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”


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.


Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 91

The Case:

One day, Master Tenno Dogo 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.


Blue Cliff Record, Case 63

The Case: at Master Nansen’s temple, two groups of monks were arguing about a cat. Nansen held up the cat and said “If you can speak then I will not kill it”. The monks were silent. Nansen cut the cat in two.


1. Who is the one person within the temple who carries a sword? Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. He sits on the altar, atop the lion of courage.

1.1. So is it a real sword? Or a real cat? Given that a humble pillow can symbolise dependent origination, what more could a cat signify? What are monks really likely to be arguing about?

2. Dogen, in Zuimonki, asks his students what they would have said in response to Nansen’s demand. And then volunteers that he would have said to Nansen, “Why don’t you cut the cat into one?” Wouldn’t you be happily cut in two if you could say something this brilliant?

2.1. Isn’t Dogen’s point that the cat -reality- has already been cut in two? Nansen does not kill it, because it has already been ‘killed’ by the sword of duality, wielded by the disputatious monks. But Manjusri’s sword is different. It cuts into one. How?


Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 3, Case 4

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.


Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 1

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?


152. The category of koans is never closed

The Case: There is a person, A, in complete darkness, in complete silence. This person has no memory, and no sense of the body. However, A is telepathic, but only with two other persons. The first person, B, has a shared language with A. The second person, C, is a mute, with no language. In the silence, when A is aware of B, A is aware of all the mental phenomena of B, expressed through a torrent of language. When A is aware of C, A experiences C’s whole being – how it is to be C – but without language.

The Inquiry:

Is A alive or dead? If alive, where is A?

If A experiences B and C at the same time, does one obstruct the other?

If one does not obstruct the other, how is each experienced? Is B within C, or vice versa, both, or neither?

In zazen, are we telepathic with ourselves?


Book of Serenity, Case 48

The case:

Vimalakirti asked Manjusri

‘What is a Bodhisattva’s method of entering non duality?’

Manjusri said, “according to my mind, in all things, no speech, no explanation, no direction and no representation. Leaving behind all questions and answers. This is the method of entering non duality.”

Then Manjusri asked Vimalakirti – ‘What is the Bodhisattva’s method of entry into non duality?’

Vimalakirti was silent.

There are three senses of Satori, Enlightenment, and this koan deals with the first. It is sometimes called Practice/Realisation, or Practice/Verification.

Both are an abbreviation of a longer phrase, which means hearing, accepting, practicing, verifying. So: we hear the Buddha’s teachings on non duality, we accept these teachings, we practice, and through practice those teachings are verified as true.

The story is a representation of the mind and sincere practice of Vimilakirti, although there appears to be two people. But Manjusri of course is not a person, but is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.

And the two questions are subtly different.

Vimalakirti asks ‘What is the Bodhisattva’s method of entering non duality?’
So this refers to the teaching stage. Which is why Manjusri answers.

But Manjusri’s question, ‘What is the Bodhisattva’s method of entry into non duality?’ is the practice stage. Which is why it is met with silence.

So neither answer is the right answer, but the story portrays a progression from teaching to practice.

The teachings are the door that we have to go through, but we have to let go of the handle to experience the vast room.


Book Of Serenity, Case 52

The case:

Master Sozan asked Master Toku, “The Buddha’s true body is just like space. Manifesting its form according to circumstances, it is like the moon in water. How do you understand it?”

Toku said, “It’s like a donkey looking down a well (seeing his own reflection).”

Sozan said, “You aren’t quite there.”

Toku said, “Well, how do you understand it?”

Sozan said, “It’s like the well looking up at the donkey.”

To have any understanding of these stories, two things are essential. First, we need to take the image seriously, not see it as code, or immediately try to convert it into something else. The image is the whole picture. Second, we need to be keenly aware of our own tendency towards dualism. So, in this first image, we might think there are three things: the moon, the moonlight and the water. But there’s only two, our mind wants to insert a moon when none is there. Likewise, in all the images concerning mirrors – a way of talking about differentiation within wholeness- we want to insert the owner of the reflection.

The image of the moon in water is a very old one. It’s originally a way of describing the relationship between the mind and awareness/insight. When the mind is still, we can see things as they are. But it keeps being creatively reinterpreted, so here Sozan is using it as a way to describe the complete inter penetration of wholeness/Buddha and differentiation/myriad things.

Toku takes an image which is very traditional and beautiful, and brings it down to earth. The donkey – this practitioner – is looking down the well of all things, right to the bottom, and sees that he is not separate from anything.

But there is a risk: if we just think from this perspective, our minds can insinuate the self back into the picture, and then people can make absurd statements like “I am all existence”, when really, the whole Universe is expressing itself through this donkey.

This donkey.


The Book of Serenity, Case 4 (adapted)

The case:

The Buddha was walking with his sangha. He pointed to the ground and said, ‘This is where the temple should be built’. The God Indra took a stalk of grass and replanted it in the ground, saying, ‘There, the temple is built.’

It is clear from the story that the stalk of grass is the practitioner, but what is the ground, and why is it not a person but a divinity who places the stalk of grass there?

We re-enact this story when we place a stalk of incense in the incense bowl: the burning stick is each of us in this Dharma position. This incense stick, held by the ash so it will not fall.

Isn’t the ash all beings? Isn’t the ground all beings?


Book of Serenity, Case 63

Book of Serenity, Case 63

The case:

Joshu asked master Touzi: “When someone who has undergone the great death returns to life, how is it?”

Master Touzi said, “He can’t go by night, he should arrive in daylight.”


Enlightenment is often referred to as the great death, particularly in Rinzai. Practitioners in that tradition are encouraged to have dramatic and extreme experiences. Likewise, ‘night’ or ‘darkness’ is often used in Koan stories as a way of talking about non-duality. In the dark we can’t see individual things, so everything is whole; likewise in the non-dual state, although the metaphor is not exact: in the non dual state, this and that don’t disappear into an ambient mush, yet things cease to exist in the familiar way. So Joshu’s question is: how does the person who has experienced non duality function in the world?

The tone of ‘great death’ and ‘night’ however is different. In Joshu’s question, there is the seed of our self sickness. The assumption that practice is to get something, some special experience. Master Touzi’s answer is less dramatic, more realistic: night and day balance each other, duality and non duality are in a dance of forward and backward.

We call it the great death because the experience does not belong to the self.