Koan Commentary
Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 91 PDF Print E-mail
Written by News Administrator   
Wednesday, 18 April 2018 08:15


The Case:

One day, Master Tenno Diogo asked Master Sekito Kisen: What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?

Master Sekito said: It isn’t obtainable. It isn’t knowable.

Master Dogo said: Is there a more realistic expression?

Master Sekito said: The wide sky does not hinder the flying white clouds


A familiar instruction we’re given for zazen is to let thoughts come and go, like clouds in the sky. By “thoughts” we don’t just mean intentional thinking of course, but the full range of what we would ordinarily call mental phenomena: snatches of pictures, body sensations, auditory or visual hallucinations, feelings, waking dreams; the whole works.

But the implication in the instruction isn’t quite right, because the suggestion is that, with equanimity, these ‘thoughts’ will gradually fade away, and we’ll be left with a wide, empty and infinite sky.

It’s to counter that implication that Sekito answers as he does. Dependent origination isn’t just mountains and trees and waters and birds; it’s everything, including ‘thoughts’. And our task isn’t to uncloud the sky, but to actualise vast space, within which everything has its own expression, its own life.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 April 2018 08:20
Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 3, Case 4 PDF Print E-mail
Written by News Administrator   
Monday, 16 October 2017 16:53

The Case (adapted):


Master Tozan was asked by a monk, "When we are going along a narrow path, how should be proceed?"

Tozan said, "Poisonous snakes are found even on a broad path, and I advise you not to attack one directly"

The Monk said, "If I do, what will happen?"

Tozan said, "Just at that moment, there will be no room for you to escape"

The Monk said, "Would you tell me about 'just at this moment'?"

Tozan said, "All things are lost"

The Monk said, "Where have they gone?"

Tozan said, "Because of the grasses, we cannot find them"

The Monk said, "Master, if you go to the river bank you can get there at once"

Tozan rubbed his hands and said "The air now is poisonous"


Nagarjuna said that we should approach Emptiness as we would approach a poisonous snake. We cannot avoid it.

But if we attack it, we remain in duality. Likewise if we ignore it. We should pay careful attention to Tozan's "you".

Tozan was one of the founders of our Soto tradition, our narrow path. Unlike other traditions, we don't engage with Emptiness "directly". We don't use koans. We don't intellectually engage with it. We just sit. But isn't that engaging directly? Because no "you" remains?

The Chinese Masters were keen that we didn't misconstrue Emptiness as nothingness, or vacuity. Neither that we reified it. So they reconfigured Emptiness as Suchness, Is-Ness. The world is empty of our concepts and names, so what we choose to demarcate as distinct things 'disappear' and are lost. "Grasses" or "Myriad Grasses" is a way of talking about all beings, all things. In Suchness, we cannot find one thing as it is part of everything, which is whole.

The Monk finally alludes to the last part of the Heart Sutra - the Sutra on Emptiness - but for Tozan, this is exactly the sort of intellectual engagement he has disparaged, and so he dismisses the Monk.



Last Updated on Monday, 16 October 2017 17:00
Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 1 PDF Print E-mail
Written by News Administrator   
Sunday, 01 October 2017 15:27

The Case (adapted):

Nangaku approached the 6th Patriarch.

The 6th Patriarch said, "Where do you come from?"

Nangaku replied, "Mount Su"

The Patriarch said, "What comes thus"

Nangaku could not answer. He stayed in the 6th Patriarch's service for 8 years. There was then a further conversation between them

Nangaku said, "when you said 'what comes thus', I could make no response"

The Patriarch said, "How do you understand the words?"

Nangaku said, "If I try to express it, I miss the mark"

The Patriarch said, "Do practice and realisation exist, or not?"

Nangaku said, "It is not that they don't exist, but they cannot be tainted"

The Patriarch affirmed him.


This is a very rich koan story, often used to illustrate the inseparability of practice and realisation. It isn't clear whether the 6th Patriarch's second statement is a question ('what comes thus?) or a statement ('what/suchness/the ineffable comes, thus'), but either way 'what' and 'it' are often used to signify thus-ness, the ineffable.

I would like however to focus on Nangaku's 'if I try to express it, I miss the mark'

Is this a deficiency, or not? Normally we imagine the word to be like an arrow, hitting the mark of the thing signified. But this is dualistic. Doesn't Nangaku 'fail' to hit the mark because the mark, the air, his sincere effort and the expression are all 'hitting' the arrow? And isn't this full expression?

Shinji Shobogenzo Book 3, Case 19. PDF Print E-mail
Written by News Administrator   
Thursday, 05 December 2013 10:00

Koan Commentaries

When Master Kyozan Ejaku was master of Tohei Temple, Master Isan Reiyu sent him a letter along with a mirror.


The package arrived at the temple and Master Kyozan took it with him to the Lecture Hall, held up the mirror and said to his assembly: Students, Master Isan sent this mirror and it has arrived here. Now I would like you to discuss this for a while. Is this mirror Isan's or is it Tohei's? If you say this mirror is now Tohei's, I will say it is a present from Isan. If you say it was sent from Isan, I will say it is now in the Master of Tohei's hand. If you can show me the truth I will keep the mirror, if you cannot show me anything I will smash the mirror at once.

He repeated this three times. None of the assembly could answer so the Master smashed the mirror into pieces.


Commentary by Nishijima
When Master Kyozan Ejaku received a letter and mirror from Master Isan he used it to test his disciples on the difference between a subjective viewpoint and an objective viewpoint. He asked his disciples whether the mirror belonged to Isan or Tohei.


If we think about the situation objectively the mirror is now Tohei's, but if we think of it abstractly the mirror was a present from Master Isan. Master Kyozan asked his disciples to show him what the real situation was, but no one could reply, so in the end he smashed the mirror.


Reality is neither objective nor subjective. Smashing the mirror, even though a somewhat melodramatic action, was Master Kyozan's real act in the present moment.


Commentary by John Fraser
This story is about wholeness and differentiation, personal and universal; both, together. Not part one and part other but both, together.


In Kokyo, Dogen collects a number of koan stories where a mirror is used as a metaphor for dependent origination. Each of us "is" dependent origination [the mirror] and at the same time we occupy our own dharma position.[the person]. So, when Kyozan holds the mirror, Kyozan doesn't disappear, yet the mirror is the same mirror as was held by Isan.


Kyozan smashing the mirror is illusory. The mirror can't be destroyed. When smashed into a million billion pieces, each piece is the mirror, and at the same time a particular dharma position.
Last Updated on Thursday, 05 December 2013 10:19
Shinji Shobogenzo Book 3, Case 49. PDF Print E-mail
Written by News Administrator   
Tuesday, 30 July 2013 17:16

Koan Commentaries


Master Shakkyo Ezo asked Master Seido Chizo:  Do you know how to grasp space or not?


Master Seido said: I know how to grasp space.


Master Shakkyo said: How do you grasp it?


Master Seido made a gesture of grasping the air with his hand.


Master Shakkyo said: You don’t know how to grasp space!


Master Seido said: Elder brother monk.   How do you do it?


Master Shakkyo grasped Master Seido’s nose and pulled it.


Master Seido was hurt and cried out in a loud voice:  It is very rude to pull someone else’s nose.  However I have become free of all things and matter at once.


Master Shakkyo said: You should grasp space directly like this.


Commentary by Nishijima

Buddhism has a clear philosophy, and Buddhists often discuss philosophical matters.  In this story the two masters discussed space.  To grasp space, Master Seido grasped the air with this hand.


This behavior suggests that space is not only a concept, but real.  To grasp space, our action should also be real.  Master Shakkyo’s method was even more direct;  he pulled Master Seido’s nose.  And on becoming the object of this violent act, Master Seido realized what space is.


This story also teaches that Buddhist theory is not just concept;  it points to reality here and now.


Commentary by John Fraser

The immediate meaning of the story appears to be that Seido has an intellectual understanding of space, unrelated to his actual experience. Shakkyo’s vigorous action brings him back.

We can also see this as being about emptiness. The ‘ku’ in ‘koku’ [space] is the same ‘ku’ [emptiness] as we encounter in the heart Sutra. A point is being made about space and emptiness; their relationship, and a world re-envisioned by that relationship.

We carelessly imagine the space between us as dead space; the permanently dead space between the precariously alive things. But if both ‘space’ and ‘things’ are empty, then the distinction disappears, and the whole fabric of the world becomes dynamically alive. And so, there is no ‘space’. We can call this Indra’s Net, or Interdependence, or the body of the Buddha. But if we do, we should expect to get our nose pulled.


<< Start < Prev 1 2 3 4 Next > End >>

Page 1 of 4