This lecture will covers the Zen koan collection The Gateless Gate (1228), the Zen masters Dogen (1200 – 1253) and Hakuin (1686 – 1769), as well as Zen folk stories from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (1957) and Zen Speaks (1994). Please read and contemplate the final 8 koans (24-31), with commentary, of the Gateless Gate. I highly recommend reading Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a wonderful and short collection of koans and stories which includes all the Gateless Gate koans.
Dahui & Hongzhi, Koan Contemplation & Silent Illumination
While the House of Linji was the dominant school of Chan in Song China, another competing stream of Zen arose, the “silent illumination” of the House of Caodong, which would later lead to the Soto school of Japan. Unlike the House of Linji, the House of Caodong was nearly dead in the Song dynasty, but in the late Song the Caodong master Hongzhi revived it while competing against Dahui of the house of Linji, both students of Yuanwu who wrote and compiled the Blue Cliff Record. The Caodong put emphasis on seated meditation practice rather than koan contemplation and interviews between masters and students about koan cases. Linji spoke critically of this very sort of Chan:
There are a bunch of blind bald-headed fools who, having stuffed themselves with rice, sit doing Chan-style meditation practice, trying to arrest the flow of thoughts and stop them from arising, hating clamor, demanding silence, but these aren’t Buddhist ways!
Dahui Zonggao (1089 – 1163 CE) studied for many years with many masters, becoming a gifted expert in Linji Chan but failing to find enlightenment. His teacher gave him a koan, the question, “Where do all buddhas come from?” and the reply, “The east mountain walks over the water.” He struggled with it, giving forty nine answers, all of which his teacher rejected. Then his teacher gave him, “To be and not to be, like a flowering vine clinging to a tree,” somewhat like the flowering hedge of Yunmen. After six months of contemplation, Dahui was enlightened. He became famous as a teacher while still with his master, was given honors by the Song imperial court and his following eclipsed all other Buddhists among educated elites during the later Song.
Dahui created the practice of koan introspection, focusing on a single, critical phrase, the “turning word” of each encounter dialog, such as Zhaozhou’s “Nothing,” (Wu/Mu) or Mazu’s “No mind, no Buddha.” He wrote that Zhaozhou’s “Nothing” is a knife that the individual must use for themselves to cut off their old life of doubt and duality, birth and death. By focusing on a single phrase of a single koan “as if one’s head is on fire,” Dahui believed that all people, commoners, monks and masters alike, could gain great freedom and insight, and it has nothing to do with intelligence or education. Rather, we must doubt words and refused to be fooled.
Dahui only used a few koans for each student, teaching that one or two cases could be all an individual needs, which is why he found collections of dozens of cases misleading. According to traditional sources, Dahui was so worried that koan study was becoming a literary tradition rather than a lived practice that he burned the original wood blocks used to print the Blue Cliff Record and destroyed as many copies of his master’s text as he could, which is why this central koan collection was eclipsed in popularity by the Gateless Gate, which we will turn to soon.
Dahui rejected Chan without koan practices such as Hongzhi’s Silent Illumination, which he argued left delusion much as it is in the individual mind, but he also rejected excessive koan practices of others from the House of Linji. Dahui attacked Hongzhi’s practice of Silent Illumination as heretical in his sermons, but he also officiated at Hongzhi’s funeral, showing that the two were opposed in their teachings but not bitter enemies. For Dahui, practicing Buddhism without koans is like a blind man without a walking stick who can’t take a single step forward. Dahui had a powerful influence on Hakuin, and it is from him and the Japanese Rinzai (Chinese: Linji) school that we get the tradition of contemplating the single sound of one hand clapping for long periods of time or the sound a tree makes falling in the forest when no one is around.
Birth is thus. Death is thus; Verse or no verse, what’s the fuss?
Hongzhi (1091 – 1157), two years younger than Dahui, created Silent Illumination Chan, seated meditation to produce peaceful awareness, telling his students to sit like withered tree stump. Hongzhi traveled widely, but ended up on Mount Tiantong, where Dogen from Japan studied while in China. Hongzhi said that enlightenment is “a bright flawless pearl, and inscribing words on it deprives it of value.” He was successful, though not as much as Dahui, with Song elites and intellectuals. Hongzhi wrote many works which became central to the revival of the House of Caodong, called Soto in Japan, the main rival of the House of Linji, called Rinzai, emphasizing meditative awareness of stream of thoughts, allowing them to rise and pass away without interfering with them.
The Gateless Gate
The Gateless Gate (Chinese: Wumen Kuan, Japanese: Mumonkan, 1228) is the most popular collection of koans cases in the Zen tradition, followed by the Blue Cliff Record. It contains many of the central moments of Zen in its 48 cases, including many we have already covered in the last few lectures. Zhaozhou’s dog is the first case. The Buddha holding up a flower and Mahakasyapa smiling is the sixth. Zhaozhou and the raised fist is the eleventh. Nanquan killing the cat and Zhaozhou walking out with a sandal on his head, two cases in the Blue Cliff Record, are together the 14th case of the Gateless Gate. Dungshan’s three pounds of flax is case 18. Huineng asking Huiming about his original face after being chased down on a mountain is case 23. Huineng saying it is neither wind nor flag but mind that is moving is case 29. Mazu saying this mind is Buddha is case 30, and Mazu saying no mind, no Buddha is case 33. The cook kicking over the water vase is case 40.
The 48 cases were compiled by master Wumen ( 1183 – 1260) for teaching at a monastic retreat, who claims in his introduction to the text that the collection, including the title, was thrown together without much thought and the koans are in no particular order. Wumen contemplated the koan about the dog and Zhaozhou’s “nothing” for six years until he experienced great enlightenment. Like a crazed Daoist sage, he was known for letting his hair and beard grow out, wearing dirty robes and working in the fields by his temple. Wumen modeled the Gateless Gate closely on the teachings of Dahui, and he provides short commentary and a verse for each case.
The traditional title of the work, “Gateless Gate”, is somewhat of a mistranslation, but the title has become fossilized in English-speaking references to the classic Zen text. Wumen’s own name (Wu-men) is the first word in the title (Wumenguan, Japanese: Mumonkan), and it refers to lacking a door, entry point or way of practice (wu – no, men – door/way), not to lacking a fence or a boundary that includes a gate. The second word in the title (guan) means wall, barrier or checkpoint, a boundary set up to block or allow passage, so the entire title of the work is somewhat a “gateless gate,” but also a doorless wall or a checkpoint without point of entry.
Wumen wrote in the preface to the text that the “doorless wall” is the door into the Buddha’s teaching. How do you pass through a doorless wall? Wumen says that anything that passes through cannot be the treasure without beginning or end, independent of causation and time. It seems that we are not supposed to think of passing through the door by going from one side, through the door, and out the other, but rather passing through the wall by simultaneously finding ourselves on both sides of it. Wumen says that fools who depend on words and concepts are trying to hit the moon with a stick, scratching their shoes when their feet itch, glimpsing a fine horse running past a window, but those who unflinchingly cut straight through the barrier cannot be stopped by the the eight-armed demon king and will cause all the Indian and Chinese patriarchs to fear and beg for their lives.
Juzhi Holds Up & Cuts Off A Finger (3rd Case)
In the third case of the text, whenever master Juzhi (Japanese: Gutei) was asked about the Buddha’s teachings or the meaning of Zen he would simply raise one finger. Long before, he had been enlightened when a traveling monk had raised a finger and told him, “All truths are here. This finger is now the smiling nun and her hat, and now it’s the cries of humanity, now its a babbling brook, and now it’s a lofty mountain peak towering above everything.” Unfortunately, many young monks began imitating Juzhi by raising a finger every time they were asked a question, including one boy who would watch Juzhi all day and imitate him in every way. Juzhi asked the boy about the meaning of Zen, and when the boy raised his finger Juzhi sliced off the top of it with a knife. As the boy ran away screaming, clutching his bleeding finger, Juzhi called out him. When the boy turned, Juzhi held up one finger. He asked the confused and frightened boy what the meaning of Zen is, the boy raised what remained of his severed finger, and was greatly enlightened, in a way that hopefully compensated him for his rather severe and traumatizing work-related injury.
Hanging By A Branch With Your Teeth (5th Case)
In the fifth case, Xiangyan (Japanese: Kyogen) told his students, “It is as though you are up in a tree, hanging from a branch with your teeth. Your hands and feet can’t touch any branch. Someone appears beneath the tree and asks, ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the west?’ If you do not answer, you are impolite and irresponsible, and if you do answer, you fall and lose your life. How can you escape?” In a longer version of the case, one of the monks asked him, “What was the one in the tree like before he climbed up there?” and Xiangyan laughed heartily. Perhaps if we reassuringly hear that, like a true-to-life obedient water buffalo, we are each as rude as Linji, Pahua and Zhaozhou, perhaps we can learn to keep our fool mouths shut. However, let us say you can’t help but speak. When you open your mouth in an imaginary thought experiment where you are hanging from a tree by your teeth, which way do you fall, down? Why down? Assuming there is gravity in your imagination, and you do fall down, how long does it take for you to fall and die? When you die in your mind, if you do, when you die, does everything vanish? How many ways can you be brought back to life in an imaginary universe?
Do Not Be Fooled By Others (12th Case)
In the 12th case, Shiyan (Japanese: Zuigan) talked to himself constantly. Every morning when he woke, he would say to himself, “Master!” and answer himself, “Yes, sir!” – “Become sober!” – “Yes Sir!” – “And do not be deceived by others!” – “Yes, sir! Yes sir!” Clearly there is no fooling him.
Lifting Up A Single Leg (20th Case)
In the 20th case, Sungyuan asked the assembly, “Why can’t someone with incredible strength lift up a single leg? It is not with the tongue that you speak.” When we lift a leg we lift a part of ourselves, and thus haven’t lifted anything above ourselves at all. How high can we lift a leg above itself and ourselves? We do not speak with a tongue alone, but with lips, lungs, air and countless other things involved. If we only have a leg in mind when Sungyuan asks us about it, we think about lifting the leg and not ourselves. If we think about speaking with something other than a tongue, we do not think about speaking with a tongue and other things together. With the leg, we think about it and not ourselves. With the tongue, we think about something other than it, and not ourselves, it and everything together with us.
Dried Up Piece of Crap (21st Case)
In the 21st case, a monk asked Yunmen (Japanese: Ummon), who gets around in these texts almost as much as Zhaozhou, “What is Buddha?” Yunmen said, “A dried up stick of shit,” a bit less pleasant than Dungshan’s three pounds of flax or Zhaozhou’s seven pound hemp shirt, but in the language of Linji. As mentioned, this could also be translated, “dried up ass wipe”.
Rolling Up The Blinds (26th Case)
In case 26, Fayen sat in the lecture seat in front of the assembly and pointed to the bamboo blinds. Two monks nearby leaped up, each took a side and rolled the blinds up together. Fayen said, “One wins, one loses.” This resembles the case of Zhaozhou and the fist raised twice, if Fayen is talking about the two monks. Perhaps he is suggesting that the same outward behavior could be good or bad regardless of how it looks. Perhaps he isn’t referring to the monks at all, and is suggesting that as the blinds are rolled up sunlight pours in the window, which the text leaves unmentioned, such that light gains and darkness loses somewhat in the lecture hall.
Water Buffalo Through A Window (38th Case)
In the 38th case, Wuzu (Japanese: Goso) told the assembled monks, “It is like a water buffalo passing through a window. It’s head, horns and four legs all pass through. Why can’t its tail pass through along with the rest of it?” If we think in the widest terms possible, existence is like a window, our senses and thoughts and living existence looking out onto to the world, and the beginning of things seems past and the middle of things present, currently passing through the window, but the end of things, the interwoven ways that things cause other things, doesn’t come through, leaving the beast suspended in mid-air. Existence is a wonderful and strange unexplainable beast that absurdly remains in process, without end or graspable conclusion, unable to be tamed, weeded or singled out according to Linji and Zhaozhou.
Give Or Take A Staff (44th Case)
In the 44th case, Bazhiao told the assembly, “If you have a staff, I will give you a staff. If you don’t have a staff, I will take a staff away from you.” Jesus similarly said he takes from those who don’t have and gives to those who already do. What does it feel like to have a staff? What does it feel like to not have one? When Bazhiao says we have a staff or not, what does he give or take?
Who is Buddha’s Master? (45th Case)
In the 45th case, Wuzu of the windowed water buffalo said, “Shakyamuni and Maitreya,” the original Buddha who came at the apex of our era and the future buddha who will come at our era’s end, “are servants of another. Tell me, who is their master?” Perhaps their common master is somewhere near Linji’s true sage of no rank, and just down the road from Huineng’s original face.
The One Road In The Air (48th Case)
In the final 48th case, a monk asked Ganfeng, “All Buddhas of the universe enter nirvana by one road. Where is it?” Ganfeng drew the number one in the air (a horizontal line in Chinese rather than a vertical one, like a flat road) and replied, “Here it is.” The monk went to Yunmen and asked the same question. Yunmen held up a fan and said, “This fan will reach to the thirty third heaven and hit the nose of the presiding deity there,” striking the mind of the monk in front of him in an unexplainable way, pulling his nose much like Mazu.
Dogen & The Soto School
Dogen (1200 – 1253) is the founder of the Japanese Caodong school, known in Japanese as Soto Zen, the major rival school of the Linji school in Japan, known in Japanese as Rinzai Zen. In Japan, Rinzai Zen became popular with the rising samurai warrior class of the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333), at a time when importing everything from Chinese Song dynasty culture was all the rage for Japanese elites. Dogen was born near Kyoto, the imperial capital, and sadly lost his father when he was an infant and his mother when he was eight, giving him, as he later said, an early experience of the impermanence of life.
Dogen began his training as a monk in a Tendai (Chinese: Tiantai) Buddhist monastery in Kyoto, at a time when the Tendai and other powerful Buddhist schools were trying to stop the growth and popularity of Pure Land and Zen cutting in on their patronage. Tendai warrior monks (sohei) who lived and practiced on Mount Hiei, the Tendai center where Dogen later studied, would sometimes burn the monasteries and temples of competing sects. Some might cynically say the Tendai sought power and wealth, others that they truly believed they had the truth and other schools such as Zen were a corruption of the Buddha’s original teaching, and still others would say it is both and neither. Either way, Dogen became disillusioned with Tendai Buddhism, as well as the corruption that was evident in its involvement with government officials and aristocratic families.
Dogen left Mount Hiei and sought teachings from various masters, finally finding Zen master Eisai, who had traveled to China twice and established the House of Linji in Japan, but who also sadly died the year after Dogen came to study with him. Eisai’s successor Myozen decided to travel to China himself in 1223 and take Dogen as a promising young student with him as his assistant. While still on the boat docked in port, waiting for permission to disembark, Dogen asked an old monk who was head cook of a local monastery buying dried Japanese mushrooms from the merchants aboard the ship why he worked at being a cook rather than concentrate on zazen, seated meditation. The cook laughed and said that the boy did not yet understand the teachings of the ancients, astonishing and shaming him. Like Cook Ding of the Zhuangzi, or the cook who kicked over the water vase, chefs get some credit for wisdom in the Daoist and Zen traditions in their lowly position.
Unfortunately, Dogen was disillusioned by the practices in the monasteries of the House of Linji in China, molded in the way of Dahui, as monks shouted and held up fists but did not seem to grasp deeper meanings in their imitations of Huineng, Mazu, Zhaozhou and Linji, but in 1225, two years into his trip to China, Dogen heard that the Caodong master Rujing, who taught the Silent Illumination Chan of Hongzhi, was the abbot at Mount Tiantong, so Dogen wrote to him and said he wanted nothing more than to study true Buddhism with him. Rujing was impressed and wrote back, inviting Dogen to study with him and “ask questions anytime, day or night.” Sadly Myozen died soon after this, leaving Dogen in China alone studying with Rujing. A year after that in 1227, while listening to Rujing lecture the assembly of monks and hearing the words, “casting off both body and mind,” Dogen experienced great enlightenment.
It is clear that Dogen believed that Gautama Siddhartha passed the Zen tradition to Bodhidharma, who eventually passed it to Hongzhi, who passed it to Rujing, who passed it directly to Dogen himself. Rujing would routinely refer to Hongzhi as “the old Buddha,” and aside from Rujing, Dogen refers to Hongzhi more than anyone else in his writings. Dogen wrote that everyone in Song China thinks Dahui is the equal or better of Hongzhi, but they do not clearly know the truth for themselves. Dogen believed Dahui was genuinely enlightened, unlike later patriarchs of his Soto school who argued that Dahui never achieved genuine kensho, true awakening. Dogen wrote that Dahui focused on koan practice to achieve awakening, koan practices rely on using words to forget about using words, and that this is like telling someone to cross the sea in a boat and then discard the boat. Dogen says that sitting meditation is not like this as you don’t discard what you gain while sitting, an end it itself, and that the Buddha’s own silent transmission of holding up a flower for Mahakasyapa shows that words are completely unnecessary, even though the case is used as a primary koan.
Feeling that Rujing had finally answered his question about why Buddhist practices such as meditation and contemplation was necessary for beings who fully possess buddha-nature, Dogen returned to Japan to spread his new understanding of Zen, but he found that the Tendai school he had left was using its royal support to suppress both Zen and Jodo Shinshu, so he left Kyoto, with some pressure from the government and the Tendai, and founded his own school in an abandoned temple just south of the capital. He wrote treatises on teachings and practices and gathered his own extensive koan collection, The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (1235). Like Hongzhi and Rujing, Dogen practiced koan contemplation, arranged koan study for his students and lectured about koan cases frequently, but he focused on seated meditation. Ultimately Dogen taught to do nothing but sit, meditating with bright, alert attention, free of thought, directed at nothing. In his General Advice on the Principles of Zazen, he wrote:
For zazen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha.
Dogen’s greatest work is the Shobogenzo, ninety-five lectures and essays between 1231 and Dogen’s death in 1253 on all sorts of subjects, including monastic rules, the practice of sitting meditation and the meaning of Buddhist teachings. Dogen felt the need to write a great deal to preserve what he learned in China and transmit the teachings of an Indian philosopher to Japan, and said we must always be willing and open to be disturbed by the truth, to have what we think conventionally makes sense and the certainty of our world called into question.
In his Discourse on Doing One’s Utmost in Practicing the Way of the Buddhas, one of the primary lectures, Dogen says that all Buddhas naturally show delight in understanding and compassion and have treated the practice of seated meditation as “the proper and most straightforward gate for entering the Way.” All beings have buddha-nature, which makes no distinction between self and others, and we can put this oneness into operation by following the road away from dualistic thinking and its explanations that block free passage like the nodes in bamboo and the knots in pine wood.
When we speak of the correct transmission in our tradition, the straightforward Buddha teaching of direct transmission is “the best of the best.” From the very moment when a student comes face to face with the spiritual friend and knowing teacher they seek, there is no need to have the student offer incense, make prostrations, chant the names of the Buddhas, do ascetic practices and penances, or recite scriptures. The master just has the student do pure meditation until they let their body and mind drop off.
You must realize that even if all the Buddhas, who are as immeasurable as the sands of the Ganges, were to exercise their spiritual strength and attempt to gauge the meditation of a single person by means of their awakened wisdom, they would be unable to reach its boundaries, try as they might to fathom them.
Someone who is befuddled by doubts may ask, “Since there are many gates into the Buddha’s teachings, why bother to do just seated meditation?” I would point out in response, “Because it is the proper and most straightforward entryway into what the Buddha taught.”
Dogen says that the Buddha taught seated meditation, and so did all the Indian and Chinese patriarchs because they all realized that it was the most straightforward and easiest way into enlightenment. Neither chanting the sutras nor quoting koan cases can make you realize buddhahood, and there is no use in debating which of the teachings in words is superior and which is inferior, which take reflection and which are expedient means. Dogen says the ancestors and patriarchs made no distinction between male and female or exalted and lowly.
Let go of the idea that you are doing good or bad practice, and you will overflow. Sit without caring whether you are a novice or expert, a commoner or a saint. There is no separation of mind from body, and Buddhist sects that teach this are heretical, destroying the true teaching and practice. All things, including our bodies, are the One Mind.
Hakuin & the Revival of Rinzai
“If you forget yourself, you become the universe.” – Hakuin
Hakuin Ekaku (1686 – 1769) is one of the two most important patriarchs of Japanese Zen, along with Dogen, the founder of the Soto school. Hakuin did not found the Rinzai school (the House of Linji) in Japan, coming along five hundred years after Eisai, who met Dogen but died the next year, firmly established Rinzai in Japan in 1187 after traveling to get teachings from China. Hakuin did however revitalize Rinzai so thoroughly that his koan system remains the core of Rinzai practice and today all schools of Rinzai Zen trace themselves back to him. He was also an accomplished artist, producing many classic paintings and works of calligraphy.
Rinzai received enthusiastic support from the rising samurai class of the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333), as Eisai founded a new branch in Japan, parallel with the House of Linji’s earlier popularity with local warlords in China in the period between the Tang and Song empires. A warring states period once again produces support for new, irreverent and divergent points of view, which was not invisible to scholars of China and Japan of the time. Then in the following Muromachi period (1336 – 1573) Rinzai Zen was the favored sect and administered by the Shogun.
This was the time of Bassui (1327 – 1387), the Rinzai master who was obsessed with the idea of the ungraspable self as a young child, who refused to wear traditional robes or recite sutras, but rather spent all his time as a monk in meditation. Bassui taught that many monks are attached to permanence and stability who fall too far on the side of ritual and dogma, but there are also too many monks who are attached to impermanence and freedom who fall too far on the side of anarchy and irreverence. This is very similar to Nietzsche’s ideas of Apollonian and Dionysian sides of humanity and the tightrope walker, which we will cover in the final lecture. This was also the period of Ikkyu (1394 – 1481), who became enlightened while watching and listening to a troop of blind musicians after studying case 49 of the Gateless Gate. Ikkyu would drink excessively, behave in terrible ways, considered sex in brothels a sort of Zen practice, and had a long love affair with the blind geisha Mori, a renowned singer. He was one of the most innovative flute players of the time, and influenced calligraphy and the tea ceremony.
In the Tokugawa period (1600 – 1868) of Hakuin, Rinzai was in decline, which is why he traveled far and wide as a young monk seeking a teacher of authentic Zen as Dogen did, contemplating Zhaozhou’s “Nothing” and the dog, the first case of the Gateless Gate. Legend has it that while meditating in one temple there was an earthquake, and everyone ran outside in fear, but not Hakuin, who remained seated. After much fruitless searching, he turned up at the place of the hermit Dokyo, the Old Man of Shoju, who was famous for the his depth of his understanding as well as his practice of meditation in graveyards surrounded by hungry, howling wolves.
Hakuin wrote what he thought was a superb verse to demonstrate his own understanding, which Dokyo crumpled and tossed without reading, extended his hand to Hakuin, and asked him, “Learning aside, what have you seen?” Hakuin said, “If I’d seen anything I could present to you, I’d cough it up,” and he pretended to vomit into Dokyo’s open hand. Dokyo asked him, “How do you understand Zhaozhou’s Nothing?” Hakuin confidently stated, “In Zhaozhou’s Nothing there is nowhere to put your hands or feet.” Dokyo reached out, grabbed Hakuin by the nose and gave a twist, just as Mazu did to Baizhang, laughed and said, “I found somewhere to put my hands and feet!” Hakuin admitted defeat and Dokyo agreed to teach him, assigning him other koans to study. Asked why by Dokyo why he became a monk, Hakuin told him that when his devout Pure Land Buddhist mother took him to a sermon on the eight hot hells, he became terrified of hell as a child. Dokyo laughed and said, “You are such a self-centered little rascal!”
After eight months of studying several koans with Dokyo, one at a time, Hakuin considered himself to have received Dokyo’s dharma transmission and left to complete his understanding on his own. After many more years of study he experienced tremendous enlightenment, which he later taught came in the three stages of Great Doubt, Great Death, and Great Joy. First he experienced a period of anxiety, followed by a period of stillness, followed by a return to life with an abundance of happiness and strength. He sought a teacher to confirm he had attained a great awakening (kensho), but found no teachers who had experienced great enlightenment as he had himself, no one who could understand and confirm his understanding.
He returned to Shoinji temple where he had first been ordained a monk and was made head priest, adopting the name Hakuin, “concealed in white” like mountains in fog. Later he had another great awakening while reading the Lotus Sutra, a text he had rejected as false in his younger years, realizing that the true meaning of enlightenment is found in the bodhisattva path, in doing things for others rather than for the self. Hakuin lectured on the Blue Cliff Record 14 times in the period of 30 years he was head priest, and said he got something new out of it every time.
Unlike Dogen, who taught that the best way to enlightenment is seated meditation, Hakuin taught that the best way to enlightenment is contemplating one koan at a time, and over his years of teaching students he created a system that Rinzai still uses today. The pressure and tension of struggling with the confusion of a koan case is the “Great Doubt” that produces a powerful awakening. Hakuin classified koans into five types. First are koans that first introduce us to the fundamental awakened perspective. Second are koans that help us understand aspects of this awakened perspective. Third are koans that show how the old masters of the tradition understood things. Fourth are the difficult koans for cutting off attachment to how much awakening we have attained by this point. Fifth are the following five verses, which Hakuin taught was the final door to universal wisdom.
Before the moon appears,
No wonder when we meet
There is no recognition!
Still cherished in my heart
Is the beauty of earlier days.
A sleepy-eyed grandma
Encounters herself in an old mirror.
Clearly she sees a face,
But it doesn’t resemble her at all.
Too bad, with a muddled head,
She tries to recognize her reflection!
Within nothingness there is a path
Leading away from the dusts of the world.
Even if you observe the taboo
On the present emperor’s name,
You will surpass that eloquent one of yore
Who silenced every tongue.
When two blades cross points,
There’s no need to withdraw.
The master swordsman
Is like the lotus blooming in the fire.
Such a man has in and of himself
A heaven-soaring spirit.
Who dares to equal him
Who falls into neither being nor non-being!
All men want to leave
The current of ordinary life,
But he, after all, comes back
To sit among the coals and ashes.
Stories from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
One of the mediums Hakuin enjoyed employing for teaching Zen monks and common folks alike is the short anecdote, the story with a lesson that is often a koan-like shift of focus. Zen Flesh Zen Bones is now a classic, a book compiled by the American author Paul Reps, and it was one of the first I encountered in grade school. After reading some of these stories, particularly the two monks and the girl in the kimono, I knew that there was something quite extraordinary in Zen, wisdom that sounded similar to things Jesus and others considered wise have said. In this short and inexpensive book Reps has collected some of the most striking stories and koans from over 700 years of the tradition to make them available to the modern English reader. Here are some of my favorites.
Two 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?”
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.”
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.
Hogen 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.
Mokusen visited a wealthy miser who hated spending money. Mokusen clenched his hand in a fist and asked him, “What if my hand were always like this?” The miser replied that it would be deformed. Mokusen stretched out his hand and asked the same question, and the miser again said it would be deformed. Mokusen nodded and left. From that day on, the miser was both generous and frugal, helpfully giving but wise in spending.
One 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.
Stories from Zen Speaks
Zen Speaks is another marvelous modern collection of Zen stories and koans by the author and artist Tsai Chih Chung that I highly recommend which contains wonderful cartoon renderings of many of the koans and stories we’ve already covered. You can watch the entire work as a cartoon in Cantonese with English subtitles:
The wrestler Onami (Great Wave in Japanese) was unbeatable in practice matches, throwing all of his teachers, but easily defeated in tournaments. He sought the help of a Zen master who lived in a temple in the mountains who told him to imagine he was a tidal wave sweeping away everything in his path. Onami meditated that night in the temple, and slowly he felt the roll of his breathing turn into waves. First they swept away the flowers in the offering vase in front of the Buddha statue, then they rose higher and swept away the vase, then swelled into a flood that swept the Buddha and bodhisattvas out of the temple. After that night, Onami was invincible. When we feel fear and anxiety interacting with others, it is useful to imagine that we and they are all the fluid, rolling motions of the larger situation that surrounds us, fearing neither they nor the situation as something external to ourselves.
Master Jingqing asked a monk about the sound outside the monastery, and the monk replied, “That is the sound of rain.” The master said, “All beings are upside-down, losing themselves as they chase things.” The monk asked, “Master, how should I feel?” and the master replied, “I am the sound of the rain!” Much as a tree falling in the forest with no one around doesn’t make a sound, and neither does a tree falling when someone is around but there is no air to serve as medium for it, every sound we hear is the entire circuit of karma and causation in the situation, including ourselves.
Huineng’s student Xiquan was asked what he gained from studying with Huineng, and Xiquan said, “I didn’t lack anything before I went.” Asked why he went to Huineng if nothing was lacking, he replied, “How would I have known I lack nothing if I hadn’t gone?”
A master posed his monks with a problem: “Two monks went walking in the rain. One didn’t get wet. Why?” The monks suggested that one had an umbrella, that the rain was scattered in places, that one walked under the cover of awnings, but the master said that the students were too focused on the words. When the monks finally gave up, the master told them that both got wet. “Two monks went walking in the rain. One didn’t get wet. Two got wet.”
The joke works just as well in ancient Chinese as it does in modern English because language has grey areas and ambiguities. When the master said, “One didn’t get wet”, he could mean that it is the case that one didn’t get wet, such that one remained dry, or he could mean that it isn’t the case that one got wet, rather two got wet. All of the solutions proposed by the monks assumed that one didn’t get wet, the first case, making them blind to the second. It isn’t that the first case is the literal meaning of the words and the second metaphorical or derivative, but rather that we do not expect to hear about one monk and not the other if both got wet or both stayed dry. The joke would also work if the master said both stayed dry, as one didn’t get wet, and the other didn’t get wet either.
When master Danxia was staying at Huilin temple, the winter cold was so bad that he broke and lit a wooden statue of the Buddha to keep warm. When the head monk saw what was happening he demanded to know why Danxia would do such a terrible thing, and Danxia said that he wanted to see if there were any sacred relics inside. The head monk said that it was stupid to think that there would be relics of the Buddha’s body hidden inside the statue, and Danxia said, “If there are no relics in them, let’s burn them all!” According to the legend, the head monk’s eyebrows fell out, a sign that he was falsely professing the dharma. A later master was asked if what Danxia did was wrong, and the master said, “When it’s cold, sit by the fire, and when it’s hot, sit in the shade.”
Once there was a snake whose tail spoke up and asked the head why it always gets to lead. The head replied that it has eyes to see where it is going. The tail protested that without its power they wouldn’t be able to move, and firmly circled a thick tree. The head strained and strived but it could not break away from the tail or break the tail’s grip on the tree, so finally the head agreed that the tail could have its turn. The proud tail charged ahead and then off of a cliff, with the head helplessly following after.