PZI Teacher Archives

The Method of Zen


In the evening dharma talk John introduces us to an ancestor in the koan tradition, Dahui Zonggao 大慧宗杲 (Ta-hui Tsung-kao, Daie Soko), 1089-1163 and his disciple Wuzhuo Miaozong (無著妙宗; 1096–1170 CE), Miaozong lived during the Song dynasty and was one of the first nuns to be included in an imperially sanctioned Zen lineage history. The conversation between Dahui and Miaozong is instructive of his early method of using only the head of the koan and become one with it. His method was formulated for his culture like we are for ours.

So, I want to talk a bit – mainly about Hakuin – about Hakuin and his method because, in a way, we’re practicing it.  It’s an old method, and he just formulated it for his culture the way we’re formulating it for ours.

Where I first started koan work, I sat on my own, because there weren’t any – actually Zen teachers of any kind.  Even deluded non-koan teachers didn’t exist — what Hakuin calls “silent illumination demons.” – didn’t exist where I was training. So I decided to take up koans myself, and I took up the koan “No,” which the best authorities – in books –advised.  

At some stage I realized it was a really deep practice and then – it really comes from – the way we practice it is lost in the past. There were a couple people in the 1100s, who kind of invented the method together.  And there was a teacher and a student.  The teacher was Dahui, who was the teacher of the person who wrote the Blue Cliff Record.  This was quite a long time ago in Zen records.   And the student   Meow-Dao   Because there were wars in North China, she had come south to be able to teach. There was a big Zen scene in North China, and some people stayed and tried to work with the warlords, and some people left – it was hard to teach in those circumstances.  And Dahui was one of those people who left.  Meow-Dao?  Was sort of a senior person at another temple, and she heard of him and his teachings, and so she went to talk to him.  She said this great thing, she said, “I’m not clear about myself, and I’d like you to help me.”  So there’s an honorable question.  

It’s also a question with some sort of history in Zen.  Whereas, often people would ask, “What sort of question should I ask?”  And famously, the head of practice within Linji’s temple suggested, “Why don’t you ask the master, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?’”  And so Linji went into Huangbo and asked it, and then Huangbo hit him.  This happened three times.  So, and whether that was a good thing or a bad thing – it turned out to be a good thing.  But in this case, Yunmen, another great teacher, asked his teacher, “I’m not clear about myself.”  And the teacher refused to even see him three times. Perhaps he didn’t like the sound of the knock – it  didn’t seem, like, present yet.  And then, the third time, he opened the door and said, “What?” And Yunmen said, “I’m not clear about myself.” And this old, in-his-nineties teacher grabbed him and said, “What?” and Yunmen said, “I’m not clear about myself,” and the old teacher said, “Useless stuff!” and threw him out. 

But Dahui did something different when this woman came to him.  And in some way, they met in some way, you could tell, that they were suited to each other.  And so he said, “There’s a light that illuminates everything.”  And this is something Hakuin said, to the woman at the inn.  He said, “Everything has a great light.”  You could say that we all see the same thing, really, fundamentally. 

And then Dahui said, 

Once you see this great light, then you know that in the past there’s basically no delusion, and [4:40] the present is basically no? awakening.  Awakening is delusion and delusion is awakening.  Facing towards and turning away are identical.  The nature is identical to the mind, and mind is identical to the nature.  Buddhas are delusive demons and delusive demons are Buddhas.  The one pure quality where any opposition of equal and not equal, all this is the constant endowment of one’s own heart-mind, not dependent on the skills of anyone else.”  

So it’s yours; it’s in your heart, the heart of the one who asks, Buddha.  And then Dahui? says, “But this kind of understanding isn’t any use.” [laughter] Which is kind of nice.  And then he says, …. If you understand those things, that’s great.  But then you need to just set it aside and sit with the koan. [5:54] And the koan he took the form of  ?? was called the wa-to?  Just the head, just the very concentrated form of the koan.  Some koans are, you know, long shaggy dog stories, kind of cool, they’re short fictions, with lots of dialogue.  And other koans are just a very condensed form.  And he said … “Use them. And no matter what, just become one with them.”  So she was his first experiment actually in this technique.  Which is kind of exciting.  “It’s from lack of any other choice that I explained it the way I did,” he said [6:45].  

Don’t immediately consider my explanation to be true.  If you consider it’s really true, then you don’t get the expedient means.  There’s actually a practice you can do.  And when you get here, you can’t use your usual thinking anymore.  It’s better to understand things and set them to one side and look at the sayings, the short koans of the great teachers

And he gives a few examples: [7:20] 

Mazu said, ‘Heart-mind is Buddha. This very heart-mind is Buddha.’  You could use that,” he said.  “Also, Mazu said, ‘Not mind, not Buddha.’ You could use that.  And then, ‘It’s not mind.  It’s not Buddha.  It’s not things.’  You could use that.  Or Zhaozhou’s ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from the west? The cypress tree in the garden.’  You could use that, use the cypress tree in the garden. Or Yunmen’s ‘Dried shit stick:’ ’What is Buddha? Dried stick of shit.’ Use that. Or Jiu-jei’s raising a finger.”  

Whenever he was asked something, he raised a finger, no matter what he was asked.  Consistent, consistent teaching!  Obviously, it’s not the traditional way of answering a question to say, “The oak tree in the garden.” Sorry, “the cypress tree.”  In Japan, it was translated as “the oak tree,” so it became “the oak tree” for me, and I did it as the oak tree.  That’s kind of nice too.  He was changing its nature.   He said, “You just become one with these things.”

He was explaining this later to people he tried to train as teachers, how she’d become – what she’d discovered, what he and she had discovered together, and he said. 

I raised for her Mazu’s “it’s not mind; it’s not Buddha; it’s not things.” And instructed her to look at it.  Moreover, I gave her an explanation: ‘You must not take it as a statement of truth. You must not take it as something you  do not need to do anything about.  Don’t take it as a spark struck from flint. Or a lightning flash.  Don’t try to work out the meaning of it.  Don’t try to figure it out from the context in which I brought it up.  [not sure where this quotation stops]

“It’s not mind; it’s not Buddha; it’s not things.”  After all, what is it? So then, “what is it?” [9:45] became a koan. They keep breeding, you know. Multiplying, cell-division.  So then this is the earliest example we have, written down, of this practice.  So when we say, “Do the koan ‘No,’” or “Do the sound of one hand” or “Quickly, without thinking good or evil, what is the original face before your parents were born?”  And then it comes down to something really short when you’re meditating, like “original face” or “face” or “fff” {laughter].  That’s enough!  And then you start to realize, “Any piece of my life is all of my life.” Like the piece I have now is all of my life. 

So “No”—the koan “No” or “Buddha nature” – that’s enough. That’s the whole of life. It’s yes, and no, and my grandmother and the world I grew up in and the joy and the sorrow and the things that I just don’t understand and I’m sure I’ll never understand.  And the “Is that Venus or an airplane?” when I’m walking [10:28] up here, those kind of things.  They’re all the one light, yeah.  But you don’t have to know that, as Dahui says to Meow-Dao you don’t have to kind of know that – the party mind that likes explanations, it helps to know that, maybe. Like “I’m doing this thoughtful project, that’s philosophically based.”  Good.  Now, do the koan.  And when you do the koan, you’ll discover different things. You’ll personally experience it rather than thinking about it.  That’s the big deal.  To personally experience it, to taste for yourself, to smell for yourself what it’s really like.  You know, one of the koans, actually the “original face” koan, when somebody understood that, they said, “Oh, when someone else drinks water, I know whether it’s hot or cold for myself.”    I know for myself.  I don’t have to believe, oh, that’s warm or that’s cold. I know what an orange tastes like for myself. 

And he, Dahui, thought it was really important to be blocked by the question – in other words, the reason it was an impossible problem.  There are not a lot of handholds on it.  Like, “Quickly, without thinking good or evil.” That’s kind of a handhold, without thinking good or evil, that’s a kind of a coaching tip, because, what does the mind think its job is? Thinking good or bad!  But wait, that’s my job! Who would I be without my job?  “Quickly, without thinking good or evil.” And quickly, without pondering it, because the mind thinks it’s got to work stuff out, too.  Reflect.  So, “what is your original face before your parents were born?”  What is your true face.  It’s kind of – it’s how to make sense of it, really?  “Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?  The cypress tree in the garden.”  It’s not clearly (13:05] ?? sounds like “or” ) If you ask this person any question – what is the meaning of life – one finger.  How should I practice koan study (lifts finger)? You can see it’s kind of – in a way there’s a lunatic helpfulness about that, actually.  [laughter] “It’s not working for me! What should I do?” [lifts finger] [laughter] “I just feel really stuck on this koan.” [lifts one finger] [laughter]. You can tell that there’s, like a certain sort of sense of humor about it.  And there’s also a kind of integrity about it, because it doesn’t give you a cheap bumper sticker to believe. Or even an expensive bumper sticker to believe.  Explanations are not going to do it, because only life answers the big questions about life, right? Only love answers the question about love, not really good descriptions about how love is important. You know, we all know we get saturated by life; we get overtaken by life; we get overwhelmed by life; we enjoy life; we can’t bear life.  All those things go on with our lives.  And our idea of who we are: “I’m this; I should be that.” People who – “the authorities approve of what kind of me I am.” and “What kind of me am I, anyway?”  And (lifts one finger, laughs).   What kind of creature are you? Or the cypress tree in the garden or “No!” That’s what kind of creature you are – “No!” 

When I came to the US, actually the only teacher who answered letters from Australia, and was working with koans came from Australia.  You know, it was like, the universe chose this for me.  And that was Robert Aitken, and so I flew—gave up my work, and everything I was doing in Australia – flew to Hawaii (I don’t know why I flew to Hawaii; they answered the letter, that’s why), and the teacher was away, and then he came back, and I had this interview.  In those days, you did the full bows to the floor, as you crossed the threshold, in front of the teacher and leaving. … Even before you met the teacher, you did nine bows and you brought him a little gift, which was incense that he didn’t like [laughter].  A thoughtful gift; you tried to bring a thoughtful gift, as a token of your connection.  And so it wasn’t a frivolous thing.  If you are asking about the Great Matter, like “I’m not clear about myself,” you are offering some part of yourself, you are putting your own heart in it.  And I did that.  And so, finally, I’d come all the way from Australia, and I said I’d been working with the koan “No.”  And he said, “Do you have any questions?”  And I said, “No.”  And he rang his bell and that was the interview.  It sort of was like [lifts single finger].  And so I just sat with that, and so later on, I was in New York, studying the same koan with a Korean teacher – Seung Sahn – and I was doing the same koan, I was sitting in this cold, miserable basement dojo, with gray cement blocks, and martial arts pictures on the walls.  I was kind of hungry and the food wasn’t any good – I mean, really not any good – [laughter] and nobody wanted to speak to anybody, and so I was just there, and I had nothing to do but work on this koan.  And I wasn’t any good; I was a terrible student. I was sitting there, and suddenly there’s this thing that happens when you really do become one with the koan – and the foreground and the background switch, and it became perfect.  “I’m sitting in a dojo with unpainted concrete block walls, wow!”  It was that kind of thing, So I kind of got that, you know: “Oh, yeah, this is a great life.”  So I rushed into see the teacher. 

He did this “who are you?” thing and I felt a bit obliged to say, “Oh, I’m John, and I come from Australia.”  And he said, “Who are you?” indicating that he wasn’t real interested in that, and he lifted his stick to hit me, and I just started yelling at him, you know.  I said, “HAAAAAH!” And he kind of liked that. So that was like the one finger, like “No!”  And that was interesting, but I could tell, I’d just put my toe in the water.  I could tell I didn’t want to… and so I went back, you know, it was like I was in this deep meditation, and I went back to the koan “No,” and just got so saturated with it, … and people always say, sometimes people talk about … “No” is like a magic spell; it just dispels everything.”  And so you say the word “No,” and there’s nothing in your mind.  “Don’t know” will do that, too.  Or “what is it?” Any of the great short-header koans might do that, like poof, everything in your mind disappears. They can do that.  And when you’re deep in meditation, you find that your mind can go – your mind is really very spacious.  Hakuin liked to talk about that; he liked that. He thought that was really cool; it was absolutely the best.  He was like, “A thousand miles, just snow.”  

And so he came to …. I’ll tell you his little Hakuin story here … and he’d been meditating a lot and he came on a pilgrimage.  There was this old hermit who was supposed to be quite a good teacher, but he didn’t have many students, because he wasn’t very helpful.  He was helpful by [20:30] testing the students’ own strength? 

[John reads Hakuin] I received permission to be admitted as a student, and I hung up my traveling staff to stay.  Once, after I’d set forth my understanding to the Master during a personal interview [John: during doku-san] – he said to me, “the study of Zen has to be genuine.  How do you understand the koan about the dog and Buddha nature?” “There’s no way to lay a hand or foot on that,” I replied [John: can’t get hold of it], and he abruptly reached out and caught my nose, and gave me a sharp push, and said, “I got a pretty good hand on it there!’” (laughter) 

And so, then, everything stopped for him, you know, and so you could see, he was seeing the vastness in some way, but his teacher didn’t accept that, you know? Because he could tell that – I don’t know – it was shallow, or whatever it was. 

I couldn’t make a single move, forward or backwards.  I was unable to spit out a single syllable.  The encounter put me in a totally troubled state.  I was totally frustrated and demoralized.  I sat red-eyed and miserable, my cheeks burning from constant tears. 

If anybody thinks that they are too emotional, read Hakuin!  You’ll feel – you’re not! “The Master took pity on me and assigned me some koans to work on.”  Just the way Dahui did with Meow-Dao?; Yunmen’s “dried stick of shit” was one of them. They’re all these brief things, and the first one he asked him about was the koan “No!”. 

“Anyone who gets past one these fully deserves to be called a descendent of the Buddhas and ancestors,” said my teacher. A great spirit and surge rose up inside me.  I chewed on these koans day and night, attacking them from the front, gnawing at them from the sides.  But not the first glimmer of understanding came. Tearful and dejected, I sobbed out a vow, “I call upon the kings of the ten directions, all of the leaders of the heavenly hosts of demons: if, in seven days, I fail to bore through to one of these koans, come quickly and snatch my life away!”  [John: Yeah, drama!] I lit some incense, made my vows and during my practice I kept at it without stopping for even a moment’s sleep.  The Master came and abused me.  “You’re doing Zen down a hole,” he said.  Another time, he said, “You’re a demon watching over a corpse in a coffin.”  And he said, “You could go out today and scour the world looking for a true teacher, but you have a better chance of finding stars in the mid-day skies.”  [John:  You’re looking for it out here (stretches out hand)]. 

I had my doubts about that. After all, I reasoned, there are great temples all over the country filled with great masters.  They are as numerous as  ?.  This old man, with his wretched ramshackle poorhouse of a temple, and that preposterous pride of his — I’ll be better off leaving here and going somewhere else.  Early next morning, still deeply dejected, I picked my  ?? baling bow and went into the village to the Eyaiama Castle. I was totally absorbed in my koan; I never wavered from it for an instant.  I took up a position beside the gate of the house, my bow in hand, fixed in a kind of trance.  From inside of the house, a voice yelled out, “Get away from here.  Go somewhere else!” I was preoccupied and I didn’t really even notice it.  That must have angered the occupant.  She suddenly appeared, flourishing a broom upside-down in her hands.  She flew at me, flailing wildly, whacking at my head as if she were bent on dashing my brains out. My sedge hat lay in tatters [John says, “one of those hats” and describes a triangle beginning from the top of his head]; I was knocked over, heels up, on the ground and lay there, totally unconscious, like the dead.  The neighbors alarmed by the commotion emerged from the house with looks of concern. “Oh, now look what that crazy old woman has done,” they cried, and quickly vanished behind locked doors.  This was followed by hushed sounds, not a stir or sign of life anywhere. A few people happened to be passing by, approached me in wonderment and grabbed hold of me and hoisted me upright.  “What’s wrong? What happened?” they exclaimed.  As I came to, and  my eyes opened and I found that all the unsolvable and impenetrable koans that I had been working on – 25:00 all those venomous catspores ?? that I had been working on were now penetrated completely – right to their roots they had suddenly ceased to exist, began clapping my hands, whooping with glee, frightening the people who had gathered round to help me.  “He’s lost his mind, the crazy man,” they shouted, shrinking away from me apprehensively.  They turned heel and fled without looking back.  I picked myself up from the ground, straightened my robe and fixed the remnants of my hat back on my head.  With a blissful smile upon my face, I started slowly and exultantly making my way back [26:06]. I spotted an old man beckoning to me. “Honorable priest,” he said, “that old lady really put your lights out, didn’t she?” I smiled faintly, but I didn’t utter a word.  He gave me a bowl of rice to eat and sent me on my way. I reached the gate of the hermitage with a broad grin on my face. The master was standing on the veranda.  He looked at me and said, “Something good has happened to you. Try to tell me about it.”  I walked up to where he was standing and proceeded to explain at some length about the realization.  He took his fan and struck my back with it.  “I hope you live to be my age,” he said.  “You must firmly resolve never to be satisfied with such trifling gains. Now you must devote yourself to post-Satori training.  That’s a mere enlightenment experience. Anyone who really wants to become a Buddha must keep practicing.”  [27:10]

And so, he goes on… It’s an interesting method.  The method is, fundamentally no matter what comes up, have your koan. What I did, after having the experience with the Korean teacher, Seung Sahn, is I went back to my boring experience in the temple in [27:35] Maui where I was just sitting away, and my non-charismatic teacher.  And I kept getting deeper and deeper, and I could tell I was getting deeper, and something was changing, but I couldn’t say anything about it; I couldn’t see it. I could just feel it. So that image of the mycelium – Jung uses that, too – comes to mind. Underground, the mycelium is breaking through the frost, though you can’t necessarily see the fungus. The [28:00] fruiting bodies arise?? Something alive and marvelous is happening underneath you.  And so often you have that experience.  All of practice is like that.  Something is changing, and your friends can see it, but you can’t speak about it.  In a way, that’s not bad, because if you tried to explain it, it wouldn’t be true.  [Lifts one finger] “No!”  It’s like that. “It’s not Buddha.  It’s not beings.  It’s not things.” 

And so then, you can tell that Hakuin kept trying to get this clarity.  And his teacher respected that, but thought, there’s something you’re missing when you hold on to clarity.  It’s a good thing, clarity in meditation, so go for it and try it and feel it, but there’s a liveliness that you’re still holding off.  I noticed that where I was sitting up late at night – we got up at 4 and went to bed about 9, 9:30 – and there wasn’t a lot of personal time. I would try to sit up until midnight if I could.  And much of the time it was pretty awful meditation, actually, thinking I could get through to the end of the period before I fell asleep.  Mycelium was building.  But then I noticed that my mind was really clear and then it wasn’t.  I thought I’m four days into a great sesshin; this is my chance. 

I’d been sitting for ages and ages, I had some glimpses;  I’m really going to experience enlightenment, and my mind just went – like everything: advertising jingles, petty loathings, every grudge, feeling inferior, but also it was just noise, massive amounts of noise.  For the first time I thought, “That’s not ‘it.’” But then I thought, “This must be ‘it’ too,” and I turned towards it. And then I felt – it just went away, really quietly.  And then I felt, “What’s this?  I’m afraid,” and I really disapproved of being afraid.  And then I thought, and I kept trying to force myself to take a step, and my mind would explode and then just noise and … And then I’d come back, and I thought, “I’m afraid.” And I turned to the fear and I just kept pushing and I thought, “You’re afraid; you’re afraid what will happen if you take the next step.? I’ll have the fear” I turned to the fear and the fear became the koan, and then everything opened up for me and it wasn’t very hard, and it was very luminous, and the koans weren’t so hard after that. But the thing was, you’ve got to find the way. 

I really tried to do the textbook thing.  Like if you read The Three Pillars of Zen, it’s completely on the textbook way.  “Become one with your koan, enlightenment will happen. Shut up already.”  I didn’t find that.  I found that I had experiences that were kind of interesting but weren’t “it” yet.  And that’s all right. And then I’d have a lot of experiences about how beautiful life was, and then I’d be unhappy a day later. And that had to be all right too.  And then I’d do this perfect – pretty perfect, perfect for me – meditation (for somebody who had trouble sitting still and still wiggle when I give a talk) – I’d sit still, and I wouldn’t move, and I’d sit through walking meditation, and still my mind went crazy and I thought, oh, I’m looking at the wrong thing. And I really came to love sayings like Yunmen’s “I’m reaching for the light.  Please help me.” And Yunmen said, “Give me the reaching.” Give me the fear. I’m afraid, please help me.   Give me the fear.  And so you find that the original face is inside that – inside the fear, or the sorrow, or the resentment or the fatigue– the very thing – the problem that you’re trying to avoid, that you think sesshin is going to fix – that’s where the original face is, that’s where “No” is.  I’ll stop there. 

You can tell I’m doing two things (he says, not stopping; [laughter]I am saying it’s good to really go for it with your koan, but also, it’s really good to go for being you; the you that you are is not the you that Hakuin was or other folks.  I would like to know more about Meow Dao because she was there at the beginning. We do know that she wasn’t her teacher, Dahui, and we know that whoever she taught was not her. Dahui was a student of Yuanwu (I had it the wrong way around), and we know that Dahui learned from Yuanwu, and that Yuanwu taught in a completely different way, more traditional koan study, not this short-form. Any way you do it, you’ll probably get it.  You have to love your own practice and your own moment and your own life. So go for it, you know.  Have at it!