Asian Philosophy 6: Zen & the Koans

Bodhidharma & the Birth of Zen

bodhi dharmaBecause the Chan (Chinese), Son (Korean) or Zen (Japanese) school continued to thrive in Japan, I will consistently use the Japanese names and terms in this lecture, even though Zen started as ‘Chan‘ in China.  Chan means ‘sitting’, and the school concentrates not on the chanting of sutras or the support of deities but on meditation and study.

Zen masters are known for using radical and unorthodox means, such as shouting, slapping, joking, and any other way of breaking through rigid understandings to achieve insight and enlightenment.

In Zen, we can see a mix of Indian abstract psychology with Chinese concrete analogy as we discussed last week.  In particular, Zen is heavily influenced by Daoism and uses its teachings and metaphors regularly.  Unlike Pure Land Buddhism and other schools of the Mahayana tradition, Zen originated in China and had no precedent in India according to modern scholarship.

Gateless GateWithin the Zen tradition, however, they trace an unbroken chain of an “inexpressible transmission, outside the sutras” all the way back to the Buddha himself.  According to the Zen tradition, once the Buddha came before the assembly to lecture, but instead of speaking he held up a lotus flower.  Everyone was silent, not knowing what to think, but Mahakashapa smiled.  The Buddha said, “I have the eye of the true teaching, not expressible in words, but transmitted beyond teaching.  I have given it to Mahakashapa.”  It is considered the first koan, the first case, and serves not only as a historical record of the lineage but as an object of study for students.  It appears in many koan collections, including The Gateless Gate, the most popular collection.

mahakasyapa buddha holds up a flower

bodhidharma paintingAccording to the tradition, after Mahakashapa there were twenty six patriarchs who received the inexpressible transmission before Bodhidharma left India and traveled to China to spread the inexpressible there.  Though this makes him the twenty eighth patriarch, he is called the first patriarch of the Chinese tradition.  In fact, it is quite likely that he was the first and the twenty six were invented after the tradition spread to link his own focus on sitting meditation to the original Buddha.  In much of what follows, we will learn from the tradition as taught while remaining aware that modern scholarship has called much of the historical accuracy of each event into question today.

BodhidharmaBodhidharma came to southern China and is said to have arrived at the palace to speak with Emperor Wu, a great patron of Pure Land and other schools of Buddhism.

The emperor asked Bodhidharma, “I have built many temples, copied many books, and supported many monasteries of monks and nuns.  What merit have I gained?”  Bodhidharma replied, “None whatsoever.  These things are shadows.  Real merit is wisdom.”  The emperor, taken aback, asked, “What is the principle of the sacred dharma?”  Bodhidharma replied, “Everything is empty.  Nothing is sacred.”  The emperor, enraged, asked, “Who is this who stands before me?”  Bodhidharma replied, “I do not know”, and left the palace.

bodhidharma wall sitting caveBodhidharma is said to have practiced wall-sitting, staring at a wall while meditating, which he did in caves and at the Shaolin monastery where he is also said to have started Kung Fu as a set of physical exercises for the monks there.  Shaolin is known today to have been a Daoist god who became a Buddhist goddess, and it could be that Kung Fu is derived from earlier Daoist Tai Chi exercises, which may have been influenced by Indian yogic postures.

Hui NengAfter Bodhidharma, Hui Neng (638 – 713 CE), the sixth patriarch, is the most revered in the tradition.  He was an illiterate wood cutter from Canton who became enlightened on hearing a passage from the Diamond sutra and decided to join a monastery.  Hongren, the fifth patriarch and master of the monastery told him that he was a southern barbarian, and could not expect to achieve buddhahood.  Hui Neng replied that north and south make no difference with regard to buddha-nature, and the master accepted him.  Hui Neng was ridiculed by other monks because of his place of birth and the darker color of his skin, but he continued to practice and achieve understanding.  When the time came for Hongren to appoint a successor, he asked that monks write a verse to show what understanding of Zen they had achieved.  The head monk, who was expected to become the successor, wrote:

Buddha under bodhi tree demonsThe body is the Bodhi Tree. 

The mind is a clear mirror on a stand. 

Take care to wipe it continuously, Never letting dust cling.

The head monk’s verse, after mentioning the Bodhi Tree of the Buddha, quotes Zhuangzi, the second major Daoist and my favorite Chinese philosopher, who says, “I’ve heard that if a mirror is bright, no dust settles on it; if dust settles, it isn’t really bright” .  Thus, the head monk’s verse simply restates Buddhist and Daoist teachings via Buddhist and Daoist metaphors.  Late at night, Hui Neng had a boy read the verse to him, as the boy was taught to read as a monk in training but Hui Neng was an illiterate woodcutter.  After hearing the head monk’s verse, Hui Neng laughed, and told the boy to write the following verse in reply:

There is no Bodhi Tree, nor is there a stand with a mirror. 

All things are originally empty.  Where can the dust cling?

Huineng tears up sutrasAccording to the tradition, Hongren gave the lineage to Hui Neng, who went on to found the Southern School, the school that survived to become the tradition today.  Modern scholarship has revealed that Hui Neng founded the school, but he may never have known Hongren.  Rather, the legend was fashioned later to put Hui Neng in the unbroken Zen lineage from the Buddha.  Hui Neng, who is said to occasionally tear up sacred texts to shock students, is said to have taught:

No permanence, no impermanence, no arrival, no departure, no exterior, no interior, no origination, no extinction

Remember that the Buddha is said to have achieved the extinction of fear, hate and greed, much like a candle flame is extinguished.  Just as Hui Neng says there is no Bodhi Tree, he also says that the Buddha doesn’t extinguish anything either.

flag in the windAnother famous even in Hui Neng’s story that is found as a koan for study in The Gateless Gate:

Two monks were arguing about a flag as Hui Neng was passing by.  One monk was argued that the flag was moving, while the other argued that the wind was moving. 

Hui Neng replied, “It is your minds that are moving.

Koans of The Gateless Gate

Japanese Gate SunriseThe Gateless Gate (Mumonkan in Japanese) was compiled by Wumen in 1228 for teaching at a monastic retreat.  He claims that the collection, including the title, were thrown together without much thought in his introduction to the text.  Along with The Blue Cliff Record, it is the most popular collection of koans in the tradition for hundreds of years.  It contains many of the central moments of Zen.  The first koan features my favorite Zen master, Joshu:

finger points to moon hoteiA monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?”  Joshu replied, “Not” (mu, ‘empty’ or ‘non-being’)

Gutei raised one finger whenever asked about Zen.  A boy began imitating him, and when anyone would ask him about Gutei’s teaching he would raise one finger.  Gutei saw him doing this, and cut off the boy’s finger.  As the boy ran off screaming, Gutei called out to him.  When the boy turned around, Gutei raised one finger, and the boy was enlightened.

Kyogen said, “Zen is like a man hanging in a tree by his teeth, asked ‘Why did Bodhidharma come to China from India?’  If the man does not answer, he fails, and if he does answer, he falls and loses his life.  Now what shall he do?”

boats river chinese paintingJoshu went to see a monk and asked him, “What is, is what?”  The monk raised his fist.  Joshu replied, “Ships cannot remain where the water is too shallow” and left.  A few days later Joshu returned and asked him the same question.  The monk raised a fist.  Joshu said, “Well given, well taken, well killed, well saved” and bowed to the monk.

“Ships cannot remain where the water is too shallow” is another quote from Zhuangzi the Daoist.

Zuigan would say to himself every day, “Master”, and answer, “Yes, sir””, “Become Sober”, “Yes Sir”, “And do not be deceived by others”, “Yes, sir.  Yes sir.”

japanese sandalsWhile Joshu was still studying with Nansen, before becoming a master himself, Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat.  He took the cat and said, “If any of you can say a turning word, you can save the cat.”  No one answered, and Nansen cut the cat in two.  Later Joshu returned to the monastery and Nansen told him about it.  Joshu removed his sandals, placed them on his head, and walked out.  Nansen said, “If he had only been here, he could have saved the cat.”

Just as the Zen tradition often asks why Bodhidharma came from the West (from India), it is important to note here that according to the tradition, when Bodhidharma’s grave was opened, it contained only a single straw sandal.  Thus, when Joshu walks out with his sandals on his head, it is as if he is mocking Bodhidharma carrying a tradition with him in his head.

japanese vaseHyakujo decided to test the assembly and put a water vase on the ground.  He asked, “Who can say what this is without calling its name?”  The chief monk said, “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”  Isan, the cook, kicked over the vase and walked out.  Hyakujo smiled and said, “The chief monk loses.”

A monk asked Kembo, “All Buddhas of the universe enter by one road.  Where is it?”  Kembo drew the number one in the air and replied, “Here it is.”  The monk went to Ummon and asked the same question.  Ummon held up a fan and said, “This fan will reach to the 33rd heaven and hit the nose of the presiding deity there.”

Koans from The Blue Cliff Record

Blue Cliff RecordThe Blue Cliff Record was compiled in the Song Dynasty in 1125 CE.  It is the second most popular koan collection after The Gateless Gate, containing 100 koans, 82 of which were taken from the earlier koan collection, The Transmission of the Lamp.  It has extensive commentaries written by generation after generation of Zen roshi (masters).  The commentary is always amusing, as whenever someone seems to win, the commentary calls him the loser, as if to keep the student from ever settling down in their conceptions and conclusions.

Joshu said to the assembly, “The ultimate way is without difficulty.  Just avoid picking and choosing.  As soon as there are words spoken, ‘this is picking and choosing’, ‘this is clarity’.  This old monk does not abide in clarity.  Do you still preserve anything or not?”  A monk asked, “Since you do not abide within clarity, what do you preserve?”  Joshu replied, “I don’t know either.”  The monk asked, “Since you don’t know, why do you say that you do not abide in clarity?”  Joshu said, “It is enough to ask about the matter.  Bow and withdraw.”

zen screen lake

hokusai Japanese Buddhist HermitA monk asked, “What is the meaning of the patriarch coming from the West?”  Hsiang Lin said, “Sitting for a long time becomes tiresome.”

The hermit of Lotus Flower Peak held up his staff before the assembly and said, “When the ancients got here, why didn’t they agree to stay here?”  No one answered, so he replied, “Because they gained no strength on the path.”  He then asked, “In the end, how is it?”  No one answered, so he replied, “With my staff across my shoulders, I pay no heed to people.  I go straight into the endless mountains.”

A monk asked, “The many things return to the one.  Where does the one return to?”  Joshu said, When I was in the state of Chou, I made a hempen shirt.  It weighed 7 pounds.”

The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu

Saying of Zen Master JoshuZhaozhou (778 – 897 CE), Joshu in Japanese, is my favorite Zen master of ancient China and the koan tradition.  He trained with Nansen (Nanquan in the original Chinese, 709 – 788 CE), and both appear in prominent positions in the Gateless Gate and Blue Cliff Record koan collections.  The famous koan about Nansen killing the cat with Joshu walking out was one of the most discussed koans in monasteries of China and Japan.  In the Gateless Gate, Joshu’s famous koan about the dog’s buddha nature is the first koan of the collection and he is featured in five of the 48 of the collection.  Joshu’s koan about “not picking and choosing” is the second case of the Blue Cliff Record.  Joshu is not in the official line from patriarch to patriarch, but he is one of the most famous Zen masters of the tradition in spite of this.  Scholars still speculate as to why this is.

Daoist Sage Ming ChinaJoshu is a trickster, and it is debated whether he was inspired by Daoist sages of his own day.  Zhaozhou, the site of a stone bridge from which Joshu gets his name, was known for Daoist hermits.  As mentioned, in one passage Joshu quotes the opening passage of the inner chapters of Zhuangzi, the second patriarch of Daoism and my favorite Chinese philosopher, saying, “Ships cannot sail where the water is too shallow“.  Many of his koan cases sound like jokes.  In two he seems to enjoy saying sexually suggestive things to nuns.  He sometimes bursts out laughing as his final response to monk’s questions.  His koan collection is by far one of the most entertaining to read.

Buddha Statue Japanese Tea Garden San FranciscoA monk asked, “What is the Buddha’s true experience of reality?”  The master said, “Is there anything else you don’t like?”

A monk asked, “What is Joshu’s master?”  The master shouted, “You hooped barrel!”  The monk answered, “Yes?”  The master said, “Well done, hooped barrel.”

A monk asked, “What is an imbecile?”  The master said, “I’m not as good as you.”  The monk said, “I’m not trying to be anything.”  The master said, “Why are you being an imbecile?”

Pure Land of Bliss BuddhaA monk asked, “How can you not lead the multitudes of the world astray?”  The master stuck out his foot.  The monk took off one of the master’s sandals.  The master brought back his foot.  The monk could say nothing more.

A monk asked, “What is that which is spiritual?”  The master said, “A puddle of piss in the Pure Land.”  The monk said, “I ask you to reveal it to me.”  The master said, “Don’t tempt me.”

Buddha points to the moonA monk asked, “‘The Great Way has no root’, how can it be expressed?”  The master said, “You just expressed it.”  The monk said, “What about ‘no root’?”  The master said, “There is no root.  Where is it that you are being bound up?”

A monk asked, “The solitary moon is in the sky.  From where does its light emanate?”  The master said, “From where does the moon emanate?”

Golden BuddhaThe master said, “I can make one blade of grass a sixteen foot golden Buddha, and I can make a sixteen foot gold Buddha into one blade of grass.  Buddha is compulsive passions.  Compulsive passions are Buddha.”  A monk asked, “For the sake of whom does Buddha become compulsive passions?”  The master said, “For the sake of all people Buddha becomes compulsive passions.”  The monk asked, “How can they be escaped?”  The master said, “What’s the use of escaping?”

ManjusriA monk asked, “What about it when the three-pronged sword has not yet fallen?”  The master said, “Densely packed together.”  The monk asked, “What about after it has fallen?”  The master said, “Wide open spaces.”

zen screen painting

A monk asked, “What is the fact that I accept responsibility for?”  Joshu said, “To the ends of time you will never single it out.”

Joshu zen masterA monk asked, “I have just come here and know nothing.  What are my duties?”  The master said, “What is your name?”  The monk said, “Hui-han.”  The master said, “A fine ‘knowing nothing’ that is.”

A monk asked, “It’s not yet clear to me, who is the patriarch of this land?”  The master said, “Bodhidharma has come, so here we are all patriarchs.”  The monk said, “What number generation are you?” (What position in the Zen lineage?)  The master said, “I do not fall into any position.”  The monk said, “Where are you?”  The master said, “Inside your ears.”

Buddhist Hell WorldDoctor Ts’ui asked, “Does an accomplished person go to hell or not?”  The master said, “I entered at the head of the line.”  The doctor asked, “You are an accomplished person.  Why do you go to hell?”  The master said, “If I had not gone, how could I have met you here?”

A monk asked, “The second patriarch cut off his arm, what sort of act is that?”  The master said, “He was throwing his whole self into it.”

Avalokitsevara descends into hellA monk asked, “What is the perfect question?”  The master said, “Wrong!”

A monk asked, “What are honest words?”  The master said, “Your mother is ugly.”

A monk asked, “Two mirrors are facing each other.  Which is the clearest?”  The master said, “Your eyelids hang over Mount Sumaru.”

A monk said, “I don’t have an extraordinary question.  Please don’t give an extraordinary reply.”  The master said, “How extraordinary.”

sunlight through the clouds oceanA monk asked, “What is the unending depth of the deep?”  Joshu said, “Your questioning me is the unending depth of the deep.”

Hoju asked Koteiko, “Aren’t you Koteiko?”  Koteiko said, “You’re too kind.”  Hoju asked, “Can you nail up the sky or not?”  Koteiko said, “Please try to nail up the sky.”  Hoju slapped him and said, “After this some jabbering scholar will explain this for you.”  Koteiko told the master about this.  The master said, “Why did you make him hit you?”

rabbit runing awayThe master and an official were walking the the garden and saw a rabbit run away.  The official said, “You are a great and accomplished person.  Why did the rabbit run away?”  The master said, “Because I like to kill.”

The master found the two sages Kanzan and Jittoju on Mount T’ien-tai.  The master said, “For a long time I have heard about Kanzan and Jittoju, but having come here I just see two water buffalo.”  The sages put their fingers on their heads like horns.  The master said, “Shoo!  Shoo!”  The sages gnashed their teeth and glared at each other.  When asked about this later, the master laughed heartily.

Zen MeditationThe master came to Po-chang’s monastery.  Po-chang asked, “Where have you come from?”  The master said, “From Nansen.”  Po-chang asked, “What has Nansen been saying to instruct people?”  The master said, “One time he said, ‘One with no attainment should be strict and solemn.”  Po-chang scoffed at this, and the master looked startled.  Po-chang said, “That’s a fine ‘strict and solemn’.”  The master did a little dance and left.

Tales from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Zen-Flesh-Zen-Bones-Reps-PaulThis book, compiled by Paul Reps, was one of the first I encountered in grade school.  After reading some of these stories, I knew that there was something extraordinary in Zen.  He has collected some of the most striking stories from over 700 years of the tradition.

An old woman in China had supported a monk in a hut in her yard for over twenty years.  She decided to test his progress.  She told a young girl to embrace and caress him.  When she did, the monk replied, “An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter.  Nowhere is there any warmth.”  When she heard this, the woman was outraged that, while he had done nothing passionate, he had done nothing compassionate towards the girl either, and she promptly burned down the hut.

Notice that an old woman trumps a monk in this story, and that if there is no warmth anywhere then the monk must not mind if his hut is on fire.

rain bridge japanese printTwo monks were traveling in the rain down a muddy town road.  Around a bend, they found a beautiful girl in a kimono unable to cross.  One offered his help, picked her up and carried her over the mud.  After the monks had reached an inn later, the second turned to him and scolded him for dangerously becoming involved with the girl, and the first replied, “I left the girl back there.  Why are you still carrying her with you?”

Mokusen was approached by a villager who was upset with the stinginess of his wife.  Mokusen visited her, clenched his hand in a fist and asked her, “What if my hand were always like that?”  She replied that it would be deformed.  Then he stretched out his open hand and asked the same question again, and she replied again that it would be deformed.  Mokusen nodded and left.

patriarchs of zen paintingOne night Shichiri was meditating when a thief broke in and demanded money.  Shichiri replied that the money was in the drawer and he was not to be disturbed.  As the thief was taking the money, Shichiri asked that some be left, as he had taxes to pay.  As the thief went to leave, Shichiri added that he should be thanked for the gift.  Later, after the thief was caught, Shichiri told the officials, “This man is no thief.  I gave him the money and he thanked me.”  After getting out of prison, the thief became Shichiri’s student.

hakuin two blind men crossing a log bridge

Hakuin’s painting of two blind men crossing a log bridge

A samurai came to Hakuin and asked whether there was in fact a heaven or a hell.  Hakuin replied that the man was as ugly as a beggar, and when the soldier raised his sword to kill Hakuin, Hakuin said, “Here open the gates of hell.”  The samurai understood, and put his sword away.  Hakuin said, “Here open the gates of paradise.”

zen rock gardenHogen was visited by traveling monks who were arguing about subjectivity and objectivity.  He asked them about a large stone in the yard, and whether it was inside or outside the mind.  One said that from a Buddhist viewpoint the stone was inside the mind.  Hogen replied that his head must be very heavy to carry around a stone like that around in his mind.

Sengai was asked to write calligraphy for the prosperity of a rich man’s family.  On a large sheet of paper, he wrote, “Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.”  The rich man became angry, but Sengai explained that if each generation passes away in the proper order, it would be the happiest course for the entire family.

Basho, Master of Haiku

BashoBasho (1644 – 1694 CE) was not a Zen monk, but he did practice Zen meditation and Zen influenced his haiku poetry.  He is revered as the greatest haiku master, and many of his poems reflect the natural simplicity of the Japanese Zen tradition.  His most famous poem, the first below, reflects this well, as well as the others that follow.

The old pond; A frog jumps in; The splash of the water

In the morning dew; Dirtied, cool; A muddy melon

mount fujiA day when Mount Fuji; Is obscured by rain; How interesting

The glory of the dawn; This too cannot be; my friend

Let my name; Be traveler; First rains

Zhuangzi butterfly pine napWe will cover Zhuangzi in the second half of the class.  In one of the most famous passages, it is said that Zhuangzi woke from dreaming he was a butterfly, and now does not know if he is a man who dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming he is Zhuangzi.  Knowing this text well, Basho wrote:

You are the butterfly;

And I the dreaming heart of Zhuangzi

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