Categories
Kusen

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’

Commentary:

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.

Categories
Kusen

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”

Commentary:

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.

Categories
Kusen

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)

Commentary:

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.

Categories
Kusen

Master Dogen’s dharma discourse number 441.

“Having questions and answers, we smear everything with shit and piss. Not having questions and answers, thunder and lightning crash. The great Earth in ten directions is leveled and all of space is torn open, not allowed to enter from outside, not allowed to leave from inside.

A gavel strikes the sounding block and the ten thousand affairs are completed.

At such a time how is it?

(After a pause, Dogen said) time and again everything exists within a painting. Even allowing for what falls apart snow falls at midnight.”

Master Dogen’s dharma discourse number 441.

This discourse, delivered in the last part of his life, in all its vigour and iconoclasm seems quintessentially Dogen, but in fact, prior to the pause, Dogen is directly quoting the words of his Master, Tendo Nyojo.

By this time his master had been dead for more than a decade and he had not seen him for more than 15 years.

Are the words Nyojo’s or Dogen’s, both, or neither?

It is the responsibility of the teacher to teach with great vigour, and to do so for the rest of their days.

Yet the personal vigour of a teacher – even a great teacher like Dogen – is puny. Yet it is as if sometimes the entire lineage – not just the visible lineage, but the lineage of all times – and the entire universe seen and unseen is all congregated around this person, and given voice.

Whether you believe it or not, you are like this, I am like this and, to live without doubt, it is necessary only once.

Categories
Kusen

Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse 463 [adapted]

Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse 463 [adapted]

Dropping off body and mind; dropping off this skin, flesh, bones and marrow; dropping off this vivid waterfall of experience: How can this be you? How can this be other?

Breaking into a smile, nothing has ever been separated.

(after a pause)

In other days, we have mapped out this entire miraculous world, but this day, we are as innocent as children singing

Categories
Kusen

Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 1, Case 13

A monk asked Master Jisai – “How is the moon when not yet round?”

The master said, “swallowing three or four moons”

The monk said, “And when the moon is round?”

The master said, “vomiting seven or eight moons”.

In this story the moon is a symbol of enlightenment, so the monk’s question really is: what is the person like before and after enlightenment?

The Master’s answer seems to be that before enlightenment the person is primarily conceptual. So, the various concrete moons the person experiences – the harvest moon, the waxing moon, the present moon and so on – all arise within [swallowed] the concept of ‘moon’, whereas for the enlightened person, the actual limitless manifestations of moon are – as it were- liberated [vomited] from the concept of moon.

This interpretation isn’t wrong but it can lead to a terrible literal Zen, where there is an unbalanced emphasis is on concrete reality and a lot of banal and formulaic talk about the Here and Now. And in this block of concrete Zen, delusion is considered as the other: thoughts, dreams, imaginings, visions and so on.

In his commentary on this koan, Dogen says that the whole world is expressed in the act of swallowing and the whole world is expressed in the act of vomiting. We should swallow the self and the whole world. We should vomit the self and the whole world

Or, to put it slightly differently – there is a dynamic folding and re-folding between wholeness-ising everything [swallowing], and releasing everything in its own vivid expression-ing [vomiting]

Which is our practice.

Categories
Kusen

Blue Cliff Record, Case 42 (adapted)

The Case:

When Layman Pang left Yao Shan’s monastery, the Abbot ordered ten of his senior monks to accompany him to the temple gate. As they approached the gate, snow started falling. Layman Pang said, “These are good snowflakes. They only fall here.”

One of the monks asked him, “Where do they fall?”

Layman Pang replied, “Even though you are a zen monk, the King of Death won’t let you go”

Commentary:

In Suchness, it is not that we disappear. Rather, boundaries disappear. Separation disappears. Without erasing difference, all things participate in the wholeness of this moment.

The King of Death appears in many forms. If it were just one form, we could see him easily. In this case, the monk takes Layman Pang’s simple statement of wonder and gratitude – the snowflakes do not fall on the monastery, they do not fall on the temple gate, they fall here – and misunderstands it, as a game, as an invitation to dharma combat, or something similar.

It is not just the snowflakes, obviously. Everything is falling and rising here, and the mind which places this here within a greater everywhere does so from a dream.

Categories
Kusen

Book Of Serenity, Case 23 (adapted)

The case:

When students came to see Master Luzu, he simply turned to face the wall in zazen.

Hearing this Master Nansen said – “this will carry on until the year of the donkey”

Nansen then said “when students come to me, I tell them to experience the state before discrimination. However I don’t even have half a student”

Commentary:

This koan is about teaching.

In Chinese astrology there isn’t a year of the donkey.

Nansen is saying that zazen is eternal but also that this way of teaching is eternally deficient.

It is not just a matter of gestures.

But then Nansen, although a great teacher himself, seems to suggest that his verbal teaching was also deficient.

It is not just a matter of words.

We need to understand that neither Luzu or Nansen, or anyone else, are teachers; because the true teacher is a momentary person.

Sometimes he conceals himself within the teacher. Sometimes within the student.

Sometimes partially in one and partially in the other. Sometimes in brightness. Sometimes in memory.

The true teacher always manifests only in this relational space. Because this relational space is without limit, likewise their manifestations.

Categories
Kusen

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.

Categories
Kusen

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.