Understanding Zazen: A Dozen Koans with Commentary

This is a guest post by R. F. Grant.


“Evening Frost
Becomes Morning Dew.”
John Daido Loori


“Layman Pangyun once asked Shitou upon his first meeting with the teacher, ‘Who is the one who does not accompany all things?’

Put down the baggage, take off the blinders, and see for yourself that this very place is the valley of the endless spring. This very body is the body of the universe. At such a time, who is it who can accompany what?”

Perhaps the ego-self is the one who does not accompany all things. At any level, the ego-self cannot reach a state in which the true Self experiences the divine. When it disappears completely, that which Is becomes you.

“See it with the ears
And you will go blind

Hear it with the eyes
And you will go deaf.”

In meditation, all five senses must be continuously open, as if a river pours through each. When a river pours through each one at the same time, beautiful things may happen.

“Once, a monastic asked Qingyuan, ‘What is the meaning of the Bodhidharma’s coming from India?’
Qingyuan said, “It’s just like this.”

Critically, the monastic asked further, “What do you have to teach these days?”

Qinyuan said, “Come closer.”

The monastic moved closer.

Qingyuan said, “Keep this in mind.”

What is this? What is before you in this moment? A computer? Your hands upon a keyboard, mouse, or smartphone? Perhaps the window nearby, or a pet lying on the ground is before you? Or is there something more here? If the five senses merge, as stated before, this may become something else entirely.

“When thoughts disappear
the thinker disappears.

When the mind is at peace,

the whole universe is at peace.”

Are you and what is outside of you separate? Is your mind separate from the world and cosmos? When in the deepest state of meditation, these questions may have an entirely different answer.

“Following after another’s words and mimicking another’s actions is the practice of monkeys and parrots.”

Buddha believed that we must come to knowledge and understanding only by our own means. Only by our own experiences and rationalities. Educational systems believe the opposite—that we must regurgitate the knowledge given to us and mimic the actions shown in order to succeed. Which, then, is the way?

“Zen master Guichen of the Dizang Monastery held a memorial service for his recently-deceased teacher Xuansha. He invited Baoen Xuanze and served him the evening meal. When Baoen looked at the altar, there was no portrait of the deceased master. So he asked, ‘Do you have a portrait of your master?’
Dizang folded his hands, bowed, and said, ‘Look!’

Baoen said, ‘There is no picture.’

Dizang said, ‘It’s clear that you don’t see it, but it’s here.’”

Ask yourself, are you here? When you travel from one place to another, are you there? Where is here and where is there? Zen philosophy—though full of riddles—believes there is only a here, and you are a part of it. But what does this mean, truly?

‘In the whole universe, nothing is hidden.
In our frantic search for gold,

the discriminating mind dominates and we miss the truth.

This is the cause of the endless cycle of birth and death.’

Taṇhā—or craving for the sense-objects of this world—is one of the primary causes of Saṃsāra, Buddhists believe. So, in the end, how does one escape craving?

“Yuezhou Qianfeng was once asked by a monastic, ‘Bhagavans in the ten directions have one path to the gate of Nirvana. I wonder, what is the path?

Yuezhou drew a line with his staff and said, ‘It’s right here.’”

This koan speaks for itself, and represents the essence of Zazen.

“The old mountain pond,
crystal clear through and through.

The solitary carp swims by,

Flourishes its tail and stirs up the bottom.”

In silence and awareness, it is understood. Most of the time, in movement and action, it is not. Silence and awareness brings peace and tranquility. Then, eventually, something else entirely.

“Breathing in, the whole universe is swallowed.
Breathing out, the ten thousand dharmas manifest.

A hundred thousand scriptures
ceaselessly proclaiming the truth.”

Words, formulas, patterns, & institutions are one way of learning. Breathing, experiencing, and being completely aware becomes another.

“One day, a monastic bid farewall to Guizong Zhichang.
Guizong said to him, ‘Where are you going?’

The monastic answered, “I am going to many places to study the five-flavor Zen.’
Guizong said, ‘There is only a one-flavor Zen in my place.’

The monastic said, ‘What is your one-flavor Zen?’
Guizong hit him.”

A more humorous approach to Zazen. What is and what is not?

“Knowing is being caught up in the words and ideas that describe reality. Not knowing is blank consciousness. The reality of all things cannot be found in either extreme.”

Once again, the great question is asked: “How, then, do we understand? How do we know?” Perhaps the goal isn’t to know, but to become— to be until we truly are.

R. F. Grant (Ryan Fletcher Grant) is a Denver-based author of fiction & non-fiction. He was a top 10 finalist in the 2014 TIFERET: A Journal of Spiritual Literature’s International Writing Contest, and has been published in both MFA and Pushcart Prize recognized literary journals. For more on the author, visit www.rfgrant.com.

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