18 Zen Koans08 March, 2020
Some years ago I sent out a newsletter with a Zen Koan. It went on for some months and reached a handfull of people. For posterity's sake here they are:
A cup of tea
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"
"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?
No work, no food
Hyakujo, the Chinese Zen master, used to labor with his pupils even at the age of eighty, trimming the gardens, cleaning the grounds, and pruning the trees.
The pupils felt sorry to see the old teacher working so hard, but they knew he would not listen to their advice to stop, so they hid away his tools.
That day the master did not eat. The next day he did not eat, nor the next. "He may be angry because we have hidden his tools," the pupils surmised. "We had better put them back."
The day they did, the teacher worked and ate the same as before. In the evening he instructed them: "No work, no food."
Learning to be silent
The pupils of the Tendai school used to study meditation before Zen entered Japan. Four of them who were intimate friends promised one another to observe seven days of silence.
On the first day all were silent. Their meditation had begun auspiciously, but when night came and the oil lamps were growing dim one of the pupils could not help exclaiming to a servant: "Fix those lamps."
The second pupil was surprised to hear the first one talk. "We are not supposed to say a word," he remarked.
"You two are stupid. Why did you talk?" asked the third.
"I am the only one who has not talked," concluded the fourth pupil.
Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.
Desiring to show his attainment, he said: "The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received."
Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.
"If nothing exists," inquired Dokuon, "where did this anger come from?"
The Giver Should Be Thankful
While Seisetsu was the master of Engaku in Kamakura he required larger quarters, since those in which he was teaching were overcrowded. Umezu Seibei, a merchant of Edo, decided to donate five hundred pieces of gold called ryo toward the construction of a more commodious school. This money he brought to the teacher.
Seisetsu said: "All right. I will take it."
Umezu gave Seisetsu the sack of gold, but he was dissatisfied with the attitude of the teacher. One might live a whole year on three ryo, and the merchant had not even been thanked for five hundred.
"In that sack are five hundred ryo," hinted Umezu.
"You told me that before," replied Seisetsu.
"Even if I am a wealthy merchant, five hundred ryo is a lot of money," said Umezu.
"Do you want me to thank you for it?" asked Seisetsu.
"You ought to," replied Uzemu.
Why should I?" inquired Seisetsu. "The giver should be thankful."
Teaching the Ultimate
In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns were used with candles inside. A blind man, visiting a friend one night, was offered a lantern to carry home with him.
"I do not need a lantern," he said. "Darkness or light is all the same to me."
"I know you do not need a lantern to find your way," his friend replied, "but if you don't have one, someone else may run into you. So you must take it."
The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far someone ran squarely into him.
"Look out where you are going!" he exclaimed to the stranger. "Can't you see this lantern?"
"Your candle has burned out, brother," replied the stranger.
Ryonen's Clear Realization
The Buddhist nun known as Ryonen was born in 1797. She was a granddaughter of the famous Japanese warrior Shingen. Her poetical genius and alluring beauty were such that at seventeen she was serving the empress as one of the ladies of the court. Even at such a youthful age fame awaited her.
The beloved empress died suddenly and Ryonen's hopeful dreams vanished. She became acutely aware of the impermanency of life in this world. It was then that she desired to study Zen.
Her relatives disagreed, however, and practically forced her into marriage. With a promise that she might become a nun after she had borne three children, Ryonen assented. Before she was twenty-five she had accomplished this condition. Then her husband and relatives could no longer dissuade her from her desire. She shaved her head, took the name of Ryonen, which means to realize clearly, and started on her pilgrimage.
She came to the city of Edo and asked Tetsugyu to accept her as a disciple. At one glance the master rejected her because she was too beautiful.
Ryonen then went to another master, Hakuo. Hakuo refused her for the same reason, saying that her beauty would only make trouble.
Ryonen obtained a hot iron and placed it against her face. In a few moments her beauty had vanished forever.
Hakuo then accepted her as a disciple.
Commemorating this occasion, Ryonen wrote a poem on the back of a little mirror:
In the service of my Empress I burned incense to
perfume my exquisite clothes
Now as a homeless mendicant I burn my face to
enter a Zen temple.
When Ryonen was about to pass from this world, she wrote another poem:
Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing
scene of autumn
I have said enough about moonlight,
Ask no more.
Only listen to the voice of pines and cedars when no wind stirs.
The True Path
Just before Ninakawa passed away the Zen master Ikkyu visited him. "Shall I lead you on?" Ikkyu asked.
Ninakawa replied: "I came here alone and I go alone. What help could you be to me?"
Ikkyu answered: "If you think you really come and go, that is your delusion. Let me show you the path on which there is no coming and no going."
With his words, Ikkyu had revealed the path so clearly that Ninakawa smiled and passed away.
Wash Your Bowl
A monk asked Zhao Zhou to teach him.
Zhao Zhou asked, “Have you eaten your meal?”
The monk replied, “Yes, I have.”
“Then go wash your bowl,” said Zhao Zhou.
At that moment, the monk was enlightened.
Your Light May Go Out
A student of Tendai, a philosophical school of Buddhism, came to the Zen abode of Gasan as a pupil. When he was departing a few years later, Gasan warned him: "Studying the truth speculatively is useful as a way of collecting preaching material. But remember that unless you meditate constantly your light of truth may go out."
No Attachment To Dust
Zengetsu, a Chinese master of the T'ang dynasty, wrote the following advice for his pupils:
Living in the world yet not forming attachments to the dust of the world is the way of a true Zen student.
When witnessing the good action of another encourage yourself to follow his example. Hearing of the mistaken action of another, advise yourself not to emulate it.
Even though alone in a dark room, be as if you were facing a noble guest. Express your feelings, but become no more expressive than your true nature.
Poverty is your teasure. Never exchange it for an easy life.
A person may appear a fool and yet not be one. He may only be guarding his wisdom carefully.
Virtues are the fruit of self-discipline and do not drop from heaven of themselves as does rain or snow.
Modesty is the foundation of all virtues. Let your neighbors discover you before you make yourself known to them.
A noble heart never forces itself forward. Its words are as rare gems, seldom displayed and of great value.
To a sincere student, every day is a fortunate day. Time passes but he never lags behind. Neither glory nor shame can move him.
Censure yourself, never another. Do not discuss right and wrong.
Some things, though right, were considered wrong for generations. Since the value of righteousness may be recognized after centuries, there is no need to crave an immediate appreciation.
Live with cause and leave results to the great law of the universe. Pass each day in peaceful contemplation.
The Voice Of Happiness
After Bankei had passed away, a blind man who lived near the master's temple told a friend:
"Since I am blind, I cannot watch a person's face, so I must judge his character by the sound of his voice.
Ordinarily when I hear someone congratulate another upon his happiness or success, I also hear a secret tone of envy.
When condolence is expressed for the misfortune of another, I hear pleasure and satisfaction, as if the one condoling was really glad there was something left to gain in his own world.
In all my experience, however, Bankei's voice was always sincere. Whenever he expressed happiness, I heard nothing but happiness, and whenever he expressed sorrow, sorrow was all I heard."
Kyôzan's Mind and Objective World
Kyôzan asked a monk, "Where do you come from?" The monk said, "I am from Yû Province"
Kyôzan said, "Do you think of that place?" The monk said, "I always do."
Kyôzan said,"That which thinks is the mind. That which is thought about is the objective world.
Within that are mountains, rivers and the great earth, towers, palaces, people, animals, and other things. Reflect upon the mind that thinks.
Are there a lot of things there?" The monk said, "I don't see anything at all there."
Kyôzan said, "That's right for the stage of understanding, but not yet for the stage of personalization."
The monk said, "Do you have any special advice, Master?"
Kyôzan said, "It is not right to say that there is or there is not. Your insight shows that you have obtained only one side of the mystery. Sitting down, putting on clothes – from now on you see by yourself."
The Ryôgon Sutra says, "When I don't see, why do you not see what I do not see?
If you argue that you see what I do not see, that is of course not what I do not see.
If you do not see what I do not see, then it is quite natural that it is not a thing.
Why is it not your self?"
Buddha said: “I consider the positions of kings and rulers as that of dust motes.
I observe treasures of gold and gems as so many bricks and pebbles.
I look upon the finest silken robes as tattered rags.
I see myriad worlds of the universe as small seeds of fruit, and the greatest lake in India as a drop of oil on my foot.
I perceive the teachings of the world to be the illusion of magicians.
I discern the highest conception of emancipation as a golden brocade in a dream, and view the holy path of the illuminated ones as flowers appearing in one’s eyes.
I see meditation as a pillar of a mountain, Nirvana as a nightmare of daytime.
I look upon the judgment of right and wrong as the serpentine dance of a dragon, and the rise and fall of beliefs as but traces left by the four seasons.”
Rôya's "Mountains and Rivers"
A monk asked Master Kaku of Rôya, "The essential state is pure and clear. How are mountains, rivers and the great earth produced at once?"
Kaku said, "The essential state is pure and clear. How are mountains, rivers and the great earth produced at once?"
The Eye of Prajna
With the "eye of prajna" the human situation is seen for what it is - a quenching of thirst with salt water, a pursuit of goals which simply require the pursuit of other goals, a clutching of objects which the swift course of time renders as insubstantial as mist.
Over the river, the shining moon; in the pine trees, sighing wind; All night long so tranquil - why? And for whom?