I - The Nature of Zen

What is Zen? "Zen" is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word "Ch'an," and "Ch'an" is the abbreviation of the original phrase "Ch'an-Na"—a corruption of the pronunciation of the Sanskrit word Dhyana or the Pali, Jhana. In other words, "Zen" is a mispronunciation of another mispronunciation! This, however, is less important than the fact that Zen represents a teaching which may well be considered as the pinnacle of all Buddhist thought, a teaching that is most direct, profound, and practical—capable of bringing one to thorough liberation and perfect Enlightenment. But it is very difficult to give a clear account of it. Zen is, as one of the Chinese expressions puts it, something "round and rolling, slippery and slick"—something ungraspable and indescribable, which cannot be explained or interpreted. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile trying to overcome this difficulty in order to present a clearer picture of Zen.

Zen Style and Zen Art

Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism, originated and developed in China. Its philosophy and practice are not essentially different from those of other Mahayana schools. Zen does not possess any unique or exclusive teachings that are not included in over-all Mahayana Buddhism. The difference is solely in the unconventional style and in the unusual forms of expression adopted by the Zen Buddhists. This "Zen style" or "tradition," formed in the later period of Zen history, is so outstanding and unusual that it has made Zen a remarkable and extraordinary form of Buddhist teaching unparalleled in any other field of philosophy or religion.

What, then, is this "Zen style"? Put briefly, Zen style consists of the puzzling language, baffling attitudes, and surprising methods that Zen Buddhists employ in their teachings and practice.

For example, a monk asked, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" (That is to say, "What is the Truth?") The Master answered, "The cypress tree in the courtyard." The same question, put before another Master, was answered by, "The teeth of the board grow hair." One may interpret these answers as implying the ubiquitousness of Reality; for truth is everywhere and all-pervading: the cypress tree or the blowing wind, the howling dog or even the board that grows hair are all vibrantly alive in the present "here and now." The purport of Bodhidharma's coming from the West is to elucidate this universal Truth. One may also interpret the real purpose of the reply "The teeth of the board grow hair" as an intention on the part of the Master to knock the disciple off the track of his habituated, sequential thinking and to bring him directly to the "state-of-beyond" by means of an apparently illogical and irrelevant answer. One may go even further and say that the Zen Master had no intention of answering the question; he was merely making a plain and straightforward statement of what he saw and felt at the moment the question was put. In this down-to-earth "plain feeling" in its primordial, genuine, and natural state lies the whole secret of Zen. Plain, yet marvelous, this feeling is the most cherished keystone of Zen—sometimes described as the tang hsia i nien, or instantaneous thought.a Because it is instantaneous, no artificiality, conceptualization, or dualistic idea could ever arise from it. In it there is no room for such things. It is only through the realization of this "instantaneous mind" that one is freed from all bondage and suffering. Never departing from this eternal "instantaneousness," the Zen Master sees everything as the great Tao—from the cypress tree to a stick of dry dung. Thus the Master made no effort to give a relevant answer; he just plainly stated what he saw and felt at that moment.

Numbers refer to the Notes;
letters refer to the Appendix.

No matter what these Zen Masters meant by their answers, or how one interprets them, this indisputable fact remains: the answers given in many Zen koans are of an uncommon nature. Therefore the first lesson is to become acquainted with this Zen manner of strange "style of expression." Otherwise, Zen will only mystify and confuse one's "innocent inquiry," all to no purpose. One should remember that no matter how mysterious or how senseless a koan 1 appears to be, there is always something deep behind it—the strange remarks always imply something. Fully to decode these riddles, however, requires not only a complete mastery of Zen idiom and traditions (which is a task solely for the professional), but some direct personal experience in Zen itself. If one lacks either one, Zen is, indeed, difficult to grasp. In any case, and for anyone, the first task is to become familiar with the "Zen styles" and traditions.

The second important lesson is to learn of the difficulties and obstacles one can expect to meet in his Zen studies. For Zen is not a subject that may be understood through superficial efforts. It presents a formidable challenge; in fact, it is the most difficult subject in Buddhism. One would be foolish to cherish a hope of understanding Zen by reading one or two books, or by sitting for a few hours in meditation. Some years of hard work, at least, are needed to achieve the goal. In any case, it is fitting and wise for both serious and casual Zen students to know what difficulties they are up against at the very outset of their studies.

The first difficulty is the apparent ungraspability and the indefinite nature of Zen. There seems to be no organized system to follow, nor any definite philosophy to learn. Contradictions and inconsistencies abound everywhere. Although these may be explained away by the so-called illogical logic of Zen, the "slippery indefiniteness" so frequently encountered remains to confound and puzzle one. For instance, the question raised by that most common koan already mentioned, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" has more than two hundred different answers! Here are several more of them:

A monk asked Hsiang Lin, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" Hsiang Lin replied, "Sitting for too long, one becomes exhausted." To the same question Chiu Feng answered, "An inch of a turtle's hair weighs nine pounds." On the other hand, Tung Shan's reply to Lung Ya was, "I will tell you when the mountain stream flows back."

There are three reasons for this ungraspability or indefiniteness of Zen:

1. The ultimate Prajna-Truth that Zen tries to illustrate is, itself, ungraspable and indefinable in nature.

2. Zen is a very practical teaching in that its main object is to bring individuals to Enlightenment 2 by the quickest and most direct route; and as each disciple differs in disposition, capacity, and state of advancement, a Zen Master must give his instructions in different ways and from different levels of approach in order to make his Zen practical and effective. This factor has been responsible for the great varieties of expressions, which further complicate the matter and make Zen more difficult to understand.

3. After the period of the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng (638-713), Zen gradually became an Art—a unique art for transmitting the Prajna-Truth—refusing, as all great arts do, to follow any set form, pattern, or system in expressing itself. This exceptionally liberal attitude gave birth to those radical and sometimes "wild" Zen expressions, which also contribute so greatly to the complexity and incomprehensibility of the subject.

Hui Neng (638–713):

Some brief explanations of these three points may be helpful here.

The first point: Why is the ultimate Prajna-Truth that Zen tries to illustrate so indefinable and ungraspable? "To define" means to settle the limits of, or to declare the exact meaning of a certain thing. "To grasp," in the sense used here, means to comprehend the import of a thing and retain it. Since the very act of defining is to confine something within a certain boundary, it cannot be otherwise than finite, narrow, and exclusive in its nature; and again, since "to comprehend" means mentally to grasp something, but not everything, it must also be restrictive and thus limitative in its nature. But the ultimate Prajna-Truth that Zen tries to convey cannot possibly be a thing that is narrow, finite, or exclusive; it must be something vast, universal, and infinite—all-inclusive and all-embracing—defying definition and designation. How, then, can Zen-Truth be otherwise than indefinable and ungraspable? The very word "defining" suggests a finger pointing to a particular object, and the word "grasping," a hand holding something tightly and not letting it go. These two pictures vividly portray the narrow, tight, and clinging nature of the human mind. With this deplorable limitation and tightness deeply rooted in the human way of thinking, no wonder the free and all-inclusive Prajna-Truth becomes an evasive shadow forever eluding one's grasp. This indefinable and ungraspable nature of Zen-Truth is well illustrated in the following two koans:

Huai Jang (677–744) = Student of Hui Neng:

Huai Jang was the teacher of Ma Tsu:

Ma Tsu was the teacher of Nan Chuan and Pai Chang
(see notes below)

A. The Sixth Patriarch asked Huai Jang, "From whence do you come?"
Huai Jang replied, "I come from Mount Su."
The Patriarch then asked, "What is it and how does it come?"
And Huai Jang answered, "Anything I say would miss the point."

B. Fu Ta Shih said in his famous stanza:

Empty-handed I go, but the spade is in my hands;
I walk on my feet, yet I am riding on the back of a bull;
When I pass over the bridge,
Lo, the bridge, but not the water, flows!

The second point: With what different instructions and from what different levels has Zen applied its practical teachings to bring the individual disciples directly to Enlightenment?

This is a very difficult question to answer because it includes all aspects of Zen Buddhism. A satisfactory reply would demand a full review of the whole field, which is beyond the scope of this book. In fact, many Zen Masters and scholars have tried this very task, attempting to assign the different Zen instructions and the numerous Zen koans to various groups and levels, with accompanying explanations and comments, but none of them has been very successful. There are two reasons for this, first, the undissectable and unclassifiable nature of Zen itself, and second, the dearth of qualified persons who are not only capable of making such a classification, but willing as well to run against the tradition and spirit of Zen by so doing.

Zen can be explained in numerous ways because there are no definite "instructions" for Zen to follow. The great Zen Masters seldom followed any set pattern in expressing themselves or in teaching their students. However, in order to make Zen a little easier to understand, let us temporarily and arbitrarily allocate the numerous kinds of Zen expression found in the koans into the following three groups:

1. Koans that illustrate Zen-Truth through plain and direct statements, i.e., the "explicit-affirmative" type.

2. Koans that illustrate Zen-Truth through a negating approach, i.e., the "implicit-negative" type.

3. Koans that may be described as somewhat beyond, between, or encompassing types 1 and 2.

Some examples of group 1 follow:

A. Chao Chou asked Nan Chuan, "What is the Tao?" Nan Chuan answered, "The ordinary mind is Tao." Chao Chou then asked, "How can one approach it?" Nan Chuan replied, "If you want to approach it, you will certainly miss it." "If you do not approach it, how do you know it is the Tao?" "The Tao is not a matter of knowing, nor a matter of not knowing. To know is a delusory way of thinking, and not to know is a matter of insensibility. If one can realize the Tao unmistakably, [his mind will be like] the great space—vast, void, and clear. How, then, can one regard this as right and that as wrong?" Upon hearing this remark, Chao Chou was immediately awakened.

Chao Chou (778–897):

Chao Chou's teacher = Nan Chuan (c. 749 – c. 835): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanquan_Puyuan

Nan Chuan's teacher = Ma Tsu (709–788):

Ma Tsu's teacher = Huai Jang (see above):

Wu Men (1183–1260):

Wu Men made the following interesting comment on the above koan: "Even though Chao Chou became enlightened, he should still work for another thirty years to graduate."

Huang Po (died 850):

Huang Po's teacher = Pai Chang (720–814):

Pai Chang's teacher = Ma Tsu (709–788):

B. Master Huang Po said in his sermon, "All the Buddhas and sentient beings are nothing but one's mind. From the very no-beginning-time this Mind never arises and is not extinguished. It is neither blue nor yellow. It has no form or shape. It is neither existent nor nonexistent, old or new, long or short, big or small. It is beyond all limitation and measurement, beyond all words and names, transcending all traces and relativity. It is here now! But as soon as any thought arises [in your mind] you miss it right away! It is like space, having no edges, immeasurable and unthinkable. Buddha is nothing else but this, your very mind!"

C. The Second Patriarch asked Bodhidharma, "How can one get into Tao?" Bodhidharma replied:

Outwardly, all activities cease;
Inwardly, the mind stops its panting.
When one's mind has become a wall,
Then he may [begin to] enter into the Tao.

This highly significant stanza is one of the esoteric type of koans that the Zen Masters are disinclined to discuss or elaborate. Despite its apparent "mystic" flavor and profound significance, it is very explicit and straightforward. It describes plainly the actual experience of the pre-Enlightenment state. This koan, therefore, belongs to the first group.

D. Zen Master Shen Tsan gained his enlightenment through Pai Chang. He then returned to the monastery in which he had been ordained by his "first teacher," the monk who had brought him up from childhood and who, at that time, was a very old man. One day Shen Tsan was helping his old teacher to bathe. While washing the old man's back, he said to him, "This is such a fine temple, but the Buddha in it is not at all holy!" His old teacher then turned around and looked at him, whereupon Shen Tsan commented, "Though the Buddha is not holy, he can still radiate the light." Again, one day, while the old man was reading a sutra near a paper-covered window, a bee tried desperately, with all its strength, to fly out of the room through the paper but was unable to get through. Shen Tsan, seeing this, said, "The world is so vast and wide that you may easily set yourself free in it. Why, then, do you foolishly bore into old, rotten paper?

While the empty door is widely open
How foolish it is to try to get out
By thrusting against the window!
Alas! How can you [Master]
Raise your head above the slough
By putting your nose against old, rotten papers
For a hundred years?"

Hearing this remark, the old man laid down his book and said to Shen Tsan, "For quite a few times now, you have made unusual remarks. From whom did you gain your knowledge while you were away from home?" Shen Tsan replied, "I have reached the state of peaceful rest through the grace of Master Pai Chang. Now I have come back home to pay my debt of gratitude to you." The old teacher then prepared a great festival in his young disciple's honor, summoned the monks in the monastery to the assembly hall, and besought Shen Tsan to preach the Dharma to all. Whereupon Shen Tsan ascended to the high seat and, following the tradition of Pai Chang, preached as follows:

Singularly radiating is the wondrous Light;
Free is it from the bondage of matter and the senses.
Not binding by words and letters,
The Essence is nakedly exposed in its pure eternity.
Never defiled is the Mind-nature;
It exists in perfection from the very beginning.
By merely casting away your delusions
The Suchness of Buddhahood is realized.
As soon as the old teacher heard this stanza, he was immediately awakened.

E. The Sixth Patriarch's remark is another good example: "If you have come here for Dharma, you should first cast aside all mental activity and let no thoughts whatsoever arise in you. Then I shall preach the Dharma for you." After a long time of silence, the Sixth Patriarch continued, "Not thinking of good, not thinking of evil, right at this very moment, that is your original face." Hui Ming was immediately enlightened.

If the phrase, "Not thinking of good, not thinking of evil," is considered by itself, this koan is easily misinterpreted as being negative or nullifying. But the real point of the Sixth Patriarch's remark is in the words that follow: "right at this very moment, that is your original face." Nothing could be more direct and affirmative than this.

Now let us consider a few koans belonging to our second group, the "implicit-negative" type, that is, those which illustrate Zen-Truth through "nullifying" or abrogating expressions.

Te Shan (Deshan Xuanjin):
aka Te-shan Hsüan-chien (780-865) terebess.hu/zen/deshan.html

Tung Shan (807–869)

A. Said a Zen Master, "If you have a staff, I will give you one; if you do not have a staff, I will take one away from you."

B. Te Shan said, "If you cannot answer I shall give you thirty blows; if you can answer, I shall also give you thirty blows."

C. "What is the Buddha?" "A stick of dry dung."

D. A monk asked Chao Chou, "What is Chao Chou?" Chao Chou answered, "The east gate, west gate, south gate, and north gate."

E. A monk asked Tung Shan, "When the cold winter and the hot summer come, how can you avoid them?" Tung Shan answered, "Why don't you escape to a place where there is no cold winter and no hot summer?" The monk asked, "Where is that place without winter and summer?" Tung Shan replied. "In the winter the Master is frozen, and in the summer is scorched to death."

F. One day I Shan, Wu Feng, and some other monks were ail attending Pai Chang. Pai Chang asked I Shan, "How can you speak without your throat, lips, and tongue?" I Shan said, "Well, Master, in that case, you say it, please." Pai Chang replied, "I don't mind saying it to you, but I don't want to murder my posterity."

G. A monk asked Nan Chuan, "Is there any teaching that is not to be given to the people?" "Yes." "What is it then?" "It is not mind, not Buddha, and not a thing."

H. A monk was reciting the Diamond Sutra: "... if one sees that forms are not forms, he then sees Buddha." The Master was passing by and heard it. He then said to the monk, "You recite wrongly. It goes like this: 'If one sees that forms are forms, he then sees Buddha.' " The monk exclaimed, "What you have said is just opposite to the words of the Sutra!" The Master then replied, "How can a blind man read the Sutra?"

I. One day when Lin Chi saw a monk approaching him, he raised his Fo Tzu [duster]; the monk then bowed before him, but Lin Chi beat him. After a while another monk came by. Lin Chi again raised his Fo Tzu. When this monk showed no sign of respect, Lin Chi beat him as well.

Lin Chi (died 866 CE):
Lin Chi's teacher was Huang Po (see above)
and see in Chapter III:
The "Four Distinctions" of Lin Chi

J. One day Lin Chi was invited by his patron to give a sermon. When he ascended to his seat and was about to preach, Ma Ku came forward and asked him: "The All-merciful One [Avalokitesvara] has a thousand arms and a thousand eyes. Which is the main eye?" Lin Chi answered, "The All-merciful One has a thousand arms and a thousand eyes. Which is the main eye? Say it! Say it!" Ma Ku then dragged Lin Chi down forcibly from the seat and sat upon the seat himself. Lin Chi walked up to Ma Ku and said very humbly, "I do not understand, Sir." Ma Ku was about to reply, when Lin Chi dragged him down from the seat and sat on it again himself. Ma Ku then walked out of the hall. After Ma Ku had walked out, Lin Chi also descended from the seat, and no sermon was given. (See Chapter III, "The Four Problems of Zen Buddhism," pp. 157-175.)

K. The Sixth Patriarch said in this famous stanza:

The Bodhi is not like a tree;
The mirror bright is nowhere shining;
From the beginning not a thing exists.
Where can one find any dust collecting?

If, from the very beginning, not a thing ever is, how can we accuse the Zen Masters of being negatory? The fact is, they did not negate anything. What they have done is to point out our delusions in thinking of the nonexistent as existent, and the existent as nonexistent.

This rather arbitrary classification of these two types of Zen expressions is neither definite nor irrevocable and does not imply that they are either wholly affirmative or wholly negative. For the affirmative type of koan also contains a negative element, and the negative type an affirmative one. No Zen koan is absolutely one type or the other. The Zen-Truth that both types try to convey has not been modified or mutilated, despite the outward difference of presentation.

The koans in our third group are somewhat difficult to understand and explain. The Zen monks described them as the "impenetrable type," like "silver mountains and iron walls." They can, strictly speaking, only be understood by advanced persons whose profound intuitions match those of the actors, thus enabling them to discern directly and clearly the meaning of the koan without resorting to guessing or analysis. If one is willing to risk missing the point, these koans may not be absolutely unintelligible or unexplainable, but the desirability of such an approach is also very doubtful. Nevertheless, a few examples are given here for the reader to interpret according to his own understanding and insight.

A. One day, in the monastery of Nan Chuan, the monks of the east and west wing had a dispute over the possession of a cat. They all came to Nan Chuan for arbitration. Holding a knife in one hand and the cat in the other, Nan Chuan said, "If any one of you can say the right thing, this cat will be saved; otherwise it will be cut into two pieces!" None of the monks could say anything. Nan Chuan then killed the cat. In the evening, when Chao Chou returned to the monastery, Nan Chuan asked him what he would have said had he been there at the time. Chao Chou took off his straw sandals, put them upon his head, and walked out. Whereupon Nan Chuan commented, "Oh, if you had only been here, the cat would have been saved!"

B. Teng Yin Feng was a disciple of Ma Tsu. One day he decided to visit Master Shih Tou [meaning stone, or rock]. When he mentioned this to Ma Tsu, the Master said, "Well, you can go there, but the way of Shih Tou is very slippery!" Teng Yin Feng replied, "I am taking my staff with me. I can play my role in any drama that befalls me." Whereupon he went to the abode of Shih Tou. Coming into the room, he circled the meditation bed on which Shih Tou was sitting, struck the ground with his staff, and asked, "What is the meaning of this?" Shih Tou exclaimed, "Alas, Heaven! Alas, Heaven!" Yin Feng said nothing, and returned to Ma Tsu to ask his advice. Ma Tsu suggested, "Go to him again and say exactly the same thing. After he gives you an answer, immediately [and forcefully] exhale your breath with a sound of 'Whew, whew!' " Keeping this advice in mind, Yin Feng went to Shih Tou for the second time and asked him the same question. But unexpectedly Shih Tou did not give him any answer. Instead, he blew out his breath twice, whistling "Whew, whew" [before Yin Feng had a chance to do the same]. Failing to find any answer to this unexpected situation, Yin Feng again returned to Ma Tsu and told him what had happened. Ma Tsu then said, "Well, I told you before, the way of Shih Tou is very slippery!"

C. A monk called Tien Jan went to visit the Royal Master, Hui Chung. [Upon arriving there] he asked the attendant monk whether the Royal Master was at home. The monk replied, "Yes, but he won't receive any guests." Tien Jan said, "Oh, that is too profound and remote!" The attendant monk answered, "Even the Buddha's eyes cannot see him." Said Tien Jan, "The dragon gives birth to a baby dragon and the phoenix gives birth to a baby phoenix!" 3 He then left. Later, when Hui Chung got up from his sleep and learned what had happened, he beat the attendant monk. When Tien Jan heard about this he commented, "This old man deserves to be called 'the Royal Master'!" The next day Tien Jan went to visit Hui Chung again. As soon as he saw the Royal Master, he spread his "sitting shawl" on the ground [as if he were going to sit down]. Hui Chung remarked, "This is not necessary, this is not necessary." Tien Jan then retreated a few steps, upon which the Royal Master said, "All right, all right." But suddenly Tien Jan moved a few paces forward again. The Royal Master then said, "No, no." Whereupon Tien Jan circled the Master and left. Afterward, the Master commented: "It is a long time since the days of the Holy Ones. People are now very lazy. Thirty years hence it will be hard to find a man like him."

D. Chao Chou went to visit Huang Po. When Huang Po saw him coming, he closed the door. Chao Chou then picked up a torch and shouted loudly in the congregation hall, "Fire! Fire! Help! Help!" Hearing this cry, Huang Po opened the door and came out. As soon as he saw Chao Chou he caught his arm and said, "Say it! Say it!" Chao Chou replied, "You begin to draw the bow after the thief has left."

Now we come to the third point in our discussion: Why is Zen a special Buddhist "art" of expressing the Prajna-Truth? The answer should now be more obvious. Zen is an "art" in the sense that, to express itself, it follows its own intuitions and inspirations, but not dogmas and rules. At times it appears to be very grave and solemn, at others trivial and gay, plain and direct, or enigmatic and "roundabout." When Zen Masters preach they do not always do so with their mouths, but with their hands and legs, with symbolic signals, or with concrete actions. They shout, strike, and push, and when questioned they sometimes run away, or simply keep their mouths shut and pretend to be dumb. Such antics have no place in rhetoric, philosophy, or religion, and can best be described as "art."

This unorthodox and radical "Zen art" is applied, roughly speaking, for four different purposes:

1. To bring the individual disciple to direct Enlightenment.
2. To illustrate a certain Buddhist teaching.
3. To express the Zen humor and wit.
4. To test the depth and genuineness of the disciple's understanding and realization.

Some examples of the first group are given below:

Lung Tan, aka Lung-t'an, aka
Longtan Chongxin (9th cent.)

A. One night Te Shan was attending Master Lung Tan, who said: "It is now late. Why don't you go back to your room and retire?" Te Shan then said good night to his Master, and went out. But immediately he returned, saying: "It is very dark outside." Lung Tan lit a candle and handed it to Te Shan, then suddenly blew it out. At once Te Shan was awakened.

B. A monk called Hung Chou came to visit Ma Tsu and asked, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" Ma Tsu said: "Bow down to me, first." As the monk was prostrating himself, Ma Tsu gave him a vigorous kick in the chest. The monk was at once enlightened. He stood up, clapped his hands and, laughing loudly, cried: "Oh, how wonderful this is, how marvelous this is! Hundreds and thousands of Samadhis and infinite wonders of the Truth are now easily realized on the tip of a single hair!" He then made obeisance to Ma Tsu. Afterwards he said to people: "Since I received that kick from Ma Tsu, I have always been cheerful and laughing."

C. Lin Chi once lived in the monastery of Huang Po. One day he was urged by the Chief Monk to raise some question before the Master, Huang Po. Lin Chi asked: "What is the gist of Buddhism?" As soon as he spoke, Huang Po beat him. Lin Chi raised this question three times and was beaten three times. Thereupon he decided to leave the monastery. Before his departure, he said to the Chief Monk: "Because of your request I was beaten three times. I am now going elsewhere to learn Zen." The Chief Monk replied: "You had better say good-bye to the Master before you leave." Then, going to Huang Po privately, he said: "The man who asked the question yesterday is a novice, but he seems to be a very good and sincere fellow. If he comes and says good-bye to you, please give him some instruction." The next day when Lin Chi came to say farewell to Huang Po, he was told to visit Ta Yu. Upon Lin Chi's arrival at the residence of Ta Yu, the latter asked him: "From whence do you come?" "From Huang Po." "What does Huang Po teach?" "I asked him three times to give me the gist of Buddhism, but was beaten every time. I do not know what is wrong with my question." Ta Yu replied: "Huang Po is kind, like a mother. What he intended to do was to awaken you thoroughly. How stupid of you to come here and ask me these silly questions!" Hearing this, Lin Chi [was immediately awakened], and exclaimed: "Oh, now I know that after all there isn't very much in Huang Po's Buddhism!" Ta Yu caught his arm and cried: "You ghost who makes water in his own bed! Just now you asked me what your fault was. Now you are denouncing Huang Po's Buddhism. What truth have you seen that you dare to make such a statement?" Lin Chi immediately hit Ta Yu with his fists three times. Ta Yu fended him off, saying: "Your master is Huang Po; this has nothing to do with me." Lin Chi then returned to Huang Po. As soon as Huang Po saw him coming, he remarked: "Come and go, come and go, when will all this end?" Lin Chi replied: "This is all because of your kindness to me." Huang Po then cried spitefully: "Confound that long-tongued Ta Yu! The next time I see him I will beat him soundly for this!" "You don't have to wait until you see him," said Lin Chi. "You can beat him right now!" Huang Po commented: "This crazy man now dares to come here and beard the lion in its den!" Lin Chi then shouted at Huang Po, who told him to go away.

The above koans show that there is no definite method that the Zen Master must use to bring his disciples to Enlightenment. A kick, a blow, a simple remark—anything will do if the state of mind of the disciple is ripe and ready to receive this final push. It goes without saying, however, that Zen kicks, blows, and "jargon" are not what they seem. If Enlightenment could be reached simply in this way, the world's slave camps and prisons would have become factories constantly turning out hundreds of enlightened beings! Again, if, merely by listening to a certain Zen remark anyone could easily be raised to the state of Enlightenment, as some people happily believe, it would be well to preserve on a few long-playing records the well-known remarks that have been effective in bringing Enlightenment, and to listen to them until we ourselves are enlightened.

Now we come to the second group: How is this "Zen art" applied to illustrate certain Buddhist teachings?

A. An old man attended Pai Chang's sermons a number of times. One day after a particular sermon, all the other listeners left, but this old man stayed on. Pai Chang then asked him: "Who are you?" The old man replied: "I am not a human being. When living on this mountain during the time of the last kalpa, I was once asked by one of my students: 'Are the great yogis still bound by the law of cause and effect?' I answered: 'No, they are not so bound.' Because of this misleading reply I created much bad Karma which caused me to become a fox for five hundred successive lives. Now I beseech you to give me a correct answer, so that I may be set free from continued births as a fox." Pai Chang said to him: "All right. Now you ask me the original question." The old man then said: "Are the great yogis still bound by cause and effect?" Whereupon, Pai Chang answered: "The great yogis are not blind to the law of cause and effect!" Hearing this, the old man was at once awakened. He prostrated himself before Pai Chang and said: "I am now freed from my bad Karma."

No matter whether this is true or symbolic, it reflects typically the Zen attitude toward Karma, or the Law of Causation. For it points out that Zen does not disavow the basic teaching of this law which is accepted by all Buddhist schools as one of the paramount doctrines of Buddhist teaching. This shows that Zen is not nihilistic or "out-of-harness" as some people think it to be. Contrary to the belief of outsiders, Zen followers are often more earnest in performing their religious duties and more rigid in their moral conduct than others. They are not, in any sense, unscrupulous people. Zen brings freedom, but not corruption and dissoluteness. Enlightenment does not make one blind to Karmic laws, nor does it produce evildoers and transgressors.

B. Prime Minister Kuo Tze I of the Tang Dynasty was an outstanding statesman as well as a distinguished general. His success in both political and military service made him the most admired national hero of his day. But fame, power, wealth, and success could not distract the prime minister from his keen interest in and devotion to Buddhism. Regarding himself as a plain, humble, and devoted Buddhist, he often visited his favorite Zen Master to study under him. He and the Zen Master seemed to get along very well. The fact that he held the position of prime minister, an exalted status in those days of old China, seemed to have no influence on their association. Apparently no noticeable trace of politeness on the Zen Master's part or of vain loftiness on the part of the minister existed in their relationship, which seemed to be the purely religious one of a revered Master and an obedient disciple. One day, however, when Kuo Tze I, as usual, paid a visit to the Zen Master, he asked the following question: "Your Reverence, how does Buddhism explain egotism?" The Zen Master's face suddenly turned blue, and in an extremely haughty and contemptuous manner he addressed the premier as follows: "What are you saying, you numbskull?" This unreasonable and unexpected defiance so hurt the feelings of the prime minister that a slight, sullen expression of anger began to show on his face. The Zen Master then smiled and said: "Your Excellency, this is egotism!"

The third group under discussion illustrates the manner in which the "art of Zen" may be applied to the expression of humor and wit.

A. Su Tung Po, the celebrated poet of the Sung Dynasty, was a devout Buddhist. He had a very close friend named Fo Ying, a very brilliant Zen teacher. Fo Ying's temple was on the west bank of the Yang Tse River, while Su Tung Po's house stood on the east bank. One day Su Tung Po paid a visit to Fo Ying and, finding him absent, sat down in his study to await his return. Becoming bored with waiting, he began at length to scribble on a sheet of paper that he found lying on the desk, the last words being: "Su Tung Po, the great Buddhist who cannot be moved, even by the combined forces of the Eight Worldly Winds." 4 After waiting a while longer, Su Tung Po got tired and left for home. When Fo Ying returned and saw Su Tung Po's composition on the desk, he added the following line: "Rubbish! What you have said is no better than breaking wind!" and sent it to Su Tung Po. When Su Tung Po read this outrageous comment, he was so furious that he at once took a boat, crossed the river, and hurried to the temple again. Catching hold of Fo Ying's arm, he cried: "What right have you to denounce me in such language? Am I not a devout Buddhist who cares only for the Dharma? Are you so blind after knowing me for so long?" Fo Ying looked at him quietly for a few seconds, then smiled and said slowly: "Su Tung Po, the great Buddhist who claims that the combined forces of the Eight Winds can hardly move him an inch, is now carried all the way to the other side of the Yang Tse River by a single puff of wind from the anus!" b

B. One day the King of Yen visited the Master Chao Chou, who did not even get up when he saw him coming. The king asked: "Which is higher, a worldly king, or the 'King of Dharma'?" Chao Chou replied: "Among human kings I am higher; among the kings of Dharma, I am also higher." Hearing this surprising answer, the king was very pleased. The next day a general came to visit Chao Chou, who not only got up from his seat when he saw the general coming, but also showed him more hospitality in every way than he had shown to the king. After the general had left, Chao Chou's attendant monks asked him: "Why did you get up from your seat when a person of lower rank came to see you, yet did not do so for one of the highest rank?" Chao Chou replied: "You don't understand. When people of the highest quality come to see me, I do not get up from my seat; when they are of middle quality, I do; but when they are of the lowest quality, I go outside of the gate to receive them."

C. One day Chao Chou and Wen Yuan played a debating game. They agreed that whoever won the argument would be the loser, and whoever lost the argument would be the winner. As a prize, the loser should give the winner some fruit. "You speak first," said Wen Yuan to Chao Chou. So the following dialogue ensued: Chao Chou: I am an ass. Wen Yuan: I am the stomach of that ass. Chao Chou: I am the feces that the ass has dropped. Wen Yuan: I am a worm in the feces. Chao Chou: What are you doing in the feces? Wen Yuan: I spent my summer vacation there. Chao Chou: All right. Now give me the fruit

The following story is a typical anecdote used by Zen Buddhists to ridicule those fake "Masters" who have no genuine understanding, and also deride those ignorant students who blindly follow the hocus-pocus of Zen imitators. It is an interesting story, illustrating how Zen can become downright senseless folly in the hands of the wrong persons, a not uncommon case nowadays.

D. A monk called himself the "Master of Silence." He was actually a fraud and had no genuine understanding. To sell his humbug Zen, he had two eloquent attendant monks to answer questions for him; but he himself never uttered a word, as if to show his inscrutable "Silent Zen." One day, during the absence of his two attendants, a pilgrim monk came to him and asked: "Master, what is the Buddha?" Not knowing what to do or to answer, in his confusion he could only look desperately around in all directions—east and west, here and there—for his missing mouthpieces. The pilgrim monk, apparently satisfied, then asked him: "What is the Dharma?" He could not answer this question either, so he first looked up at the ceiling and then down at the floor, calling for help from heaven and hell. Again the monk asked: "What is the Sangha?" Now the "Master of Silence" could do nothing but close his eyes. Finally the monk asked: "What is blessing?" In desperation, the "Master of Silence" helplessly spread his hands to the questioner as a sign of surrender. But the pilgrim monk was very pleased and satisfied with this interview. He left the "Master" and set out again on his journey. On the road the pilgrim met the two attendant monks on their way home, and began telling them enthusiastically what an enlightened being this "Master of Silence" was. He said: "I asked him what Buddha is. He immediately turned his face to the cast and then to the west, implying that human beings are always looking for Buddha here and there, but actually Buddha is not to be found either in the east or in the west. I then asked him what the Dharma is. In answer to this question he looked up and down, meaning that the truth of Dharma is a totality of equalness, there being no discrimination between high and low, while both purity and impurity can be found therein. In answering my question as to what the Sangha was, he simply closed his eyes and said nothing. That was a clue to the famous saying:

If one can close his eyes and sleep soundly in the deep recesses of the cloudy mountains,
He is then a great monk.

"Finally, in answering my last question, 'What is the blessing?' he stretched out his arms and showed both his hands to me. This implied that he was stretching out his helping hands to guide sentient beings with his blessings. Oh, what an enlightened Zen Master! How profound is his teaching!" When the attendant monks returned, the "Master of Silence" scolded them thus: "Where have you been all this time? A while ago I was embarrassed to death, and almost ruined, by an inquisitive pilgrim!"

The fourth point about the "art of Zen" covers the manner in which the Zen Masters test the understanding of their disciples. These tests take many forms, including both the "behavioral" and the "verbal."

The behavioral tests are conducted by means of radical and unexpected actions, the verbal tests by the so-called "crucial-verbal-contest" (Chinese: chi feng wen ta).c The latter is perhaps the most popular technique, widely applied by all Zen Buddhists. The Chinese word wen means "questioning," and ta is "answering," so that wen ta is "questioning-answering" or loosely "conversation." But the phrase chi feng is very difficult to translate, because it has manifold and subtle meanings. Literally, chi is "crucial," "critical," or the "key point," etc., and feng is "the tip of a sharp weapon"; so that chi feng means literally "crucial-sharp tip (or point)." This proves that the Zen "question and answer" are sharp and pointed, like the tips of two keen weapons point to point. Chi feng, therefore, implies that the Zen question is like a sharp, needle-pointed rapier constantly threatening to pierce to the heart without mercy; and that as soon as a poignant question is thrust at one, one must parry it and instantly return an answer just as pointed. When a Zen question is asked there is no time for ratiocination or "seeking." Any answer that is not instantaneously, spontaneously, and effortlessly given is not acceptable to Zen. Therefore, as Zen questions are often unanswerable and baffling, when the student fails to reply immediately because he is trying to find the "right" answer by means of logical reasoning, this time-lag immediately exposes his lack of inner understanding. Thus, no matter how "correct" his answer may appear to be, it will not be accepted by an enlightened Zen Master. This "crucial-verbal-contest," therefore, is a special technique, devised long ago by the Zen Masters to test the inner understanding of their students. An enlightened being should be able to answer immediately any baffling question put before him, easily and without hesitation. The answer should be like lightning, like a flashing spark struck from a stone. There is no room for "cultivation," no time for "framing."

At this point I would like to relate one of my own experiences to illustrate the importance of the time element in the Zen style of conversation. Not long ago I met a theologian, and we began to discuss Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions. He insisted that all religions are, on the highest level, basically identical, the only difference being a semantic one. He illustrated his point by saying that Moksha is called Nirvana in Buddhism, while "Buddhahood" is called Atman in Hinduism and "the Godhead" in Christianity. "The great truth is One," he said. "All things came from and will return to the Great One. This may be expounded in different ways, but the central Truth remains the same. And so on. I did not want to continue an argument which could go on endlessly, so I put before him the old Zen koan of Chao Chou: "If all things are to be returned to the One, to where is this One to be returned?" He was unexpectedly baffled, and failed to give me an answer. But the next day he came to sec me and said: "Now I have the right answer to your question: All things are to be returned to the One, and this One is to be returned to all things." I said to him: "According to Zen, your answer came much too late. You should have received thirty blows a long time ago." He replied: "If I had given you this answer yesterday, immediately after the question was raised, what would your comment have been then?" I said: "All right; now let us follow the Zen tradition and raise the question once more." Whereupon I asked him: "If all things are to be returned to the One, to where is this One to be returned?" He answered: "It is to be returned to all things!" To this I merely replied: "What time-wasting nonsense!"

My friend did not make any further comment, and the discussion of Buddhism versus other religions ended right there.

A few other stories are selected here to illustrate further how the Zen verbal-contest is used for "testing."


A. Yung Chia, a scholar of the Tien Tai school, gained his realization through reading the Vimalakirti Sutra without a teacher. In order to find an enlightened Master to certify his understanding, he came to the Sixth Patriarch [Hui Neng]. As soon as he saw the Patriarch, he walked around him three times and then stood before him without making the customary obeisances. Hui Neng said: "A monk is supposed to obey the rules of the Three Thousand Good Manners and the Eighty Thousand Graceful Conducts. Where does your Reverence come from that you exhibit such great pride?" Yung Chia replied: "The matter of life and death is great, and transiency lays hold of one quickly." Hui Neng: "Why, then, don't you get into the Essence of No-birth? 5 Would not that be the quickest way to liberation?" Yung Chia: "The Essence itself is No-birth, and liberation is beyond 'slow or quick.'" Hui Neng: "Yes. You are right." Yung Chia then bowed down to the Sixth Patriarch, bidding him farewell, and prepared to leave. But Hui Neng stopped him and asked: "Aren't you leaving too soon?" Yung Chia: "I have never moved since the beginning; how can I be leaving too soon or too late?" Hui Neng: "Who is the one who knows the unmoved?" Yung Chia: "The sage knows this by himself." Hui Neng: "Oh, you are very well acquainted indeed with the meaning of No-birth!" Yung Chia: "How is it possible that the truth of No-birth could have any 'meaning'?" Hui Neng: "If there is no meaning, how then can it be understood?" Yung Chia: "To understand it is not to get the meaning of it." Hui Neng: "Well said, well said. Now please remain in my monastery for one night."

If the reader carefully ponders the above story he will find that in every remark the Sixth Patriarch made he laid a trap for Yung Chia; but Yung Chia, an enlightened being, sensed these traps and immediately changed his position from the attacked to the attacker. He was therefore highly praised by the Sixth Patriarch.

B. Tung Shan went to visit Ming Che. Ming Che asked him: "Where have you been lately?" Tung Shan answered: "In Hu Nan Province." Ming Che: "What is the surname of the governor there?" Tung Shan: "I do not know." Ming Che: "What is his first name then?" Tung Shan: "I do not know his first name either." Ming Che: "Doesn't he administer his office at all?" Tung Shan: "He has plenty of subordinate officers to do the work." Ming Che: "Doesn't he come out from and go in to his office at all?" Tung Shan answered nothing, and walked out. The next day Ming Che said to him: "You did not answer my question yesterday. If you can say something satisfactory today I'll invite you to dinner." Tung Shan replied: "The governor is too dignified to come out of his office." Ming Che was satisfied with the answer, and a dinner was prepared for Tung Shan.

Outwardly, the conversation between the two was simple and plain. It seems to have been without any significance. But in fact, every remark they made had a double meaning, alluding to the truth of Zen. This story shows how the Zen Buddhists are in the habit of testing one another daily in simple talks. They are naturally trained experts in the Zen art of verbal-contest. They start to play the game whenever they have a chance. It goes without saying that the participant in the Zen "contest" must know the game first in order to match his rival. An outsider will either miss the point, or become bewildered at what is going on.

The "Behavioral Test" is often conducted through radical and astonishing maneuvers, as shown in the following stories:

A. A monk went to Te Shan, who closed the door in his face. The monk knocked and Te Shan asked, "Who is it?" The monk said, "The lion cub." Te Shan then opened the door and jumped onto the neck of the monk as though riding, and cried, "You beast! Now where do you go?" The monk failed to answer.

The term "lion cub" is used by Zen Buddhists to denote a disciple well able to understand Zen Truth; when the Masters praise or prove a disciple's understanding, this term is often used. In this case, the monk presumptuously called himself "the lion cub," but when Te Shan gave him a test by treating him like a real lion cub—when he rode on his neck, and then asked him a question—the monk failed to answer. This proved that the monk lacked the genuine understanding he claimed to possess.

B. Chao Chou was once working as a cook in the monastery. One day he barred the kitchen door from the inside, and started a fire. In a short time the room filled with smoke and flames. He then cried out: "Fire! Fire! Help! Help!" All the monks in the monastery immediately gathered round, but they could not get in because the door was locked. Chao Chou said: "Say the right word and I will open the door. Otherwise, I won't!" Nobody could give an answer. Then Master Pu Yuan handed a lock to Chao Chou through the window. Chao Chou opened the door.

As not one of the monks in the monastery could give a proper answer to Chao Chou's astonishing act, their lack of inner understanding was thus fully exposed. But the interesting question here is: What should the monks have said to Chao Chou? What was the "correct" reply to his challenge? A solution to this koan has been suggested as follows:

The monks might have said to Chao Chou: "You answer the following question first, then we shall answer yours: 'Who can untie the bell-string on the neck of a tiger?'" Chao Chou replies: "The person who first tied it." The monks then say: "You have answered your own silly question. Now open the door!"

C. One day Teng Yin Feng was pushing a wheelbarrow along a narrow road in the middle of which Ma Tsu was sitting with one of his legs stretched out, thus blocking the passage of the wheelbarrow. Teng Yin Feng said: "Master, please retract your leg!" Ma Tsu replied: "I have already stretched out my leg, so there is no retraction." Teng Yin Feng then said: "I am already pushing my wheelbarrow forward, so there is no retraction either." Saying this, he pushed the wheelbarrow over Ma Tsu's leg and injured it. Later, when they met again in the meditation hall of the temple, Ma Tsu, who had a huge ax in his hand, raised it, and said: "The one who injured my leg today, come forward!" Teng Yin Feng went up to Ma Tsu and put his neck right under the ax as if willing to receive the blow. Ma Tsu then put down his ax.

This story vividly demonstrates the courage and straightforwardness of Zen. However, these symbolic acts and the daring spirit shown should not be considered irresponsible behavior or showing off. Although they have shocked many good-hearted people, they demonstrate how distinct the Zen tradition is from all other Buddhist teaching. This story shows that Teng Yin Feng had passed his Master's test and proved himself to be a worthy disciple, while Ma Tsu demonstrated true mastership of Zen.

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