Questions & Koans

Zen

Rinzai 74

Followers of the Way, do not trust yourselves to a companion that is only a phantom and a dream (the body). Sooner or later, it will return to impermanence. What means of deliverance can you find in this world? Leading your life eating a spoonful of rice and sewing tattered clothes, you should see a good teacher without losing time in chasing after pleasures. Time is precious, and the moments are fleeting. On the material plane you are obstructed by earth, water, fire and air; on the mental plane you are pressured by the four conditions of all compounded forms, birth, being, change, and extinction.

Commentary:

‘Do not trust yourselves to a companion that is only a phantom and a dream (the body)’ means that we should not be attached to our physical bodies, seeing them as our true ‘I’. ‘Sooner or later, it will return to impermanence’ means that your physical body will perish soon’. ‘Leading your life eating a spoonful of rice and sewing tattered clothes, you should see a good teacher without losing time chasing after pleasures’ means that we should live a simple and frugal life without craving for rich food and expensive clothing and practise under a good master’s teaching.

‘You are obstructed by earth, water, fire and air’ means that death is coming closer to us as the bond of the elements of our physical bodies; earth, water, fire and air, is loosening with time. ‘You are pressured by the four conditions of all compounded forms, birth, being, change, and extinction’ is, as an added explanation, implying that we cannot escape the yoke of birth, living, ageing and death. In other words, every moment death keeps nearing us, and what is worse, no one knows when we will encounter it because it never asks anyone’s permission. Therefore, we should practise hard without wasting precious and fleeting time on worldly pleasures.

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Zen

Q. I feel a great peace within when I try to solve the Zen question, but I don’t know why. The voice in my head is very frustrated about how nonsensical it is but my body is somehow calm, which is a strange disconnect from how it usually reacts to my mind being frustrated. Can anyone tell me if I’m on the right path?

A.‘The voice in my head is very frustrated about how nonsensical it is’ makes sense. In fact, many people, when considering a Zen question, koan, think of it as nonsensical and have the same trouble as you do because it sounds illogical and unreasonable. The reason why you feel that way is that you have not had enough teaching before tackling the question. You should have been taught logically why you should solve the question and how you should approach the question, which would make you, instead of being frustrated about how nonsensical it is, convinced that the question is reasonable and logical.

After taking a question from a master, you need sufficient communication with him and continuous instruction on how to deal with the question. Anyway, if you continue to feel frustrated about how nonsensical the question is, you had better start again from the beginning since you cannot solve the question with distrust whilst regarding it as nonsensical.

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Zen

Rinzai’s “host and guest”

One day a monastic asked Rinzai, “When two monks shout ‘Katsu’ to each other, is there a host and a guest?” Rinzai said, “Very clear.” The monastic said, “Which is a host, and which is a guest?” Rinzai answered, “Why don’t you go and ask the two monastics in person?”

 

Student: “Why did Rinzai tell the monastic to go and ask the two monastics instead of giving an answer?”

Master: “Because it was the best he could do.”

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Commentary:

A host and a guest cannot be separated even with the sharpest axe.

 

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Zen

Rinzai 73

If you want to get free from birth and death, from coming and going, from taking off or putting on like clothing, know and take hold of him who is now listening to the Dharma. He has neither form nor shape, neither root nor trunk; nor does he have a dwelling place; he is as lively as a fish leaping in the water, and performs his function in response to all situations. However, the place of his functioning is not a locality. Therefore, if you search for him, he eludes you. The more you seek him, the farther away he is. That is why he is called ‘mysterious’.

Commentary:

‘Coming and going’ and ‘taking off or putting on like clothing’ are other expressions of birth and death. ‘Taking off or putting on like clothing’ means to take off or put on our physical bodies; taking off one’s body implies death, and putting on one’s body birth. ‘Him who is now listening to the Dharma’ implies the true-Self. He is formless and has no dwelling place because there is nothing that is not him, which means that everything is his form and that everywhere is his dwelling place. All forms are the functions of him. This is why Rinzai said, “The place of his functioning is not a locality. Therefore, if you search for him, he eludes you. The more you seek him, the farther away he is.”

Seen from the perspective of form, he is ceaselessly active and as brisk as a fish leaping in the water. Seen from the perspective of Emptiness, he is motionless and nothing happens in him. If you want to get free from birth and death, you should not fail to see him who is reading this writing.

Student: “Who is he that is listening to the Dharma?”

Master: “Why do you ask me what is in your mouth?”

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Zen

Q. How can we prove that we are God?

A. This time I will answer the question based on the Bible. According to the Bible, God created everything. If God created everything, what was there before things were created by God? There was nothing else but God, or there was only God and nothing else. Then, God was not God because there was no one else and nothing else to distinguish him from, and no one who would call him God. There was just oneness that was nameless. We nowadays refer to the oneness as God for the sake of convenience.

 

What do you think God created, or made everything out of? He could not help but make everything out of part of God himself, since there was nothing else but God himself before he started to create things. This means that everything, including human beings, is part of God. Therefore, Jesus said, “When the day comes, you will know that I am in my father and that you are in me, just as I am in you.” (John 14:20)

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How can we return to the state prior to creation, the state of oneness that was the figure of God before we were made into human beings? We can do this if we do in reverse what God did when he created us. To do in reverse what God did when creating us, we must know how He created everything. The Bible has the answer to this as well. John1:2-3 says, “From the very beginning the Word was with God. Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him.”

 

It is apparent that everything was made through word. Then, doing in reverse what God did when creating everything is removing or detaching all the words. What will happen if all the words that define the boundary and identity of everything are removed? Everything becomes oneness, the state prior to creation. We return to the nameless oneness which we call God for the sake of convenience. In Buddhism it is called the Buddha, the true-Self, or Oneness. Enlightenment means returning to the nameless oneness.

 

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Zen

Master Namchun’s ‘Once I was taught to return to the source.’

Master Namchun once said, “Once I was taught to return to the source. If I had thought so, I would have caused a serious disaster.”

 

Student: “I have also been taught to return to the source. Is this teaching wrong?”

Master: Wandering in search of the source following the words ‘Turn to the source’ is a serious disaster.”

Student: “How should I accept it?”

Master: “Return to the source now.”

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Commentary:

The best medicine can be poison if used wrongly and poison can be medicine that can save people when used properly.

 

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Zen

Rinzai 72

Students ceaselessly take hold of names and phrases, and get obstructed by words like ‘worldly’ and ‘sacred’ which obscure the eye, and so they cannot see clearly. The Twelve Divisions of the Teachings are only surface explanations. But students, not realising this, take to these surface explanations of words and letters and deliver interpretations of them. All this is only supporting their dependence and, accordingly, they fall into cause and effect and so do not escape birth and death in the Three Worlds.

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Commentary:

Take hold of names and phrases, and get obstructed by words like worldly and sacred’ means that we are deluded by words such as ‘worldly’ and ‘sacred’. ‘They cannot see clearly’ implies that we cannot see things as they are, or as empty. ‘The Twelve Divisions of the Teachings are only surface explanations’ represents that all doctrinal teachings are just words that explain the true-Self, not the true-Self itself. Being lost in the words themselves while losing sight of the true-Self is looking at the finger pointing to the moon instead of looking at the moon itself. This is like thinking of the boundary line of one’s land, which merely indicates the extent of the land, as being one’s land itself, whilst being ignorant of the fact that in reality it is the land inside the boundary that is one’s own. ‘All this is only supporting their dependence’ means that being deluded by words induces people to cling to and depend on the illusion of Buddha, or God.

Student: “How should we accept ‘The Twelve Divisions of the Teachings’?”

Master: “Don’t be deluded by the words of them.”

 

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Zen

Q. What is the difference between understanding and enlightenment?

A. Understanding without experience can be said to be imperfect understanding as a kind of knowledge. Enlightenment is perfect understanding through personal experience. We, for example, can understand how to swim by reading books on it and even explain it to others. However, understanding how to swim merely as knowledge is quite different from swimming in person in a pool.

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In the same way, many people, with a lot of understanding about the Buddha and enlightenment, say that the Buddha is with them all the time, but few can really see Him in person. Regarding literal understanding as enlightenment is like thinking of the literal understanding of swimming manuals as being good enough to save us from drowning. Zen meditation is to help people to internalise their knowledge through personal experience, that is, help them to turn their knowledge into their experience.

 

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Zen

Q. Should we call it honey cake or not?

A. One day a master cut a piece of honey cake into two before one of his students and asked him, “What should we call it? Should we call it honey cake or not?” The student said, “We can’t help but call it honey cake.” The master didn’t approve him.

Student: “What would you have said in the student’s shoes?”

Master: “I would have said, ‘Why do you ask me your father’s name, Sir?’”

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Commentary:

How could he know his father’s name whilst not recognising his father?

 

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Zen

Rinzai 71

Just enter the birthless Dharma realm and play about in it; enter the world of the Lotus Treasury; everywhere, all things are without form, and are not real things. There is only the Independent Man of the Way who is now listening to the Dharma. He is the mother of all the Buddhas. Therefore the Buddha is born from the Independent Man of the Way. If you truly understand this independent Man of the Way, then you know that the Buddha is not something to be attained! One who can see it like this is a man of genuine insight.

 

Commentary:

The birthless Dharma realm’ and ‘the world of the Lotus Treasury’ are different expressions of the Pure Land, and so to enter it means to attain enlightenment. Once you enter it, that is, you are enlightened, there is nothing but the true-Self, Emptiness. ‘All things are without form, and are not real things’ means that when you see everything as empty, all things are not things but Emptiness. This is why Rinzai said that there is only ‘the Independent Man of the Way’ which is a personified expression of the true-Self, Emptiness. ‘He is the mother of all the Buddhas’ implies that all things, including all the Buddhas and Maras, are just the functions of the true-Self. So, if you truly understand, realise this Independent Man of the Way, you don’t have to try to attain the Buddha because you will find yourself being the Man of Way. That’s why ancient masters would say that the Buddha and Maitreya are his servants.

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Student: “What is the Independent Man of the Way?”

Master: “You and I are from Him.”

Student: “Where is He?”

Master: “He is amongst the grasses.”

 

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