The Question of Life and Death
In our Zen tradition, sitting (shikantaza) is combined with koan work, the questioning and seeking heart-mind. It is by questing-questioning that the heart-mind is opened up and through this opening all the world can enter. More than the quest of well-being, it is the ultimate questions that are heart-mind's quest: What is the meaning of my life? Where do I go after death? What is really real? Who am I? How can my heart find peace? Why evil?
It is not so much you who puts the questions; it is life which questions you. Listening and articulation is the basis of spiritual life. And your questions, moving and contained in your heart, can become focused attention and energize your zazen and the spiritual path. This can only be done in dialogue with human others and the world. Answers from books, authorities, scriptures - all these are only fingers pointing to the moon; they cannot really fulfil your heart and mind. Transformation takes place in exploring your questions in the trusting presence of another human being and in the dialogue of friendship and love. Therefore the Zen master occupies a central place in the koan Zen journey.
The master is there not so much to give assurances or answers: he/she is there primarily to help to evoke, provoke, de-struct and re-structure your questions. He/she must look beyond the surface and help explore our heart-mind's questing and seeking for truth and love. It can lead into paradoxes, contradictions, and mysteries. The heart mind's seeking and desiring can be fulfilled only in the surrender into fathomless abyss and incomprehensible unknown, where the questions come to silence. It is the silence of fullness. The self has disappeared in the mystery that is graciousness. But this has to be realized and authenticated in the in-between of the human relationships and in the actuality of the world. "Dwelling nowhere, let your mind come forth."
Zen Koans were originally such life questions. Such questioning and seeking is basic to every authentic spiritual way, but Zen refined and honed it to a great art. Everything became such a language, not only words. Paradoxical, illogical, strange use of such language became the hallmark. It all sprang from the realization that words cannot comprehend reality, that the unutterable and the inexpressible can only be presented, that the most pressing question was how to realize reality here and now, attain liberation and self-transformation. But soon the living and dynamic questions and responses became reified into models and paradigms for later students. Charisma and creativity were institutionalised, and Koan collections and commentaries on the Koans and commentaries on the commentaries were published. By Southern Sung period in China (1127 - 1279) the masters were giving to their students old, well-known Koans for meditation. Many of these Koans had their original answers, but the students don't seem to have been expected at the period to bring some fixed answers. It was left to the Japanese genius to systematize the Koans into a training system. Naito (1282 - 1337) seems to have begun such a systematisation. But it was Hakuin (1685 - 1768) and his disciples who codified, graded and arranged the Koans with set answers. Hakuin and his disciples made up most of the Koan answers - many of the answers are wonderful, fitting like a jar and its lid and are paradigmatic: many of them are also contrived and trivial. Subsequent masters have been trying to improve upon the answers, or invent new Koans.
The present Rinzai Koan system falls into two schools - they are not much different from each other - which bear the names of Takuju school and Inzan school. Takuju Kosen (1760 - 1833) and Inzan Ien (1751 - 1814), were disciples of Torei Enji (1721-1792), who was the immediate disciple of and collaborator with Hakuin. There are said to be 1700 Koans. Actually, there are any number, and anything and everything can be turned into a Koan.
Great Koans spring from the insoluble paradoxes and the ultimate questions of life. The systematisation of Koan training revitalized Rinzai Zen but it also destroyed originality and creativity. Now Rinzai monks go through hundreds and hundreds of set Koans with fixed and set answers. It is a training in studied spontaneity, ritual routine and a learning of a particular language and behaviour. It has become mostly a learned acting-out and imitativeness without realization. "Right" Koan answers have become the dogma of Rinzai.
Zen, as "right" manners and ritual have become that of Soto Zen. One hears often of one attaining satori by breaking through the first Koan. It is a euphemism. Rarely does any Rinzai monk come to a breakthrough enlightenment by "passing" the Koans: of course, there can be exceptions, no doubt. One can run through all the hundreds of the Koans giving the 'right' answers without any experience of awakening. But, the Koan training is not without value. It can be a training in acquiring Zen language, and in learning to let oneself go in studied spontaneity and behaviour. And it can prepare one for an awakening: the post-awakening training in Koan can be a deepening, refining, purifying process. However, only to the one who is already seeking and struggling, the Koan becomes truly alive and life-giving. But if there is no 'space' for listening to the hearts questions and, no room for creative exploration and enquiry and dialogue, the spirit cannot really flower and flourish. This is what has happened to Japanese institutional Zen. There is over much of authoritarianism and institutionalism as well as almost sadistic harshness.
Modern Soto Zen in Japan focuses only on just-sitting or shikantaza and decries the use of Koan for meditation. Shikantaza as objectless meditation is modem Soto ideology. In early Soto history, Rinzai and Soto were not that clearly separated. Soto masters used Koans, and Rinzai and Soto monks studied Koan at each other's temples (2). It seems that it was with the Soto Patriarch Menzan (1683-1769) that a definite reaction against the use of Koan in Soto, set in. Some masters like Harada Sogaku Daiun (1870-1961) and his disciples (Yasutani Haku-un, 1885-1973, was disciple of Harada) in Japan, and Taizan Maezumi and his school in USA, have returned to Koan practice. Harada Sogaku and Maezumi both trained with Rinzai masters.
Early Soto Koan use seems to have been a bit different from the Rinzai approach. Soto masters used Koan language and actions, besides in Koan training (monsan), in secret initiation (kirigami) rituals and funeral ceremonies. One or two examples of Soto Koan use, which call for non-verbal bodily gestures, are given in Bodiford (3):
(1) "What is Tozan's "the inanimate preach the dharma?"
Student's (non verbal response): Cough, (then) sit, wait, saying nothing.
(Then) Thump the cushion two or three times.
Teacher: "That's still too weak".
Student's (non verbal response): With fists, strike straw mat
This is the teaching (San) of Tokuo (Horyu).
(2) "How does (one) sit atop a hundred-foot pole?"
Substitute: "Sitting in (total) forgetfulness"
Question: "How does (one's) whole body appear in all directions?"
Substitute: "Jumping up: falling down"
Question: "A verse?"
Very often, the teacher answered for the student - that is he substituted for the student.
The Soto Koan use seems to be more of teaching and explanation, lacking in the active challenge and dynamism of Rinzai approach.
(3) Teacher: "The evaluation (Sandame) of an incense burner?"
Student's (non-verbal response): Points at his own body.
Teacher: "As for the burning incense?"
Answer: “Exhalations and inhalations"
Teacher:" A verse?"
"Within one wisp of burning (incense)"
"Grasp the mind"
Today, the method of Soto and that of Rinzai seem to be quite opposed. Rinzai, the general: Soto, the farmer is the popular image. Conrad Hyers makes an interesting study of these contrasts in his 'Once-born, Twice-born Zen'. Rinzai Zen is all fight and struggle, doubt and questioning. Hakuin's advice is typical:
"... at all times in your study of Zen, fight against delusions and worldly thoughts, battle the black demon of sleep, attack concepts active and passive, order and disorder, right and wrong, hate and love, and join battle with all things of the mundane world. Then in pushing forward with true meditation and struggling fiercely, there unexpectedly will come true enlightenment."
Dogen on the other hand:
"The way is essentially perfect and exists everywhere. There is no need either to seek or to realize the way. The Truth which carries us along is sovereign and does not require our efforts... Essentially the Truth is very close to you; is it then necessary to run around in search of it ?....That which we call zazen is not a way of developing concentration. It is simply the comfortable way."
Hyers uses William James's expression of once-born people and twice-born ones to explain the different mind-sets. The once-born grow serenely, are naturally good-natured, optimistic and accepting of the world: whereas, the twice-born personalities are filled with guilt, anxiety, dread, doubt, despair and melancholy - they are restless seekers, for whom conversion and born-again breakthroughs are characteristic modes of liberation. Hyers thinks that the first one tend to Soto Zen, the second to Rinzai Zen. So it is the psychology and temperament of the practitioners which make different Zen’s. Hyers upholds the gentle way of Soto Shikantaza as equally valid as Rinzai Koan and kensho, and he tends to prefer the Soto way as superior. He ends his slim volume with an example of one who, reading Rinzai Zen books gets into Zen and gets addicted to manic-depressive mood swings, traumas, and apocalyptic expectations. Finally, coming to Soto Zen, he sees the futility of all the dramatics, and settles down into peace and self acceptance. "The lotus rises from the bottom of the pond; the flower unfolds to the light."
I would agree with Hyers very much. But, he fails to see the centrality of questioning and seeking in human life, and of the need for understanding and realization, all of which are best actualised in Koan Zen. True, as said earlier, the modern Rinzai approach has turned the Koan training into an ideological tool for feudal patriarchal Zen society. Its talk of Great Doubt, Great Death, Great Breakthrough and so on only fosters in students ego trips, dramatics, and story-making: and it can lead to compulsions to achievements and making the grade and to manic-depressive cycles and to illusions. Hakuin set the stage for this. He is supposed to have said, "I have had 18 great enlightenments and my small enlightenments are countless". To this Iida Toin Roshi commented that the first 17 enlightenments must have been fake ones! (From a teisho of Yamada Ko-un). Hakuin seems to have been fond of story-making and dramatizing - for example, his story of his meeting with the old man Hakuy (in "Yasenkanna") is probably fiction. But the intent and the central thrust of Hakuin - Koan Zen is sound and essential to the human journey. How can one not be gripped by the question of the heart and of life, the whither and whereto of life: the mystery of the universe; and the question of the unimaginable suffering and evil? "Darkness lies at the heart of psychotherapy" says R.Hobson.
Each has to face one's own life-Koan and struggle with it as Jacob struggled with the angle the whole night. The traditional Koan can give a "handle" to the search and struggle. Of course, the emotional and psychic ups and downs will vary from person to person. The teacher must exercise restraint and caution over the dramatics and stories of satories and breakthroughs. The goal must not be some particular experience or esoteric illumination, but authentic realization leading to transformation of one's whole being and life.
Let me give a few Koan illustrations. I'll use the Koans and the answers from "The Sound of One Hand: 281 Zen Koans with Answers". It is translation of part of the Japanese book. "Gendai Sojizen Hyoron ("A Critique of Present-day Pseudo Zen"), published in 1916. There has been much dispute and unease over the book. If Zen is truly a transmission "not dependent on words and letters." there should have been no problem with the publication of Koan answers.
The first two part Koans and answers in the translation - Koans 'Mu' and 'Sound of One Hand', and 'Miscellaneous Koans' are almost - not exactly, but almost - the same in all the Rinzai schools even today. In most schools, the first basic Koan is Joshu's 'Mu': Koan ' Mu' is very apt to lead one to a complete letting go of oneself and deep insight. However, one can enter through any gate and the teacher should see what will help the particular student.
Let me give a few from the Miscellaneous Koans:
"The Original Face" - the face before you were brought into the world by your mother and father. What is it?"
Answer: Placing both hands on his chest, the pupil stands up."
"Your original Face/Self" is a well-known Koan: it can be seen in Mumonkan case no. 23. This asks you the basic question: Who are you truly and ultimately? Are you only a thing of the world come today and gone tomorrow? Are you only your history, social status and physical form, or are you more than these? Or, are you only your relationships, loves, and friendships? Who are you before the world, before others, and to yourself? Nangaku Ejo (677-744) came to visit the Sixth Patriarch, Eno (637-713) and the latter asked him "What is this that has come thus?" After eight years of struggle and seeking, Nangaku came to awakening and gave the answer. "Whatever I say I'm, will miss the point - That exactly is the real ' I'." The person or self cannot be captured by concepts or images - it is not one, it is not two, it is not non-dual; it is not same, it is not different, nor same-in-difference, nor difference-in-sameness. The interrogative words such as What? Who? Why? Whence? point to the ultimate truth of thusness. As Dogen remarks on this incident, "The 'What' is not an interrogative: it is the 'coming of' thusness'." These words point to and express the inexpressible, the unknowable, the unnameable and the unutterable; they are utterances without asserting anything. The question dislodges you from your settled positions: do not be settled in any ideas, opinions or statements. It challenges you to realize your Formless Self, your Original Face: but the Formless Self is no other than the form of this very self here and now.
The realization of Emptiness is central in Awakening - it is the awakening to the realization of the incomprehensibility and mystery of one's own self as well as of all reality; but first and foremost of oneself as empty; and as one with all the world. This is Rinzai's Person of No Rank. But as Dogen would point out, everything or everyone dwells at its own Dharma position and nothing or no one can claim to be "without rank". It means that "no abiding place" or "no rank" should not become a conceptual attachment and one realizes the 'no rank' only by ' losing oneself in a relationship and position. The Formless Self actualises and presents itself in acting and relating. Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form. This is what takes place in Zen exchange and dialogue, in samadhi of self-fulfilling activity, jijuyu zammai, and in total exertion (gujin).
Let me say a few words on the psycho-social dimension of human formation and transformation which apply to Zen as well as to any authentic spiritual way. 'Formation' and 'Transformation' are terms used by Rosemary Haughton. Let me use the sociological terms 'structure' and 'anti-structure'. 'Structure' refers to formation, training, education, discipline, samadhi, self-building, and self-affirmation. 'Anti-structure' refers to conversion, self-losing, dying, transformation; it is ‘sudden’ and subversive, it is rupture of structure, continuity and well-being. The heart of Zen is this rupture and letting go, dying and self-surrender. In anti-structure or transformation, law, institution, self-identity are taken away or fail. It is entering the liminal state of the between and betwixt, of the nowhere. Transformation takes place from out of this nothingness, creatio ex nihilo, and it will be a new creation, a new being. Formation and transformation, structure and anti-structure need each other however. (What has been described above is the experiential dimension in Zen and Koan work, and it should not be equated with the ontological and religious reality as such.)
The movement of structure and anti-structure, formation and transformation take place in Koan-zen in the context of master-disciple relationship and dialogue. It has already been touched upon in the section over questioning and seeking. The Zen exchange between master and student is dialogual, and most often rhetorical and performative, more on the side of transformation than of formation. The student often comes to the master to be approved or to prove oneself and the master has to help him her to let go off such futile efforts, to go beyond such demands, controls, manipulations, expectations and the like. And above all the master's raisin d'etre is to lead you to awaken to the Formless Self: The master cannot give you that: no efforts, no work of yours can bring it about. But your efforts, and master's waiting, are not in vain. When it 'happens', it comes as Tillich says, as "grace", in a surrender and at-one- ment: it is a freedom from yourself and a freedom to be yourself, selfless openness and compassion. Unfortunately, the Zen exchange is often portrayed as a battle, each party trying to be one-up on the other, and the master as usual holding all the cards. This is description of the sickness as the cure.
The expression and presentation of your realization to the master is essential for authentication. Indeed, the presenting and actualisation of yourself in dialogue is itself the realization and authentication. This realization-authentication has to be further tested and attested to in your everyday life. But here and now, the core of the presentation dialogue with the master is the actualisation of the identity of the awakened self with what is awakened to, in the non-duality of self and world. It is to lose oneself again and again, and in losing oneself to find oneself. It is not so much a matter of what is presented as the how of it; the how is the authenticity of your realization, as well as your freedom, spontaneity and compassion.
A deep realization will flow freely in authentication-actualisation. But you need also to learn the Zen idiom and language. The Korean master Seung Sahn talks of three kinds of enlightenment answers. For example, to the question, 'what is this'?' of an apple, to answer 'an apple' can mean you are caught by name; to say 'not an apple' may mean you're attached to emptiness. On the other hand, if you hit the floor or shout 'Katsu' you throw away all names and no-names, it is presenting Emptiness. It is called 'the first enlightenment'.
Next comes 'original enlightenment', which is to answer, "the sky is blue, the grass is green, the wall is white, the apple is red." It is "like this" answer, and means that things are as they are; it is "three times three equals nine.” The third is 'final enlightenment': you take the apple and have a bite of it. This is "just like this" answer.
All this is helpful, but there is a danger of stereotyped and blind actions and answers. It may reduce Zen and Zen dialogue to tactics, tricks, techniques and gimmicks of the game. 'Correct answers' need not be authentic realization.
Zen master Rinzai talks of his Four Procedures:
"At times one takes away the person but does not take away the environment. At times one takes away the environment but does not take away the person. At times one takes away both the person and the environment. At times one takes away neither the person nor the environment".
These 'procedures' are about the process of teaching as well as the stages and steps of enlightenment. They are also about how one enters the way. The self can be forgotten and then you enter through the environment. Or, the environment can be forgotten and you enter through the self. Or, both the self and the objects can be transcended. Or you can move and realize freely in the thusness of the self and of the world. Tozan's Five Ranks are similar, too, but more refined and detailed. There are levels and stages of awakening and enlightenment. Your responses will be or have to be, in accordance with the level. The answer must be fitting and appropriate. When you have come to deep and authentic realization, you throw away Koans and Koan answers and you'll walk freely between heaven and earth.
Another Koan and its answer:
"When someone asks you in a dream about the purpose of our founder coming from the West, how will you answer? If you cannot answer this, then the truth of Buddhism will have no effect on you."
Answer: The pupil snores: "zz.... zz" imitating one soundly asleep.
Or: With certain masters, should the pupil respond as above, they immediately demand, "You think this answers it?" If the pupil answers, the master fails him. If without a word, the pupil continues the pretence of sleeping soundly, the master passes him.
The "meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West" is a Zen phrase meaning: 'the essence of Zen', which means the ultimate reality. What can be the ultimate meaning when you are in the situation of sleeping, apart from the situation you are in? Rinzai said that if Bodhidharma had a purpose in his coming from the West, he wouldn't have been able to save even himself. The ultimate cannot be an object over against the concrete here and now. And you, as you are, are at the centre of the limitless reality. Can you surrender yourself to your being here and now completely and present yourself in thusness? The Koan answer has to be imaginal - not imaginary - to suit the Koan situation. Being an openness and emptiness, you can enter, in imagination, into all the realms, into any possibility.
It is not mere pretending. "Imagination is Reality", as the title of a book of Avens, runs. It is not an imaginary fantasy; it is not a so-called concrete fact. Do not literalise the Koans and answers. Do not be stuck with the so-called 'correct' answers. At the same time, you must be exact and to the point in your response. Now, how will you respond to the Koan?
"Without using your hands, make me stand."
Answer: The pupil stands up and walks two or three steps.
"Without taking the cover from the lunch box, say what is inside."
Answer: The pupil pretends to take the cover from the lunch box and says:
"Ah rice cakes - Thank you very much."
There are many such Koans: e.g. speak without opening your mouth. Walk while riding on an ox. These Koans, first of all, deal with our social-psychological situation of double-binds, and contradictory injunctions and prohibitions. From childhood onwards we are caught by such contradictory but implicit and unexamined commands and judgments. The core of it all lies in confusion, confusion as to which is the message and which the context. For example, a mother angrily shouting to a child: is the context loving acceptance or hatred and anger? They produce in us pathological beliefs and emotions, imprisoning us in a sort of lose-lose frame of mood and mentality: e.g... Be spontaneous; Love me freely: Be yourself.
If you follow such injunctions, you lose, if you don't follow, you lose.
Many of us are caught by these irrational and impossible demands and beliefs. We either resign ourselves and stay passive and conflicted, feeling useless: or we go on banging our heads against the immovable wall till we breakdown and fall: or we can become angry, rejecting rebels. The Koan challenges us to walk free of the trap, as Isan walks free of the trap set by Hyakujo (Mumonkan. case 40), or as Joshu to the trap of Nansen (case 14). These cases are not exactly of the double-hind sort, but they create pseudo dilemmas and illusory alternatives in the student. The response has to be not a rejecting, negative one which will be only the confirmation of the trap; but a creative and free response sublimating the 'evil' spirit of the context into a liberative new birth.
Secondly, the deeper dimension of the Koan is that of the so-called 'Essential world'. It is the realization that "from the beginning there is nothing at all." As the Heart Sutra says, there is no form, no feeling etc. in Emptiness. The five skandhas are empty; Form is Emptiness. But, this "there is nothing at all from the beginning" can be only realized in "Emptiness is Form." Do not stick to the idea of Emptiness. By entering into Form, you realize Emptiness.
"Turn the heavenly switch, and spin the earthly axis.”
Answer: The pupil turns a somersault in front of the master.
"How old is Amidha Buddha?”
Answer: "As old as I am."
"Let Mt. Fuji walk three steps.”
Answer: The pupil stands up and takes three steps.
These don't need any further comments. The answers point to the realization that the empty self is the mountain, the rivers and the entire earth. It is a 'knowing' in which the two become one: in the unity of the self with the other is true knowing. Such a self is a no-self or empty self. It is realization, not ego inflation: nor a concept or a mere emotion. Sometimes people think that if one is in deep samadhi with no thoughts, then when one hears a name, one becomes that name, when one sees an image, one becomes that image. etc., and that is how one comes to answer the Koans. Koan training is cultivated in the field of samadhi, but samadhi itself is not realization. For, if it is so, it will be just reducing realization (again) to a particular state of the mind. Realization is prior to and the basis of all particular conditions and states. However, whether you're in realization or not, Koan training can help you to re-educate and re-image your emotions, sensibilities, thinking and behaviour.
Koans are symbols: they are polysemous, ambiguous, and open to endless possibilities, depths and variations. They should not be literalised nor taken as mere problems to be solved or passed. All the traditional Koans, kosoku Koan, finally come to the Koan realized in life, genjo-Koan. Life is your Koan: you are the Koan. Let me end with the words of Hee-Jin Kim on Dogen's approach to Koan:
"To Dogen, Koans function not only as nonsense which castigates reason, but as parables, allegories, and mysteries which unfold the horizons of existence. In this sense they are realized, though not solved."
(Shortened text from: AMA Samy, The Zen Way. Tradition, Transmission, Challenges. Vaigarai Publishing House, India 2007, p. 56 ff.)