Koan Zen

Koan Zen

The principle of the koan (literally an official declaration) is something like English case-law, or collating scientific observations: a principle is extracted from concrete individual cases. In theory anything, if investigated to the limit, reveals Buddha-nature, and not merely theoretically but practically. But most ordinary things do not have enough ‘charge’ of feeling to hold attention for very long, and in many cases the principle is difficult to observe because it is masked by the circumstances. If one wants to discover, or confirm, the effect of gravity, one should not choose as his field of experiment and observation the fall of a feather. Gravity is as fully operative there as anywhere, but the influence of air resistance, wind and so on obscure its working. Advanced students do indeed tackle just such problems, but they are not appropriate when establishing the basic principle.

In any life which is controlled and where an inquiry into truth is being pursued with the help of meditation practice, a koan develops of itself. ‘Why do Buddhas go around teaching when the Buddha- nature is in all living beings?’ was a koan which arose in the mind of the young Dogen. But it often takes many years (thirty years in one tradition) before a man can identify, then formulate and then resolve the point which has worried him all his life. Many of these spontaneous crystallizations of the life-problem are recorded in biographies of Zen masters of the Tang dynasty$ later on in China one of them would sometimes be set to a student as a centre round which his own problem could crystallize more quickly. They were then called koans. They mostly cut across ordinary assumptions about the world and the self, and often about Buddhist doctrine as well.

One of the most famous concerns a question about a dog. The story first appears as a koan in the Shoyoroku collection. A monk asked Master Joshu, ‘Is there Buddha-nature in a dog or not?’

Joshu said, ‘There is.’

The monk said, ‘How should it be shut up in a bag of bones?’

Then on another occasion a monk asked Joshu, ‘Is there Buddha- nature in a dog or not?’

And Joshu answered, ‘Not’.

The monk said, ‘Buddha-nature is in all – how should it not be in a dog?’

In the somewhat later collection called Mumonkan only the second question-and-answer appears, and this is the usual form of the koan. As the monk says, it is on the face of it opposed to Buddhist doctrine.

To salvage the answer philosophically is not too difficult. Some say that the Buddha-nature being everywhere, and reality, it is only by illusion that individual things are discerned in it. The question postulates the dog as a real entity, and wonders whether there is Buddha-nature in it or not. But the true question is whether there is any entity to be called ‘dog’ in all-pervading Buddha-nature. So Joshu answered ‘Not’ in order to reject the whole basis of the monk’s original question.

Others say that Buddha-nature is not in the dog, but the dog is Buddha-nature from nose to tail-tip, so again the Not is to reject the basis of the question.

Such intellectually agile answers have little value in Zen and are no help in life. While the question is purely theoretical, its solution has no more urgency than a crossword. It is not a koan. The time may come however when the inquirer confronts directly great temptation or great fear; then he is the dog and really needs to know ‘Is there Buddha-nature in the dog or not?’ Joshu’s answer is not a facile one, and everything has to be thrown in to the effort to solve it – will, emotions, thinking and life itself. An answer has to come out with the unanimous and vigorous assent of every element in the individual. An intellectual answer, for instance, is useless if the real feeling and behaviour do not accord with it; similarly useless is a state of emotional excitement screwed up to blanket hidden doubts.

Westerners (and Japanese too) sometimes get the idea that the main thing is a sort of cheek; anything unusual done with an appearance of complete confidence would be accepted. There are jokes about a Zen man asking for a night’s lodging, and tested with a koan at the gate; not knowing the proper answer, he brashly hits the gate hard with his wooden clog. The gate-keeper passes him in, and it later turns out that he did not know the answer either, but assumed that it must be to hit the gate with a clog.

This sort of thing happens in the world everywhere, not only in Zen. Foreigners studying Japanese often brag about the number of written characters they have learned. A long time ago I knew an Irishman in Tokyo who enjoyed deflating these pretensions, by suddenly demanding, ‘Write the character utsu, melancholy.’ This was famous as one of the most difficult characters, with twenty-nine strokes (it has now been simplified), and nearly every student had seen it some time as a curiosity. With many hesitations and corrections, the victim would produce a version5 the Irishman would glance at it and say ‘Wrong!’, watching with amusement as the other pored over his version with a chastened air. But one day I saw him challenge a Belgian, who unexpectedly dashed off the character immediately on a piece of paper and handed it across $ the Irishman scrutinized it and then admitted that it was right. I picked up the piece of paper, and afterwards checked it against a dictionary, finding to my surprise that there were two mistakes. I pointed these out to the Irishman and asked, ‘Why did you pass it?’

He replied, ‘How should I know how to write it? I always say it’s wrong and they accept that. But when he wrote it so confidently I thought it must be right.’


When there is mutual ignorance, confidence indeed is king.

A koan answer has to be something living, not parroted. There are answers which contradict themselves. A Chinese clerk applying for a job with an English company in Hong Kong was asked whether he knew English grammar. He replied enthusiastically, ‘Me English grammar number one expert. Top-side!’

In a high-grade judo examination sometimes questions are asked$ one of them can be ‘What is shizentai posture?’ To answer this the man could say, ‘Upright and relaxed, feet about twelve inches apart, centre of gravity midway between feet.’ As he answered, he would have to be in that posture. It is quite difficult to demonstrate a good shizentai, and this is the point of the question. Verbally it could be answered in more detail and more correctly, by saying that the distance between the little toes should be the same as the distance between the outside of the shoulders, and the centre of gravity should be above the mid-point of the line between the little toes. But in judging the answer, the examiners would look to see whether in fact the examinee’s little toes were that distance apart, and whether the distribution of weight was what was being described. If not, the answer would not be accepted. An expert might stand without a word, demonstrating a splendid shizentai posture. He would get full marks.

A modern Zen master, who is a devotee of Amida, remarks that his pupils know it, and sometimes come into his interview noom saying the mantra of Amida with great reverence: Namu Amida Butsu. But he never passes this answer. ‘It’s like little girls talking about married life, or Boy Scouts talking about war. Often they are repeating what they have heard or read and it is quite sensible, but the fact is that they know nothing about it.’

In the judo examination, the man has to assume and demonstrate in himself the posture which he is describing, and in Zen it is the same. If fearlessness is to be expressed, the man has to be fearless$ if it is devotion, it has to be real devotion, and not trying out on the teacher an appearance of devotion.

All the koans drive at a reality in the universe and in the individual, partly but not wholly obscured by eddies in the stream of thought. In early Zen it was held that to pass through one is to pass through all. When concentration on one is complete, the thought- streams suddenly stop and the koan is transcended. Afterwards thought is taken up again, but without eddies in the stream. The realization is expressed in relative terms as power and as compassion, especially in creation of beauty. Traditionally an expression of realization may take the form of a verse, but in any case it is usual that the first expression has a relation to the theme of the koan by means of which it came about.

The koan is a theme to catch the mind. It must matter to a man who wants to take it up, and a teacher selects an appropriate one to suit the type of pupil before him. (The conviction of most pupils that they are unique is nearly always a delusion.)

All the koans shoot at the same experience, and in theory perhaps the answers should be interchangeable, but in the training as it has developed this experience has to be extracted from a given koan theme, and the same theme is manipulated in expressing it. A Zen teacher once explained:

In judo, sometimes a man shows the judo principle by the Nage-no-kata [a demonstration of eighteen different throws in the classical form]. The basic throwing principle is the same in all of them, but it is applied to different movements and postures; in each throw you are asked to show the appropriate application to that circumstance. No doubt an expert could find a way to apply his favourite throw to all these situations, but that is not what he is being asked to do. To keep up the judo tradition, he is asked in this demonstration to show the classical forms of the throws in the classical situations to which they apply. It is the same with a koan – one is asked to realize, and then express, the Buddha-nature through this particular theme.

There is a view that someone who is going to teach Koan Zen must have worked through a good number of different koans, so that he has himself experience of all the main groups which he may have to set to different types of pupil; but one whose Zen is for his own life alone needs only to realize it, whether through several koans, or one koan, or perhaps through no koan at all.

In eleventh-century China big collections of koans were made, and verses, discourses and short ejaculatory ‘comments’ were added to them. Some teachers in the Rinzai sect stressed the use of a koan, whereas in the Soto sect it was merely one means of focusing a very active mind. However there was no rigid distinction; it was more a difference of style between the two sects. Both the great masters presented in the present book were of the Rinzai sect; one of them took only one koan during his training, and the other had two. Daikaku mentions the koan as a means to meet very disturbing pressures of thought, but he clearly does not think it is essential in every case; in his Zazenron classic he does not mention it at all. Bukko makes much more of the koan practice, but he adds that if the koan is not solved within five years it should be dropped, and he does not recommend taking another one instead.

When these two teachers brought their Zen to Japan, they found that many of their pupils at Kamakura, the military capital, did not know enough Chinese to be able to master the verses and discourses that went with the classical Chinese koans; so they used two or three classical koans but also developed a system of ‘on-the-instant’ Zen, where something about which the pupil had a ‘concern’ was made into his koan. It is likely that at first a pupil had only one of these ‘on-the-instant’ koans, and then one of the classical ones, to complete his training. However the lines as they developed generally gave six or seven koans before a pupil finished. According to the investigations of Imai Fukuzan, ‘on-the-instant Zen’ lasted at Kamakura till the end of the sixteenth century. Afterwards, classical koans were given from the beginning, but by this time the whole current of Rinzai Zen was becoming weak, though a few geniuses appeared like meteors from time to time.

Early in the eighteenth century, Hakuin re-shaped the whole system, and almost all the Rinzai Zen lines today derive from him. A pupil takes something like 200 koans in his training; the first one is nearly always ‘no Buddha-nature in the dog’, ‘the sound of one hand’ or ‘the original face before parents were born’. The others mostly come from eleventh-century Chinese collections like Hekiganshu, from the Rinzairoku, and especially from a collection of koans called Kattoshu. There are also about 150 ancillary koans which a teacher gives at discretion – a few of the ‘on-the-instant’ koans survived in this category.

There are said to be 1,700 koans, and there is a fat dictionary of them. Besides the main ones, there are supplementary tests called sassho or satsumon, which are used to clarify and strengthen a realization which is not yet firm, or which the pupil cannot yet properly express. In the judo example given before, the shizentai is normally with the feet level and the arms hanging down. Someone who could adopt it correctly, perhaps by mere imitation, would then be asked as a sassho, ‘What is shizentai with the right foot forward?’ A mere imitator would be bewildered by this; but someone who had realized the usual shizentai would be able to put the right foot forward and at the same time maintain the distance between the feet and the weight distribution which are the essence of the posture.

The koans have been analysed into seventeen main themes. Some masters believe that the system has become too elaborate, and that teachers allow passes too easily, so that pupils have not really plumbed the koan to the depths. This necessitates further crises round new koans. These masters favour a complete penetration into one koan and its attendant sassho; they say that to pass the forty-eight sassho of the ‘sound of one hand’ koan, or the forty-two of the ‘dog’ koan, is to have passed through all the koan themes.

For instance, there is a famous koan called ‘one finger’. A teacher used to hold up one finger in reply to all inquirers, and his boy disciple began to imitate him. One day the master cut off the boy’s finger. The boy ran away. The master called him, and when he looked back, the teacher raised one finger. The boy mechanically began to do his usual imitation but found he had no finger to raise, and had a flash of realization. In this story a form of expression is imitated blindly; then the possibility of the imitation is cut off. It is echoed in one of the sassho of the ‘one hand’ koan: ‘when the one hand is cut off, what then?’

Like a good chess problem, the koan does seem to be impossible of solution. But there is one. Thinking and thinking, the student finds his thoughts trying one avenue after another, and he presents his answers in the regular interviews with the master twice a day (or more often during a training week). The master refuses them, but not all are equally wrong. As he goes deeper, the master may hint, ‘getting nearer’. Following this indication, the pupil presses on until his thought of the koan continues unbroken for long periods. He has no more answers; he seems to have tried them all. In monastery slang this stage is called ‘wringing out’.

Suddenly he gets a tiny glimpse of something, something in his own experience which he had hitherto not noticed. It generally vanishes almost at once. He has to press hard now, and the master gets him on by encouragement, or, if he sticks and there is no other way, by force. Finally he comes upon the classical answer, or somewhere near it. When he presents it, question and answer follow like lightning, and if he wavers in his realization the master sends him out at once. He may grasp the main line of the koan but stick for a long time at one of the sassho tests, because he cannot give it from the right spiritual state – he cannot show the proof, as it is said.

Traditionally no direct help is given with the answer, either by the teacher or a senior disciple. In fact so-called help is a hindrance. For example, the ‘no Buddha-nature in the dog’ koan is said to refer to the universal Dharma-body. If a disciple is told this when he enters on the koan, it distracts him. When he is beginnihg to move towards an answer, the thought comes up, ‘And is this answer related to the Dharma-body?’ The thought hinders, because he thinks the answer has to fit in with some concept he has of the Dharma-body. And it does not. When he finally gets the true answer, he will find that his notion of the Dharma-body was wide of the mark, so that trying to conform to it held him up. Only when he thinks, ‘This is it!’ and does not care whether his answer relates to the Dharma-body or not, will he have a firm hold of it.

Pupils normally see the master twice a day but during the Zen special training weeks, held at least seven times a year, four times.

A Zen training week is severe. Very little sleep is allowed$ some temples allow none at all during the training week at the beginning of December called Rohatsu, which ends on the anniversary of Buddha’s illumination. The pupils cannot make their replies casually; in a traditional training hall there is quite a bit of beating of those who are slack in their efforts. A real master brings his students to a state where they feel their very life depends on the right answer. This is a duplication of the Buddha’s resolve: ‘Either I will solve the problem, or I will fall dead on this meditation seat.’

A well-known twentieth-century master was Iida Toin, who wrote a much-studied commentary on the Mumonkan koail collection. In 1934 a book of his essays was published, and one of them is concerned with sassho. His view that it is better to take one koan with all its sassho than to take many koans is similar to the early Zen which is presented in this book, and I here translate his essay on the sassho of the ‘one hand’ koan.

The koan of the One Hand was Hakuin’s spiritual sword, and many were those who were driven by it to give up the body and lose their life. Students today suppose it is easy to solve compared with the koans of the Hekiganshu and other collections, but that is a great mistake. Those Hekigan koans and the others are all nothing but transformations of the One Hand. If you have the One Hand really in your grasp, the others are child’s play – all 1,700 of them solved in a flash. People make their mistake because they haven’t really grasped the One Hand. Take for instance priest Gasan, who overcame thirty Zen masters and more, one after another, until he came to believe that he was invincible. Then he came to Hakuin, and under the fire of the One Hand he was stripped of all his former conviction.

It is best not to take it lightly. In our school the One Hand has forty-eight frontier gates, hard to pass. Not that there are that number of satori-realizations; it is just that imitations are so frequent that these tests are needed. These things are instruments to distinguish true from false. When one has passed those forty-eight, the ‘eight hard koans’ are child’s play, the Five Ranks and the Ten Prohibitions, the final koans set by the teacher, all can be passed through at one stroke.

Passed, that is, by those who have really done it properly. But nowadays the Zen world is cumbered with people who don’t really understand, who after getting some distance have put a pot over their heads so they can’t see anything. They just know the outward form of the answers, and it’s all parrot Zen and no more.

The first time the student comes out with the classical answer to the One Hand, he has not got through to the truth. He doesn’t yet really believe in it himself, but simply goes to the interview and there in front of the teacher he tries it out. His whole idea is to get the teacher to approve something, and he goes on coming to interviews in this spirit again and again. ‘That one was no good, so let me try this way . . .’ and so he twists and turns. This constant going for interviews can be good or bad. If the time of meditation is too much taken up with it, he can easily dissipate his spiritual energies. But when he feels, ‘This is it!’ then he should go at once for an interview. Apart from that, it is better not to keep going in meaninglessly, taking up the time from others.

A priest of the Pure Land sect made a poem:

The hue of the purple robe by the ear,

And the sound of one hand by the eye To be perceived.

And Hakuin allowed that this was the poem of a real follower of the Pure Land sect. Again the stanza of Zen master Tozan runs:

Wonder, wonder!

How marvellous is the teaching of no words.

It cannot be grasped by hearing with the ear,

For that voice is to be heard with the eye.

Tozan had his own great satori through the sermon of no words. It is the sound of One Hand, nothing else. Well, do you hear it at this very moment? Do you hear it with the eye, do you hear it with the ear? When you are told to listen with the eye, there’s a reason for it. But that great joy must be found for oneself$ others cannot take it and give it to you.

Well, when you have seen the One Hand, now show the proof! Some take three years to do it, because they had not grasped the One Hand right to the end. And even when they do bring the proof, often enough it is not the real thing; but after another year at it they get right through the One Hand. . . . No, not all, it’s not so easy as that! The ancients spent ten years, twenty years breaking their bones against it, like Chokei who wore out seven meditation cushions in twenty years on it, and then when rolling up a blind suddenly had the great satori. Kyogen and Reiun took twenty years. Still there is no need to despair. Shakkyo did it in barely an hour under Baso, and in Japan one man did it in three days. All it needs is tremendous courage.

But if you don’t strike right through to the truth, your realization won’t stand up to anything. Everywhere there are fellows who say they have seen the One Hand; they spring up all over the place like mushrooms. But there is no need to envy them; rather they are unfortunate to have been passed through prematurely by their teachers.

There was a man who came to our temple after passing through thirty-nine koans without much trouble. But we tore them all away from him and made him begin again. He said then, ‘When once one’s answer has been allowed as correct, one knows what it’s supposed to be, and then it’s really hard to throw oneself fully into the inquiry again!’ The one who hasn’t been let through a koan is full of unbounded hope. He’s the fortunate one. But because the Bodhi-heart is not there yet, he may not grasp the notion of season and ripening. He may tire of it quickly, and run away. And because teachers are not supposed to let the pupils run away, they sometimes allow something to pass as a satori too easily, on the ground that otherwise the pupil will be discouraged. This is why Zen decays.

The ancients went to the depths of the mountains to grasp it or even half of it. People today could not even dream of those spiritual feats. ‘Even half of it’ – the words have deep meaning. Today there are scores claiming to be heirs to the Dharma, isn’t it pathetic? Well, let it be – now the thing is: what’s the proof of the One Hand? Don’t think you can just come out with the classical answer again. Of the koan of the Tree in the Fore-court, Kanzan said, ‘There is a chance for the robber.’ If you haven’t grasped the meaning of what he said, you can’t display the proof of the One Hand. If you don’t know it, ask of Kanzan in the depths of the Ibuka mountains. How is it, how is it?

Then there is the One Hand Cut Off. This is one of the sassho tests like the sassho of the Mu (‘not’) koan – ‘when the Mu is burnt it turns to ashes, when buried it turns to earth.’ The Hand Cut Off runs through all those, but there are few who understand it. The path out of oneself is yet far away, far. The Royal Diamond Sword of Rinzai, the Sword koan of Joshu, the time when Obaku met the shout of Baso which left his ears deaf for three days, and without thinking he stuck his tongue right out – if you haven’t these in your grasp, your Hand Cut Off is no good. Then come to the teacher and be j>ricked into a blaze by the thorns; face it a thousand, ten thousand times. It’s the envenomed drum which is death to handle, it’s the feather of the fabled poison-bird. Don’t take it lightly; it is terror, terror. Cutting off, cutting off! A hint of hesitation about it and you are cut in two. Daito says, ‘Space is broken up into two, into three, into four’.

Then, a most difficult passage, ‘Gobble the One Hand up like a little dumpling!’ Perhaps that’s all right is it? But then . . . ‘That dumpling you’ve gobbled up, now spit it out again!’ Of all the tests that plague the students, this is the worst. Spit it out, spit it out now! It means swallowing the whole heaven and earth, and spitting them out again, and it has to be taken right to that extent. Oh, there are many who have been passed through it, but because it was not taken up to the universal Dharma-principle they never knew the sweetness of it. The great bliss does not arise; they do not attain the great peace. Unless the One Hand is penetrated to its very roots it won’t do. To pass this sassho test, you must have in your hands the Eight Difficult Koans, and particularly the one about the cow which passed through the window but then the tail stuck. Or you will never understand. And if you do understand, those eight koans will be as clear to you as a little amalaka fruit on the palm of your hand, as the Indian classics say. Or again if you can understand the Hekigan koan, ‘All things go back to one; what does the one go back to?’ you have this also.

All koans have related ones. In a broad sense, they are all themselves merely variations, which have been split into sub-variations. This sassho test of spitting out the dumpling has many too. But if you haven’t the eye, you can’t recognize them. The ability to adapt to the different koans is lacking. How do you demonstrate it? ‘The thousand fruits are all from the single vine of the heart.’

There are many more tests of the One Hand, but it’s wrong to stuff up with koans too much – shall we leave it here? Well after all, it’s said that if you eat poison then you may as well eat the dish as well, so one more.

What is the form of the One Hand?’ To clasp the hands across the breast in the formal Zen way is no answer. You won’t get it unless you have really comprehended the Second Patriarch’s ‘I seek the mind but cannot get hold of it.’ It’s a bird singing that can’t be heard; it’s a light shining that can’t be seen by the eye. Says Monju, ‘The water is water and the mountain is mountain.’

When you have it, there’s a further one, ‘What is the satori expression of the One Hand Transcendent?’ It’s an agony in the heart and belly for the monks. No good just showing your palm, or saying something at random to imitate free illumination, or to say ‘Transcendent!’ When the solution comes to you, you’ll say, ‘Why of course!’ But the inspiration of heaven mustn’t be divulged – the cloudranging sage lost his power to fly through doing that. For ages I wandered blindly under an error, but today I have come to see the ice within the fire. Said Daito, ‘Over thirty years I lived in the fox-hole$ now I have changed to the human estate.’ If you have a grip of the koan ‘Not yearning after the sages, not making much of self spirit’, then you get the expression of Transcendence at once. But though you have done the most advanced koans, of the Five Ranks or the Ten Prohibitions, perhaps you will still not pass this Transcendence koan.

By travelling, at last you come to the source of the river5

By sitting still, in the end you see a cloud forming.

This essay by Master Iida has been given at length because it gives a good idea of the traditional presentation of koans and sassho. One problem with the system is to make the koan living. The stories may be about what happened in China centuries before, requiring long explanations about the personalities concerned and about the trajjpings of the story – hossu fly-whisk, dragon and so on. As a result there may be a loss of impact. The associations of dragon in the West are quite different from those of the Chinese dragon (as it is translated), and so with the snake and many others. The problem of the story becomes remote. Many of the classical koans are like children’s stories. A man put a little gosling in a jar and brought it up there, so that in the end it was too big to get out through the mouth of the jar. How did he get it out without killing it or breaking the jar? A Zen master comments on this that it is obviously absurd. How could a man ever bring up a gosling like that? It would die. Anyway, why would he want to try to do it? A fairy story – ridiculous, ridiculous. The modern man sees that, and dismisses the whole thing. What he doesn’t see is how equally absurd it is that universal consciousness should be shut up in a bag of flesh and bones. And yet that is what he experiences in his own life. In spite of all he may say, when it comes to the point, that is his experience. He is living in the fairy story – ridiculous, ridiculous.

When a man is comfortably situated in life, it may take a good deal of talking and reading to bring one of these old koans into action. It can be done more easily if he enters a teacher-pupil relationship in an established tradition, where the strength of the teacher and tradition can jolt him out of his easy assumptions. An external crisis may achieve the same result, which is why some Zen teachers believe that crisis situations are favourable for Zen, especially crises of fear or grief.

When Zen came from China to Japan in the thirteenth century, one of the greatest centres where it flourished was Kamakura, the military capital. The lay pupils were often warriors, who had little or no Chinese and could not study Chinese Zen classics. Moreover the teachers were Chinese who knew little Japanese. So it was very difficult to establish a background of historical and Buddhist associations in which the classical koans could catch alight. The Chinese teachers began to set as koans some situation right in front of their pupils – something which disturbed them, or on which they were concentrated. In the case of the eighteen-year old military ruler Tokimune, it was fear of the coming Mongol invasions. In the case of others, it was the difficulty of reading the sutras in Chinese, for there were no Japanese translations as yet. For them the koan became, ‘Reduce the sutra to one word. What is that word?’

With some of the women pupils, it was tasks like polishing, a mirror (as at Tokeiji temple) or anything else. Polished wood plays a great part in Japanese interiors, and that wood was polished by hand without wax or other aid. Over the years the surface of the wood changes; there is an old staircase in Kyoto which is like a mirror. What is now called ikebana or flower arrangement had its origin in arranging flowers in the hall for a Buddhist ceremony; flower arrangement was set as a koan from early days of Zen in Kamakura.

All these early pupils, men and women alike, lived under the shadow of the great storm-cloud of Mongol power which was building up on the mainland during the whole thirteenth century. Near the end of the century two great invasions burst on Japan, and the Japanese were preparing themselves for a third which Kublai wished to mount but finally abandoned. It was a long time before Japan could count itself free from this threat. The Zen was a Zen of crisis, at first external and then internal as Japan broke into civil war when the Mongol threat was over. As long as fighting lasted, Kamakura Zen continued; when the country was finally unified and the long era of peace began under the Tokugawas, Zen of crisis almost died out.

But some of the koans of Kamakura ‘on-the-instant’ (shikin) Zen gradually changed into the ‘Ways’. This Zen has the advantage that the koan problem of polishing a mirror, for instance, comes up in the life of each woman pupil as a living reality; it is not a story that has to be vivified by the teacher. The koan of bringing the brush on to the paper for the first stroke of writing or painting, of meeting a fencing opponent who is known to specialize in a particular attack, of facing the cold on a winter morning – all these things were living experiences which could easily be charged with Zen inquiry.

Most people strap-hanging in a bumpy bus or train are thinking either of the place where they have come from, or the place where they are going to, either of the past or of the future. But a keen Zen man is concentrating his attention on the tanden centre just below the navel, and tries to keep his balance without relying on the strap more than necessary. He reckons his progress over a month by how many times he has to use the strap to preserve balance. He makes the occasion a part of his training, though to an outsider he is no different from anyone else. In the same way, on-the-instant Zen seeks to take the ordinary events of life as a field of training, or in the Zen phrase the ‘place of the way’ (dojo). The tanden practice is a great help in the training in fencing, calligraphy, polishing or any other physical activity, because it speeds up the process of coming to feel the body as a unity. It is practised by Zen pupils for other reasons as well, notably to develop energy and courage for the training and inquiry, which cannot succeed without them.

To give an idea of how these koan themes are handled, here is an incident reported by Master Teizan of an encounter between Takamori Saigo, then one of the most important men in Japan, and Dokuon, the famous teacher at Shokokuji, Kyoto. This was in 1869, when many Kyushu warriors were in Kyoto seeking for ‘sudden-realization Zen’. Saigo was very fond of dogs, and he appeared at the porch of the temple accompanied by an enormous dog. At the sudden appearance of this great man, the gate-keeper was overcome and hastened to call Master Dokuon, who came out to the porch to meet the visitor.

Saigo stared at the dog with his great eyes glittering and said, ‘Is there Buddha-nature in the dog or not?’

The teacher called out loudly, ‘General!’

Saigo turned and looked at him.

The teacher said, ‘There or not?’

Saigo bowed in silence and went straight back without entering the temple.

The teacher watched him go and remarked, ‘A good soldier goes straight to it. If he meditates on this sassho meeting, he will have a realization.’

Finally, here are a few remarks recorded by a modern master, Tsuji Somei, in his (unpublished) autobiography, which he has kindly given me permission to quote. They were comments by his own teacher at Enkakuji:

If you are allowed to pass the barrier of the first koan prematurely, your progress through the succeeding barriers will be anything but easy 5 you will often get bogged down. It is like putting your hand into a cask of liquid lacquer – it remains sticky for a long time.’

However many interviews you may have, and however many koans you may resolve, it is nothing unless you attain perfect peace of mind.’

However many solutions of koans you may have to your credit, it is of no avail unless you can enter into the “no-thought meditation”. In that meditation there is neither mind nor body, no objects of the five senses, still less any Zen koan.’

There has to be the freedom to enter, and to come out from, the world of the absolute or of the relative, at will.’




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