koan and other commentaries Kusen

Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 91

The case:

One day Dogo asked Sekito, “What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?” 

Sekito said, “It isn’t obtainable. It isn’t knowable.”

Dogo said, “Is there a more realistic expression?” 

Sekito said, “The wide sky does not hinder the flying white clouds.”


The metaphor of sky (spacious awareness) and clouds (thoughts) is very common in Zen. Originally the meaning was fairly specific: just as the sun may be temporarily obscured by clouds yet we know it’s always there,  likewise, although our mind may be in turmoil, we can sit in confident faith in our intrinsic Buddha Nature.

That came from the East Mountain School of seventh century Zen. But the metaphor gradually changed. Instead of a specific faith in our intrinsic Buddha Nature, the faith became that when we do zazen (no matter how turbulent our mind is) we can always rest within this great expanse of spacious awareness, which does not belong just  to us, but to all beings. Clouds don’t hinder the sky.

In Japanese there’s a play on words, because the word for ‘sky’ and the word for ‘emptiness’ is the same word, ‘ku’.

In his response, Sekito seems to be turning that around by saying that the wide sky doesn’t hinder the clouds. What’s he getting at?

In our normal karmic experience, when thoughts and emotions arise we want to identify them and we want to interpret them. We want to stop them in their tracks, as it were, so we can work out what the thought or the emotion is about. And when we do that, we no longer have clouds (thoughts and feelings) freely coming and going and living their own life. It’s as if we freeze the clouds to scrutinize them, and collapse the sky. We attach to our thoughts. We hinder the clouds.

In zazen we don’t do this, because we drop our tendency to fix, to conceptualise, to like, to dislike, to interpret – all of that. Then the clouds can manifest freely. And when they manifest freely we see, not just that the sky makes the clouds possible, but that the clouds make the sky possible. Without clouds there’s no sky. There’s no emptiness without form.

This apparently simple picture that Sekito paints has a lot packed into it. So it’s urging us not to cast out what we think and feel, what is living through us at each moment, for a picture of quietism and tranquility, as that’s just a more subtle form of attachment.

We just allow this life and this space flooding through us to live.

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The Gateless Gate, Case 18: Tozan’s Three Pounds of Flax

A monk asked Tonzan, “What is Buddha?”

Tozan replied, “ three pounds of flax.”

Three pounds of flax is the amount of material required to make a monk’s robe. But Tozan didn’t say the Buddha was a monk’s robe, he said, ‘3lbs of flax’.

Three pounds of flax is limitless in its expression and application; it could be a garment for a monk, but equally a garment for a warrior or for a merchant, a shroud for a dead person, and so on.The fourth of the five skandas is translated – usually badly – as ‘will’ or ‘mental fabrication’ but it’s a very important element of the human being; it’s that aspect of us which takes this experience here and now and makes something out of it. We literally fabricate something.

We do this because what we always want to do is to grasp each aspect of the world as it appears and make it something specific. ‘Buddha’ is prior to this fabrication. We can grasp a monk’s robe, but we can’t grasp the fabric of emptiness.

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Book of Serenity, Case 47

Book of Serenity, Case 47.

The case: Master Joshu is asked, “What is the true meaning of Zen?” And he replies, “The cypress tree in the courtyard.”

This is a variant of a question he was frequently asked: “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?” Joshu, famously, is often asked questions about Buddha nature. The best known koan of all is probably the question to him: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”

And not just a dog. In his recorded sayings (no. 305), a monk asked Joshu, “Does the cypress tree have Buddha nature or not?” 

Joshu said, “It does.” 

The monk said, “When will it become Buddha?” 

Joshu said, “When the sky falls to the ground.” 

The monk said, “When will the sky fall to the ground?” 

The Master said, “When the cypress tree becomes Buddha.”

What are we to take from that?

What do we understand the cypress tree to be? It seems easy enough for us to see how the roots of the cypress tree extend into the deep ground underneath our constructed world. 

But it’s harder for us to see how the branches of the tree vigorously extend into space, into ‘emptiness’. 

Yet when we talk of the empty sky or space falling to the ground, isn’t that the real experience of the cypress tree? 

The cypress tree, in its wholehearted, undivided activity, is both fully engaged with this ground of all being, and equally is fully engaged with emptiness, and makes both intimate within its undivided activity. Likewise the practitioner.

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The Gateless Gate, Case 2

The Gateless Gate, Case 2 also appears as Case 8 in the Book of Serenity, which was compiled about 100 years before it. But the interesting thing is that the case in the Book of Serenity is truncated, so it doesn’t have the section about the deceased Monk/Fox being given a Buddhist burial. And it doesn’t, crucially, have this final exchange between Hyakujō and Ōbaku.

But before getting to that, I think it’s helpful to clarify a couple of things that make this story a little bit more comprehensible. Firstly, in East Asian folklore, the Fox is a shapeshifter. So a fox can assume, among other things, the form of a human being and successfully pass himself off as a human being. 

Secondly, the abbot of a monastery will be named after the mountain on which the monastery is. So both the Fox/Monk, who was the abbot in a previous life, and the present Hyakujō, are called Hyakujō. Which obviously leads one to question how many people are appearing in this initial part of the story.

The other funny thing is that the Fox appears to have knowledge of the 500 lifetimes in which he was incarnated in the body of a Fox. But this is curious, as traditionally only the Buddha, or arguably an enlightened person –  a great person – has knowledge of their past lives. And of course the 500 lives that the Fox says that he’s been within a Fox body mirrors the 500 lives which the Buddha is said to have had before attaining Buddhahood.  

It’s also helpful to know that in Zen parlance, somebody falsely claiming enlightenment, falsely claiming to be a great person, or who is enlightened or wise but is unbalanced by that, for reasons that we’ll come to, is referred to as a Wild Fox. 

The general commentary in this story focuses on the two answers given by the earlier Hyakujō and the later Hyakujō. That commentary doesn’t say that the first answer is wrong, but somehow that it’s incomplete. So the two answers are often referred to as two sides of the one coin.

If we take the first Hyakujō’s answer literally, that a great person doesn’t fall into cause and effect, then an enlightened person could do whatever they liked without consequence. That’s plainly wrong, but that’s not generally the meaning that’s ascribed to the answer. The suggestion is that a great person cannot fall into cause and effect is because  a great person is never separate from cause and effect. There is no illusion of Self separate from cause and effect.

But of course that answer is vulnerable to misinterpretation, because a naive person could think that an enlightened person is capable of acting without consequence. So the second Hyakujō’s balancing answer is necessary because it makes clear, not that cause and effect doesn’t exist for the enlightened person, but rather that for the enlightened person there is no enlightened person.  

With that in mind, here is my take on what I think is the hidden message within the story, which is clarified by the addition of these two sections of the Gateless Gate. And that message, which I think is hiding in plain sight, concerns the difference in the relationship between the first Hyakujō and the Monk who asks the original question, and the relationship between the second Hyakujō, our Hyakujō, and Ōbaku, in the exchange at the end. 

In the earlier exchange between the Monk and first Hyakujō, so far as we can see, the Monk simply respectfully asks a question and accepts the answer. There’s a kind of hierarchical relationship between the Teacher and the Monk. The Teacher is the guy that knows, and he’s giving the benefit of his wisdom to the Monk, the guy that doesn’t know. Teachers are very vulnerable to falling into the body of a Wild Fox if the relationship they have with their students is one of unquestioning acceptance.

Moving on from that, there’s a homonym in Mandarin; the word for “beard” and the word for “fox” have the same sound. And of course, a Fox is red-cloured. So there’s a suggestion in the final exchange between Hyakujō and Ōbaku that both the Great Teacher (Bodhidharma being a red bearded barbarian) and the Wild Fox exist within the one person. And existing within the one person, yet being able to recognise that, stops the emergence of the Wild Fox usurping the Teacher. Your teacher is a fox if they are operating under the illusion that the Teacher is the Great Person, because the Great Person is the whole body of the Sangha, which is carrying the Buddhist teaching forward.

And I think that this is the symbolic function of the funeral, that it’s a collective effort that Hyakujō and the monks are all making, to recognise the body of the Fox. And in accepting  it, giving  it Buddhist funerary rites, is also to cast it out. For now.

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Blue Cliff Record, Case 53 (adapted)

Kusen collaboration by Margaret Kerr

The Case

When Master Baso and Hyakujo were out walking, a flock of ducks flew overhead. Baso said “where have the ducks gone?”. Hyakujo replied “they have flown away”. Baso grabbed Hyakujo’s nose and twisted it, causing him to cry out in pain.


In what way was Hyakujo’s answer deficient, if it was? Well, we could say that his answer was conceptual. It didn’t describe his immediate, momentary experience because it imposed space and time onto it. In a similar vein, we can say it was dualistic. The ducks had only flown away from his perspective. From the perspective of the ducks, Hyakujo had flown away. From the perspective of the sky, neither had.

There is, arguably, a deeper dualism there, which can often be missed: the dualism of container/contained. We are familiar with the dualisms of mind/body and self/world, but this is more insidious. In his answer, the Sky is the container and the birds are the contained, but it works more generally. We can equally say that in his reply Time is the container and the flying birds are the contained. Dogen identifies it in the Genjokoan, when he talks about Spring. And in our own lives, we imagine that there is a container called My Life, within which all the events of this life occur.

The problem with all dualisms is they leave a gap, through which our vitality gradually seeps away.

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Blue Cliff Record, Case 63

The Case

One day in master Nansen’s temple two group of monks were arguing over a cat. Nansen came across them, grabbed the cat and said, ‘if you can say one true word about the cat I won’t kill it.’ The monks were silent and Nansen cut the cat in two.

This koan story also appears as case 14 in ‘The Gateless Gate,’ which was compiled about 100 years after ‘The Blue Cliff’ record and which has a coda. In that coda, Master Joshu, who is Nansen’s successor, has been away whilst this incident happened. Master Nansen relates the incident to him and Nansen says, ‘what would you have said?’  Joshu without saying anything, takes off his sandals, puts them on his head and walks out. Nansen approvingly says, ‘if you had been there the cat would have been saved.’

Dogen comments extensively on this Koan in the ‘Zuimonki,’ where he imagines himself in the position of Nansen and the position of the monks.

 In the position of Nansen, he would actually sharpen the monk’s dilemma by saying to them, ‘whether or not you can say a true word, I will cut the cat.’ But then the teaching purpose having been served, he would simply let the cat go.

From the position of the monks he would have challenged Nansen by saying ‘you can cut the cat in two but why don’t you cut the cat in one?’ From this brilliant proposition we can see why Dogen says that Nansen cuts the cat in two with the sword.The other stories refer to a knife or don’t say how the cat was cut. However, so far as a sword is concerned, the only ‘person’ in the monastery likely to have a sword is Manjushri ( The Bodhisattva of wisdom) whose statue we usually find on the altar.

Manjushri is wielding the sword which cuts delusion. From Dogen’s perspective the cutting of delusion is the restoration of wholeness. Manjushri is mounted on a lion, a very big cat.

Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of wisdom, but ‘wisdom’ is something of a misnomer because what is translated as wisdom is – prajna – pre-knowing which is equivalent to -hishiro – before thinking or beyond thinking that we were talking of previously. The point Dogen is making is that by making the cat an object, both the monks and arguably Nansen have already cut the cat in two; because they have created the cat as an object of thought and discrimination in the world, and the restoration of the wholeness of prajna is what cuts the world and the cat into one.


Book of Serenity, Case 36: Master Ma Is Unwell

Kusen Collaboration Book of Serenity Case 36, artwork by Blair Thomson

The Case: One day, Master Ma’s personal attendant asked him, “How is the master these days?”

Master Ma answered, “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.”

This case is also Case 3 in the Blue Cliff Record.

Master Ma is Mazu or Baso, who along with Sekito, is one of the great masters of 8th Century Chinese Zen. The reference to “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha” comes from the Buddha Names Sutra, where Sun Face Buddha is said to have a lifespan of 1800 years, and Moon Face Buddha has a lifespan of only one day and one night. Baso would die shortly after this exchange.

On the face of it, Baso is talking about two aspects of his experience, and of all our experience, namely that from one perspective we experience our lives as particular and  karmic, limited in place and time. And from the other, we experience ourselves as part of the great body of all being, unlimited, universal. Rather like we may see a particular stitch on cloth as being, on the one hand, just that particular stitch, and on the other hand, part of the fabric of great being, so we can see our lives in the same way.

It seems to me that we can also look at the answer in another way, which is pointing out two aspects of experiencing non-duality. 

When we experience things in sunlight, everything in this vast world is illuminated, except for the sunlight, which is invisible. We see the manifold vibrant things of the world, but the light of the Self is invisible. 

In moonlight, by contrast, we see all the things on which moonlight shines as being somehow part of the moonlight. They lose their distinctiveness and their separateness and they all become part of the moonlight.

Similarly, I think when we are in Zazen, sometimes the Self drops away and we’re aware of this vast dynamic world, this vast body of all-being. And other times, our experience is quite different. It’s quite soft and intimate, particular in both place and time. It’s as if the whole of existence is taken within the soft light of the non-egoic Self and the world, as it were, disappears.


Blue Cliff Record, Case 42 (adapted)

The case:

When Layman Pang was taking his leave of Yaoshan monastery, the Abbot ordered ten of his senior monks to accompany him to the temple gate as a gesture of respect.

As the party was walking towards the temple gate, snow started to fall. Layman Pang looked up and said, ‘this snow is wonderful, it falls only here’ The senior monk asked, ‘where does it fall?’ Layman Pang said to him, ‘even though you are a zen monk, the King of Death won’t let you go’


Who or what, in this context, is the King of Death? 

The error the monk made was thinking that Layman Pang’s expression of wonder, astonishment and gratitude at the immediacy and beauty of the falling snow was a zen language game and so responding accordingly.

It’s a fundamental misunderstanding, and one that is replicated in many of the ways in which we talk about Buddhism generally and the koan stories in particular. We think of it as a kind of code that we need to crack, a text we need to interpret, but when we see in this way, the King of Death is standing so close to us that we can see nothing else. Nor him, other than as a kind of falling.


Book Of Serenity, Case 36

The Book of Serenity Case 36.

The case:

Master Ma (Baso) was unwell. His attendant asked “Master, how are you?”. Ma replied “sun face Buddha, moon face Buddha”


By the time of this exchange, Baso had foretold his own death, and would die shortly afterwards. Sun face Buddha had a lifespan of 1,800 years. Moon face Buddha lived just a single day and night. So, at one level Baso is talking about the dual aspect of our life: the particular and karmic, and the Universal. The same theme appears in Uchiyama’s poem (adapted):

Though poor, never poor
Though sick, never sick
Though aging, never aging
Though dying, never dying
Reality before separation:
Endless depth

but on another level, he is talking about our experience as human beings prior to that separation. In the sunlight, the vast alive body of the world is illuminated yet the light is, in a sense, invisible. In the moonlight, by contrast, everything is absorbed by the moonlight, becoming a part of it, tranquil and beautiful.


Master Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse number 453. (Adapted)

Polishing a tile to make a mirror is our reward for accumulating merit and virtue. Polishing a mirror to make a tile certainly depends on the nourishment from wisdom. Polishing a mirror to make a mirror brings a laugh – how are my hands and the Buddha’s hands similar? Practising Zazen to make a Buddha is putting our jagged karmic stones at the site of awakening – why is it like this?

(After a pause) When one cart is hit, many carts go quickly. One night a flower blooms and the world is fragrant.

Master Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse number 453. (Adapted)


He is plainly talking about our practice. The tile is our karma – a chaotic concatenation of selves which we become all too aware of when we start sitting. And understandably wish to be free of. Even though it’s just noise.

The mirror is Buddha, and we imagine that through practice we can make the tile a mirror. Yet he didn’t say that. He never said that. Paint a Buddha face on the tile if you wish, but it will never go.

In our sincere and wholehearted practice a true person appears. Sometimes, this person is like vast space. And the noise doesn’t matter, at all.