sixth Patriarch said, “No, I didn’t.” The monk asked again, “Why didn’t you get it?” The sixth Patriarch said, “Because I didn’t know the Buddha’s Dharma.”

Student: “Why didn’t the sixth Patriarch know the Buddha’s Dharma even though he was a master?”

Master: “Because he was a master.”

Commentary:

What can be known or given and taken is not the Buddha’s Dharma.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Rinzai 91

You say that everywhere there is training and there is realisation. Do not be deceived. Although something (realisation) can be attained by training, it only creates the Karma of rebirth and death.

You say you train in the Six Perfections and the Ten Thousand Practices. As I see it, they are all productive of Karma.

Commentary:

This part can sound quite confusing since it can cause us to wonder what Buddhism is and why we should practise if there is no enlightenment to be attained by practice. He said these words for the people who are so involved in practice and enlightenment that they are likely to be attached to the forms of them, so that he might prevent people from being deluded by the illusions of practice and enlightenment.

The purpose of practice is to attain enlightenment, which is to see everything as empty. When everything is empty, not only practice but enlightenment is also empty. That is why ancient masters would say, “Once you’ve attained enlightenment, you will realise that all the practice you’ve done was of no use.”

Practising, no matter how hard we may practise, only creates the Karma of birth and death if we, unaware of its emptiness, are attached to the form of practice itself.

©Boo Ahm

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Zen

Q. Should we enjoy earthly pleasures, such as food, or is this simply being distracted by illusions?

A. Once a layman asked a master, “Should I have meat and alcohol?” The master answered, “Having them is a government salary and not having them is the blessing of the Buddha.”

‘Having them’ here implies to have them without realising that both the action of having them and the meat and alcohol, the objects of having, are empty. ‘A government salary’ symbolises karma since a government salary is the result of the cause, working for government. ‘Not having them’ means having them whilst being aware that everything is empty, which is referred to as eating without eating, which is the blessing of the Buddha since it is beyond making karma.

In short, what is more important than whether you do something or not is whether you are aware that what you are doing is empty. You should remember that the purpose of Buddhism is not to restrict our freedom but to give us perfect freedom. Whether you should enjoy earthly pleasures or not is up to you.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

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