The mystery at the heart of Zen
This article is the first in a new series, looking at the Zen stories, or koans, collected in the famous 'Gateless Barrier' (Chinese: Wumenguan; Japanese: Mumonkan). We'll take one each week; I don't have the whole thing planned out yet, but I'm imagining that some weeks we'll focus primarily on the story itself, while some weeks we might instead use the story as a jumping-off point to explore another practice or another aspect of Buddhism. Over the course of the year, we'll learn some of the language of Zen - how the tradition uses language and imagery to express the inexpressible. My hope is that, by the end of the process, the classical Zen texts will seem a bit more approachable. (I was going to say 'less mysterious', but I'm not sure Zen ever really becomes less mysterious!)
What the heck is a koan anyway?
The word koan (Chinese: gong'an) literally means 'public case', in the sense of a legal precedent. Koans usually take the form of encounters between two practitioners, although sometimes they're boiled down just to a question or a pithy statement. They can often be pretty difficult to understand at first, sometimes because the language is archaic or makes references to ancient Chinese cultural memes that are lost on a modern audience, and so I'm expecting to spend a fair bit of this year passing on the patient explanations of all this background material from commentators such as Thomas Cleary, Guo Gu and Katsuki Sekida, each of whom has produced a translation and commentary of the Gateless Barrier which serve as my primary sources for this article series.
Despite their difficulty, however, koans are an important part of Zen. Each has the potential to transform the way we see the world, if we can grasp the central point of the story. The objective here is not to understand 'what the koan is talking about' on an intellectual level, but rather to place ourselves in the straw sandals of the Zen practitioners in those stories, and come to experience their realisation for ourselves.
(As an aside, that's why it's OK for me to write these articles, and for much wiser and more experienced teachers than me to write their own commentaries on them as well. Quite apart from the fact that many koans support multiple interpretations, there's only so much benefit to be had from reading someone else's musings on a koan. The real power of these stories is when they come to mean something to you personally, in a very direct, experiential way.)
The two major Zen traditions, Soto and Rinzai, work with koans in different ways. In the Soto style, the main (and usually only) meditation practice is Silent Illumination, aka shikantaza or 'just sitting'. However, Soto teachers will often use koans as teaching devices, talking about the stories and exploring their themes and images. As the practitioner's Silent Illumination matures, the practitioner may come to recognise the reality described in the koans, and thus verify their own experiential understanding against the classic texts.
Koans can also be used in this way in the Rinzai tradition, but Rinzai Zen is better known for using koans directly in meditation. A beginning student will often be given a 'breakthrough' koan, such as 'Who am I?', 'What is my true nature?', or even the story at the top of this article, and sent away to work on it until they experience their first kensho, or breakthrough to awakening. I've described how to work with a koan in meditation elsewhere on this site, so I won't repeat those instructions here.
Instead, let's move on to this week's koan!
Case 1: Zhaozhou's dog, aka 'mu'
So, first things first, let's take another look at the text. It gets straight to the point!
That's it - that's the whole thing, at least as far as the story itself goes. Chan master Wumen (Jp: Mumon), who compiled the collection, adds two commentaries to each koan, one in prose and the other in verse, and in Thomas Cleary's translation of the collection he also includes verses by several other Chan and Zen masters on each case. But for our purposes we'll stick just to the koan itself, because I don't want these articles to spiral out of control and end up too huge to read.
This koan introduces a Zen master named Zhaozhou. (Cleary suggests pronouncing this 'Jow-joe'.) He's commonly known by the Japanese pronunciation of his name, Joshu, but he was Chinese originally and I've been using Thomas Cleary's translation of the Chinese text as my primary source, so I'll tend to use the Chinese names throughout and just note the Japanese equivalents. (I'm sure I'll continue to be totally inconsistent about saying Chan vs Zen though!)
Zhaozhou was an interesting guy. He lived in China's Tang dynasty, generally considered the golden age of Chinese Zen (although most of the stories we have about this period turn out to have been compiled in the later Sung dynasty, a bit like much of what we 'know' about medieval times was actually invented by the Victorians). He supposedly had his first opening aged about 18, reaching full awakening by the age of 56, but then continued travelling and testing his realisation until the age of 80. Only then did he start to teach - but he lived for about another 40 years, so plenty of students were able to benefit from his wisdom.
In this case, a monk asks Zhaozhou a simple question: does a dog have Buddha Nature? However, Zhaozhou's reply is strange. According to Buddhist theory, all living beings have Buddha Nature, whether four-legged or otherwise. So why does Zhaozhou say no?
As an aside, the 'no' is often left untranslated - so 'wu' in Chinese, or 'mu' in Japanese. Some of the stereotypes of Rinzai Zen practitioners chanting or shouting 'mu' are down to this very koan - and, indeed, those training methods are used sometimes. My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, had a great breakthrough whilst shouting 'mu!' on a mountain-top at night, and so he sent my teacher Daizan out to a mountain night after night in the hopes that it would have a similar effect for him.
However, responding to a question with what might sound to the ears of an uninitiated Westerner like the lowing of a cow risks turning this pivotal koan into a bit of a farce, and so I'll follow Cleary in translating it as 'no'. But we have to be careful in doing so, because - as is usually the case in koans - there's more to this exchange than meets the eye. If we interpret Zhaozhou's reply as 'No, a dog does not have Buddha Nature,' we miss the point entirely.
For starters, why is the monk asking about such a basic point of doctrine? If he knew enough about Buddha Nature to ask the question, there was surely no real reason to doubt that dogs had it too. Some commentators theorise that perhaps he was trying to trick Zhaozhou into making some kind of error, a common tactic in 'Dharma Combat'. Alternatively, maybe the monk was frustrated, having practised for a long time without seeing any results - 'Does even a dog have Buddha Nature? Because I'm pretty sure I don't!'
Either way, we can see Zhaozhou's reply as the verbal equivalent of a slap. 'No!' Stop this line of questioning, stop your spinning thoughts, stop your elaborate day-dreaming about Buddha Nature, and get back to your practice!
Breaking free from the prison of thoughts
Wumen's prose comment to this koan - yes, the same comment I said earlier I wasn't going to include in these articles, but hey ho - begins as follows:
'To study Zen you must pass through the barrier of the masters; for ineffable enlightenment you need to interrupt your mental circuit. If you do not pass through the barrier of the masters, and do not interrupt your mental circuit, then your consciousness will be attached to objects everywhere.'
We tend to see the world through the lens of our thoughts about it. We tell ourselves stories about the world to help ourselves make sense of what's going on, but if we take those stories too seriously then they come to dominate our experience, and we live increasingly exclusively in a fabricated world. Our minds split up the seamless, holistic universe into separate boxes - me in here, everything else out there, all just things in a world of things - and then we forget that it was ever any different. Zen practice is about reclaiming a simpler, more primordial experience - but before we can do that, we must break the stranglehold of our thoughts. And so Wumen suggests that we need to 'interrupt our mental circuit' - while Zhaozhou simply meets the monk's question with a short, sharp 'No!'
So how can we use this in practice? Well, one approach is to find your nearest mountain, go up it at night and shout 'Mu!' until enlightenment dawns or someone puts in a noise complaint. But perhaps we can do better.
One approach is to use 'no' (or 'mu', if you prefer) as a device to cut through discursive thinking. Whatever your meditation practice - whether Silent Illumination or something else - if you catch yourself spinning out into a train of thought, simply bring Zhaozhou's command to mind. It can be used either gently or firmly - sometimes it can help very much to give yourself the mental equivalent of a splash of water across the face! On the other hand, try not to get to the point where you feel like you're punishing yourself for having wandering thoughts - the mind wanders naturally, and you haven't done anything wrong when it happens. If your use of 'No!' just triggers a new train of self-critical thought then it isn't serving its purpose.
Another approach is to use 'no'/'mu' as an object of focus. 'What is mu?' is one common way to practise with this koan. The word is a negation, so whatever comes to mind in response to the question - well, it ain't that! A common problem in koan study is to have a barrage of thoughts about the question, with a subtle underlying assumption that if you could just think about it in the right way, you could come up with 'the right answer', and finally solve the whole damn business. But that isn't going to work with this koan - no matter what thought comes up, that thought is a concept pointing to some thing (even if that 'something' is 'nothing'), and 'mu' is not any 'thing' at all. Language limits and circumscribes our experience; 'mu' points to what is without any limitation or boundary at all.
So - put yourself in the monk's sandals right now. You've just asked Zhaozhou - whether sarcastically, plaintively, or trickily - whether a dog has Buddha Nature, and this wrinkly old Zen master roars 'No!'
What is this 'no'?
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!