Koan Commentary
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.


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 94. PDF Print E-mail
Written by News Administrator   
Tuesday, 30 July 2013 17:11


Koan Commentaries


One day a monk asked Master Sozan Honjaku:  I heard that you said in your teachings that the Great Sea has no place for lifeless bodies.  What is this sea?


The Master said:  It is something that includes the whole of existence.


The monk said:  Then why does is have no place for lifeless bodies?


The Master said:  Because things that are lifeless do not belong there.


The monk said:  But if it includes the whole of existence, why don’t lifeless things belong there?


The Master said:  The whole of existence is beyond that sort of function;  it is beyond [the concept] “life.”


Commentary by Nishijima

The Great Sea is a metaphor for reality, the whole of existence.  In Master Sozan’s teaching, he said that just as the sea does not accept dead bodies (they are usually washed up on the shore), so reality does not accept anything without value or significance.  In other words, there is nothing in the Universe that is without value.


However, the monk was caught by the Master’s metaphor and wanted to know why reality as the sea doesn’t accept dead bodies.   The Master told him that it is because dead bodies do not belong in the sea; things without value do not belong in reality.  However, the monk was still caught by the words of the master’s metaphorical teaching.  He wanted to know why reality doesn’t contain everything including dead bodies.  The Master replied that reality does not function like the monk’s image of the sea;  it is beyond that sort of categorization.  It is beyond concepts like “dead” or “alive.”  It is something inclusive and ineffable that exists here and now.


Commentary by John Fraser

In this story, Master Sozan uses the metaphor of the ocean for the whole of existence. The monk asking the question takes the metaphor slightly too concretely. Just as the real ocean yields up lifeless bodies, yields up debris, he imagines that Sozan’s statement that “the Great Sea has no place for lifeless bodies” means that there are ‘lifeless bodies’ and that somehow they are excluded. But Sozan’s meaning was that in the whole of existence there are no lifeless bodies. In other words, everything has absolute value, but also, if we perceive’ lifeless bodies’ then we can’t see ‘the Great Sea’. That is, the total dynamic functioning of the whole universe. We are perceiving instead the world of samsara, where isolated things continue provisionally for a while in empty space, falling toward the ground of death.



Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 July 2013 17:15
Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 82. PDF Print E-mail
Written by News Administrator   
Tuesday, 30 July 2013 17:02

Koan Commentaries


One day Master Hyakujo went with Master Baso Do-itsu for a walk.  As they walked along they saw a group of wild ducks flying in the sky.


Master Baso said: What are they?


Master Hyakujo said: Wild ducks.


Master Baso said: Where are they going?


Master Hyakujo said: They have flown away.


Master Baso grasped Mater Hyakujo’s nose and twisted it.  Master Hyakujo could not tolerate the pain and cried out: Aagh! Aagh!


Master Baso said: Although you said they have flown away, you are always at this place.


Master Hyakujo immediately broke out in a sweat, and just then he experienced a reflection of the truth.


The next day Master Hyakujo attended an informal teaching given by Master Baso,  where a few monks had gathered.  Master Hyakujo stepped forward, rolled up Master Baso’s prostration mat and put it away.


Master Baso got down from the lecture seat and went back to his personal room, followed by Master Hyakujo.  He then asked Master Hyakujo: I went to the Lecture Hall, but why did you put away the prostration mat before I had preached anything?


Master Hyakujo said: Yesterday I was caught by the tip of my nose by the Master and it was very painful.


Master Baso said: Yesterday, where did you concentrate your mind?


Master Hyakujo said: Today the tip of my nose is not painful any more.


Master Baso said: Now you know the profound matter of this very moment.


Then Master Hyakujo prostrated himself and went out.


Commentary by Nishijima

Master Hyakujo Ekai was walking out with his Master, Baso Do-itsu, when a flock of wild ducks flew overhead.  Master Baso asked what they were, and Master Hyakujo answered that they were wild ducks. Master Baso asked where they were going, and Master Hyakujo replied that they had already flown away. Although this was the fact, his answer sounded somewhat arrogant, so Master Baso twisted the tip of his student’s nose, causing him to cry out in pain. Master Baso pointed out that although the ducks had flown away, Master Hyakujo was just at this place. Hearing those words, Master Hyakujo realized the true situation.


Next day, Master Hyakujo went to Master Baso’s informal preaching but before the lecture began, he put away the Master’s prostration mat so that Master Baso couldn’t prostrate himself in front of the Buddha image – the usual custom before a lecture. Master Baso returned to his private room where he asked Master Hyakujo why he had behaved like that. Master Hyakujo did not answer his Master’s question, because his mind was still focused upon the previous day, when his nose had been tweaked. Remembering the event, he said that it had been very painful. Master Baso wanted to point out that Master Hyakujo’s mind was concentrated on a past event today, just as it had been yesterday.


Master Hyakujo noticed the meaning in his Master’s words, and replied rom his present state, that the tip of his nose no longer hurt. Hearing these words, Master Baso recognized that Master Hyakujo had grasped the truth, that his consciousness was always in the present, and he affirmed this to Master Hyakujo.


The story shows how these two masters studied the concrete situation here and now. And this attitude – to focus on the concrete reality in front of us – is the Buddhist attitude.


Commentary by John Fraser


Where have the birds flown? Where has your life flown?


The ‘you’ in Baso’s answer is not Hyakujo’s ego consciousness alone. ‘This place’ is not just the part of the great earth on which they were standing at that moment.


Jiko [Self] is both the small self and the self that is connected to all things. That is, dependent origination. Every place is this place.


Last Updated on Thursday, 01 August 2013 16:25
<< Start < Prev 1 2 3 4 5 Next > End >>

Page 2 of 5