Questions & Koans

Zen

Q. Why don’t we see the true-Self although it is in our bodies?

A. The true-Self is not only in our bodies, but it is everywhere and there is no place free from it. Everything is the true-Self and there is nothing that is not the true-Self. Actually, we cannot stop seeing and hearing it even for a moment nor can we escape from it even for a moment.

Our problem is that we cannot recognise it while seeing and hearing it, because we are deluded by illusions created by us. That is, we are so intoxicated with discriminating the shapes and sizes of the waves in sea that we cannot realise that all waves are just part of the sea as water. In short, we cannot see the sea and water whilst floundering in the sea.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

Zen

Choshin’s ‘Ancestors Error’

Choshin said, “People said that the Buddha transmitted the dharma to Mahakasyapa in secret and shared his seat with him. The people attending the talk should have spat in the Buddha’s face. Because they didn’t do that, their offspring are still in calamity now.”

Student: “What is the error that these ancient people made?”

Master: “They misled their offspring into believing that the Buddha did what he hadn’t done.”

Commentary:

What is valuable cannot be either transmitted or hidden.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

Zen

Rinzai 206 (The Karma of Rinzai’s Enlightenment)

When Rinzai was a new monk in Obaku’s community, his behaviour was simple and direct. The head monk recommended him, saying, “He is a new monk, yet he differs from all the others.” The head monk then asked him, “How long have you been here?” Rinzai replied, “For three years.” The head monk asked, “Have you been for an interview yet?” Rinzai said, “Never. I do not know what to ask.” The head monk said, “Why do you not go and ask the reverend head of the monastery what the essence of Buddhism is?” Rinzai accordingly did as bid, but even before he had finished speaking, Obaku hit him. Rinzai withdrew. When the head monk asked him how the interview had gone, he said, “Even before I had finished speaking, the master hit me. I do not understand.” The head monk said, “Simply go and ask again.” Rinzai did so and Obaku hit him again. It happened again in this way a third time, with Rinzai questioning and then being hit. Rinzai went to the head monk and said, “You had the kindness to send me to question the master. Three times I asked, and three times I was beaten. I am afraid that I am obstructed by my previous karma, and do not understand his deep intention. So, for the time being, I am resigning and am leaving.” The head monk said, “If you are going, you have to take leave of the master.” Rinzai bowed his acceptance and left. The head monk went at once to the master Obaku and said, “That young monk who came and questioned you is really suited for the Dharma. When he comes to take leave of you, find a way for him to continue. Planting for times to come, he will grow into a big tree that will give shade to all men.” When Rinzai came to take leave, Obaku said to him, “You must not go anywhere else but to Daigu who lives near the shoals of Goan. He will explain to you.”

Commentary:

Every time Rinzai asked Obaku the essence of Buddhism, Obaku responded by hitting him without using saying any words, which means that he showed the essence of Buddhism to him by means of hitting him. Given that Obaku led him directly to the essence of Buddhism without any verbal explanation, he seems to have been aware of Rinzai’s latent capacity. When Obaku found that his expedient didn’t work then, he told Rinzai to go to see Daigu, since Obaku was sure that Daigu was capable of helping Rinzai. Sending Rinzai to Daigu was another expedient used by Obaku. Here, the head monk deserves credit for having arranged an interview between Obaku and Rinzai and for having encouraged Rinzai to have the interview.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

Zen

Q. Given the ripple effect of our actions across time and space, how can we ever be sure that we’re doing the ‘right’ thing?

A. You cannot do the right thing because there is no such thing. What is the right thing? What is the right thing to one man can be the wrong thing to another and what is the right thing today can be the wrong thing tomorrow and the other way around.

Everything is neutral and nothing itself argues that it is right. A right thing is a right thing not because it is right in essence but because you, or others think of it as right. Originally there is no right thing, because that is just an illusion, an imaginary thing like time. We tie ourselves with such imaginary ropes and struggle to escape from them later. In Buddhism they are called illusions. Perfect escape from them is referred to as Nirvana, or enlightenment.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

Zen

Buban’s Escape from Forms and Sounds

When a monk asked Master Buban, “How can I escape from forms and sounds?” Buban said to his students, “If you understand this monk’s question, you can escape from forms and sounds easily.”

Student: “How should I understand the monk’s question?”

Master: “I understand your question.”

Commentary:

There cannot be questions and answers when there are no forms and sounds.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

Zen

Rinzai 205

One day at the street market Fuke was begging all and sundry to give him a Buddhist monk’s robe. Whenever people offered him one, he said that he didn’t need it. Rinzai made the monk in charge of the temple’s affairs buy a coffin, and when Fuke returned, said to him, “There, I had this robe made for you.” Fuke shouldered the coffin, and went back to the street market, calling loudly, “Rinzai got this robe made for me! I am going to the East Gate and will leave this world there.” The people from the street crowded after him, eager to watch. Fuke said, “No, not today. Tomorrow, I will go to the South Gate to leave this world.” And so it went on for three days, until nobody believed it any longer. On the fourth day, and now without any spectators, Fuke went alone outside the city walls, and laid himself into the coffin. He asked a traveller who happened to pass by there to nail down the lid. The news spread at once, and the people from the street rushed there. Upon opening the coffin, they found that the body had vanished, but from high up in the sky they heard his hand bell ringing softly.

Commentary:

This part can sound misleading to modern people because it is so exaggerated that it seems to be fictional. What matters is how to grasp the meaning this story conveys without being deluded by words. ‘Fuke was begging all and sundry to give him a Buddhist monk’s robe’ implies that he was revealing the true-Self in a peculiar way to catch people’s attention as an expedient to spread Zen Buddhism. This is why he refused people whenever they, deluded by his words, offered him robes. Rinzai, aware of Fuke’s intention, got a coffin prepared for him.  Fuke, with the coffin on his shoulder, went back to the street market, calling loudly, “Rinzai got this robe made for me!” He meant that Rinzai had the eye of wisdom to see his intention. From ‘I am going to the East Gate and will leave this world there’ to ‘until nobody believed it any longer’ Fuke revealed the true-Self.  From ‘On the fourth day, and now without any spectators’ to ‘the people from the street rushed there’ Fuke, aware that his mission was over, revealed the true-Self finally and dramatically. The last part from ‘On opening the coffin’ to the end of this story shows that although his physical body became invisible, his existence as the true-Self is everlasting. The sounds of raindrops and birds we can hear now are not different from the ringing of his hand bell.

The core of this is that regardless of whether this story is real or fictional, this all the function of the true-Self.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

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Zen

Q. Can anything exist in complete isolation or is everything defined by its relation and connection to other things?

A. Nothing can exist in complete isolation. Everything must depend on something for its existence. For example, in order for a chair to exist, firstly, there should be a person who sees and calls it a chair. Secondly, there should be things that are different and separate from the chair, that can be distinguished from the chair. In fact, each of the things that a chair depends on for its existence exists in the same way as a chair does. So, ancient masters would say that if a mote comes into existence, all the universe comes into existence along with it.

The point here is that nothing can come into existence without our acknowledgment. A chair, for instance, can be a chair only when we differentiate it from other things, think of it as a chair and refer to it as such. This is why the Buddha said that everything is from our mind.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

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Zen

Layman Pang’s Diamond Sutra

Layman Pang said, “The core of the Diamond Sutra is to cut all illusions. From the very first word to the last, all of them are just the way false names are arranged.”

Student: “If from the very first word to the last in the Diamond Sutra, all of them are just the way false names are arranged, why did the Buddha say such false names?”

Master: “They are not the words the Buddha said.”

Commentary:

The words that can be dictated are not the Buddha’s words.

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Zen

Rinzai 204

With regards to that, a monk then asked Kinzan, “What question and answer were exchanged between you and the monk who just came and left? He just gave a Katsu and went out.” Kinzan said, “That monk came from among Obaku’s assembly. If you want to know, ask him yourself.” More than half of the monks left Kinzan’s community.

Commentary:

Although the phrase ‘If you want to know, ask him yourself’ made by Kinzan was a perfect answer to the question asked by the monk, many of his students failed to grasp Kinzan’s intention because they were deluded by words. That is why more than half of his students left him. However, Rinzai also made a similar answer to Kinzan’s when he was asked who the host was and who the guest was. Majo, when he was asked by a monk what the true-Self is, told him to ask one of his students as well. In order to grasp the answers that masters had the kindness to show, we should not be fooled by the words they used as an expedient to reveal the true-Self.

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Zen

Q. If Buddhism is not a religion that worships idols, why do Buddhist shrines keep Buddha statues?

A. The act of offering bows and praying in temples and shrines may appear to be misleading. However, the Buddha statues kept in shrines are not objects of worship but artefacts in honour of the historical Buddha, just like the Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial.

Buddhism is not a religion that leads people to worship and pray to the Buddha for happiness but a religion to help them to realise that everything, including themselves, is the Buddha. It is not a religion that makes its followers the slaves of the Buddha but a religion that makes them aware that there is nothing to worship and pray to. To create an image of the Buddha in the air and hold an invisible string tightly to prevent it from flying away is not Buddhism but a type of superstition, or idolatry that is primitive religion. As long as people are infatuated with the image of the Buddha in this way, they are not Buddhist in the true sense.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

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