Koan Commentary
Book of Serenity, Case 91 (adapted) PDF Print E-mail
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Friday, 11 May 2018 15:48


Book of Serenity, Case 91(adapted)

The Case:

A person said to Master Nansen, “Heaven, Earth and the self have the same root. All things, including the self, are one person”

Nansen pointed to a flower and said, “These days, people see this flower as if in a dream”


Commentary:

In a lot of the koan stories, a person will state what they believe to be Buddhist doctrine, and the Master will respond in an apparently bizarre way: with laughter perhaps, or a non sequitur. Why?

Ordinarily, we start off with a belief, and then try to make our experience correspond with that belief. So, we may believe that everything is empty, and then try to discern that emptiness, as if our actual experience is a dream. Or, we may, idiotically, aspire to personal enlightenment, and then keep checking our experience as it is against what we believe it should be.

But what we need to understand is that Buddhism isn’t a matter of belief, but a matter of experience. The experience when our sense of self, our sense of separation, is cast off. Actual people - people like you - experience something and try to describe it. A picture, not a key, not a dogma.  But over time, the language fossilises into doctrine. We always need to say something from our actual experience. Then, and only then, there is expression.

 

 

Last Updated on Friday, 11 May 2018 15:52
 
Book Of Serenity, Case 18 (adapted) PDF Print E-mail
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Friday, 11 May 2018 14:43


Book Of Serenity, Case 18 (adapted)

The Case:

A monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha Nature?”

Joshu said, “No.”

The monk said, “All beings have Buddha Nature, how come the dog doesn’t?”

Joshu said, “Karmic Nature”


Commentary:

This is the best known of all the koans. It’s the quintessential koan. And so, it exemplifies how we misunderstand these teaching fragments.

I don’t believe the monk is really asking about a dog, or a dung beetle, or any other random thing; he’s really asking about himself: does this dog have Buddha Nature?

And Joshu says no because the monk’s framework is confused. There isn’t a fixed thing called ‘monk’ and there isn’t a fixed thing called ‘Buddha nature’, one concealed within the other. Because there are no fixed and separate things at all, there is Buddha Nature.

In most translations, such as Cleary’s, the ‘karmic nature’ is that of the dog. My teacher would say that the ‘karmic nature’ is that of the monk. That is, it’s the monk’s karma to get confused and ask questions in this way. But I like to think that Joshu is saying that it’s our karmic nature - as teacher and student, as human beings- to keep getting tangled up like this, untangling ourselves or the other, or both, getting entangled again.. endless.

 

Last Updated on Friday, 11 May 2018 14:46
 
Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 91 PDF Print E-mail
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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



Commentary:

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
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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"



Commentary:

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
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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.

Commentary:

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?


 
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