A Zen story that stayed with me for decades

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Drenpa
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A Zen story that stayed with me for decades

Post by Drenpa » Wed Mar 14, 2018 3:54 am

So over in the "heavyweights of Dharma Wheel thread," I asked Astus awhile back after he mentioned some stories that were formative for him if he'd written anything on the subject of koans/stories within the Zen tradition.

I somehow missed his response until tonight - After posting on another thread on this sub, I remembered that and went back to check even though I hadn't been notified of a response.

Astus had responded and he encouraged me to start a thread on the Zen sub, so here goes.

At the age of 23, long ago, I was far from home doing service for the x-tian cult I was raised in and happened to meet this guy who lived all by himself in a church. He had dropped out of a comfortable life to live very simply and used to have us over because we were young and strong and he needed help fixing up this massive old church in disrepair he'd purchased. He also fed us. We would work hard for hours, then go inside and prepare a simple meal together. It was overall a great experience.

I was of course, eager to convert him to my way of thinking, but he was the one who had the enduring influence on me.

One of the stories he told me I've since discovered has an analog in Gutei's finger, but it is not the traditional version as I understand, but another that is circulated. But it was effective, as it has stayed with me for almost 30 years now.

From my memory it goes thusly: (I make no claim this is in accordance with tradition, be warned - but it is faithfully retold as I remember it was told to me).

A novice approached the master and asked, "What is the meaning of enlightenment?"

The master responded by holding up his index finger. The novice thought he understood, was delighted and left. He then made the habit of showing his knowledge and understanding to those he came across. Unsolicited, he would hold up his finger and smile knowingly, indicating he had knowledge.

The master heard of this, and when he next saw the novice, the novice held up his finger in greeting, upon which the master took out his sword and cut it off.

The novice was dumbfounded and ran away.

Many months later after it had healed, the novice worked up the courage to go back to see the master. He said "Teacher, I must have misunderstood. I asked you the meaning of enlightenment, and you showed me.

But now you have cut off my finger, I am able to indicate this anymore, so what is going on? What IS the meaning of enlightenment then?"

To which the master lifted his finger in response. The novice realized he could not respond in kind, at which point he awakened.

So that wasn't exactly as recorded in tradition, but it sure stuck with me if only because of the violent end and the image, hilarious to me, that this poor sap couldn't imitate his teacher, not anymore. It was so perverse it was shocking to my very (then) innocent mind.

For a young lad completely fixated on his own culture of conditioning and convinced of the perfection of his own view and understanding, it was the perfect teaching because it slipped in there, past my defenses.

Many years later when my conditioning was blown away in a short period, it was still there and at least a secondary cause to seek out the Dharma.

Hence my interest in how the tradition works with stories and Koans - how one knows they have understood etc. I guess it's not that important, as this experience served its function for me and I eventually entered a Dharma path and met a teacher many years later - so it is not as though I'm looking for something different or new. But this has stayed with me and hence my interest.

Not in starting a new path, but more basically as to how the Zen/Chan tradition uses these stories in a traditional way as this had such an impact on me, outside of the tradition purely by chance.

I asked Astus because I was curious if there was already something he'd written, or could point me to that would help me understand more about the use of story/koan in the tradition.

It's not as though I'm lazy - I'm not, and I love to read - it's just that there are SO many sources of information and so many traditions even under the banner of Zen/Chan, I thought it better to ask someone from within the tradition.

I've broached this even recently with those who profess to practice zen, but for whatever reason, no information has been forthcoming, so I took that as a hint and dropped it as my interest is more academic than not, and I understand that time is in short supply for most folks.

Due to some unexpected but much welcome free time recently in such short supply in recent years, I've spent a couple of hours on the new Zen1 forum since asking this question, and if nothing else have really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and people I've met there.

DW seems like fast company by comparison at times - and I mean that as a compliment to the Zen folks on the new forum who've made me feel very welcome, and not a denigration of DW which has a much more diverse cast of characters and is more of a melting pot, that I also enjoy.

If anyone has a story/koan that made a lasting impression on them, or who can point me to some definitive source re how these stories are used traditionally with a teacher, I'd be interested as I had this experience. That's all. Discuss, or not. Maybe someone else likes the story who hasn't heard it before if nothing else.

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Wayfarer
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Re: A Zen story that stayed with me for decades

Post by Wayfarer » Wed Mar 14, 2018 6:11 am

Well, like a lot of people, the very first thing I ever read about Zen was the well-known Penguin paperback, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps (along with Alan Watts' Way of Zen). Those books were in countless homes in the late 60's and 70's:

Image

It is a condensed and edited version of many popular Ko-an. Many of those stories stayed with me - it was part of the reason I eventually started to practice zazen.

I found that particular ko-an rather challenging, as it involves literal physical injury, although I sometimes wonder if the whole story is perhaps apocryphal. (Another one along those lines involved cutting a cat in half.)

As a general observation - there is a risk that Zen stories are often misunderstood due to be taken out of context. I mean that in the sense that originally, such stories were handed down and told in specific cultural context with all of the references and allusions that were part of that. Obviously, the modern West is vastly different in countless ways. We don't always understand the allusions and the similes. Although I suppose, those who have taken the subject seriously enough to study and practice have a better grounding in the interpretation of their meaning.
Only practice with no gaining idea ~ Suzuki-roshi

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Astus
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Re: A Zen story that stayed with me for decades

Post by Astus » Wed Mar 14, 2018 9:52 am

Drenpa wrote:
Wed Mar 14, 2018 3:54 am
some definitive source re how these stories are used traditionally with a teacher
The classic way where stories are used for training is phrase contemplation (kanhua). For the short version, read Wumen's comment on Zhaozhou's Wu. For a longer explanation see The Ch'an Training. For an extensive explanation read What is Ganhwa Seon?
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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kirtu
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Re: A Zen story that stayed with me for decades

Post by kirtu » Wed Mar 14, 2018 12:35 pm

For me, the Fox koan.

Kirt
Kirt's Tibetan Translation Notes

"Even if you practice only for an hour a day with faith and inspiration, good qualities will steadily increase. Regular practice makes it easy to transform your mind. From seeing only relative truth, you will eventually reach a profound certainty in the meaning of absolute truth."
Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

"Only you can make your mind beautiful."
HH Chetsang Rinpoche

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KeithA
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Re: A Zen story that stayed with me for decades

Post by KeithA » Wed Mar 14, 2018 1:21 pm

Guji's Finger was the first koan I was assigned to work with by my teacher. It's consider an "easy" one by most, but I struggled mightily with it.

My favorite Zen story isn't a koan, but a story from "Dropping Ashes on the Buddha", by ZM Seung Sahn:
Once a student came to Zen Master Hyang Bong and said, "Master, please teach me the Dharma."

Hyang Bong said, "I'm sorry, but my Dharma is very expensive.''

"How much does it cost?"

"How much can you pay?"

The student put his hand into his pocket and took out some coins. "This is all the money I have."

"Even if you offered me a pile of gold as big as a mountain.'' said Hyang Bong, "my Dharma would still be too expensive."

So the student went off to practice Zen. After a few months of hard training, he returned to Hyang Bong and said, "Master, I will give you my life, I will do anything for you, I will be your slave. Please teach me.''

Hyang Bong said, "Even if you offered me a thousand lives, my Dharma would still be too expensive.''

A bit dejected, the student went off again. After several more months of hard training, he returned and said, "I will give you my mind. Will you teach me now?"

Hyang Bong said, "Your mind is a pail of stinking garbage. I have no use for it. And even if you offered me ten thousand minds, my Dharma would still be too expensive."

Again the student left to do hard training. After some time he came to an understanding that the whole universe is empty. So he returned to the master and said, "Now I understand how expensive your Dharma is.''

Hyang Bong said, "How expensive is it?"

The student shouted, "KATZ!!!"

Hyang Bong said, "No, it's more expensive than that.''

This time when he left, the student was thoroughly confused and in deep despair. He vowed not to see the master again until he had attained a deep awakening. Eventually that day came, and he returned. "Master, now I truly understand: the sky is blue, the grass is green. Now will you teach me?''

"No, no, no," said Hyang Bong. "My Dharma is even more expensive than that."

At this, the student grew furious. "I already understand, I don't need your Dharma, you can take it and shove it up your ass!"

Hyang Bong smiled. That made the student even angrier; he wheeled around and stomped out. Just as he was going out the door, Hyang Bong called to him, "Oh you!"

The student turned his head.

''Don't lose my Dharma," said Hyang Bong.

Upon hearing these words, the student was enlightened.
Masterful instruction by the teacher, bringing the student to the point where the student trusts oneself 100 percent.

The text for this story was copied from here.


_/|\_

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Drenpa
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Re: A Zen story that stayed with me for decades

Post by Drenpa » Thu Mar 15, 2018 7:56 pm

Thanks for the sources cited comments and additional stories folks.

Does the modern practice still involve the process of checking with the teacher to make sure understanding is correct, or when the student finally breaks through her doubt in the process of wrestling mightily with the cognitive dissonance engendered by the koan is it patently obvious to them and thus there is no need to confirm anything with anyone?

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KeithA
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Re: A Zen story that stayed with me for decades

Post by KeithA » Thu Mar 15, 2018 8:04 pm

Drenpa wrote:
Thu Mar 15, 2018 7:56 pm
Thanks for the sources cited comments and additional stories folks.

Does the modern practice still involve the process of checking with the teacher to make sure understanding is correct, or when the student finally breaks through her doubt in the process of wrestling mightily with the cognitive dissonance engendered by the koan is it patently obvious to them and thus there is no need to confirm anything with anyone?
There have been many times when I thought I understood something 100% and was wrong. My personal opinion is that koan practice is impossible without the teacher. It's like like a lock and key, both are useless without the other.

_/|\_

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Re: A Zen story that stayed with me for decades

Post by Drenpa » Fri Mar 16, 2018 1:09 am

KeithA wrote:
Thu Mar 15, 2018 8:04 pm
Drenpa wrote:
Thu Mar 15, 2018 7:56 pm
Thanks for the sources cited comments and additional stories folks.

Does the modern practice still involve the process of checking with the teacher to make sure understanding is correct, or when the student finally breaks through her doubt in the process of wrestling mightily with the cognitive dissonance engendered by the koan is it patently obvious to them and thus there is no need to confirm anything with anyone?
There have been many times when I thought I understood something 100% and was wrong. My personal opinion is that koan practice is impossible without the teacher. It's like like a lock and key, both are useless without the other.

_/|\_
Oh, I agree totally. I was wondering how it's done in the tradition these days as I have no idea. So to practice Zen, like some other Buddhist teaching a teacher is indispensable. I just wasn't sure as I simply have not had much exposure to Dharma outside of one tradition, so better to ask than assume.

I spent a couple of decades deluding myself before I met the Dharma. I'm not saying I'm beyond that, but its one of the first things that was stressed to me in this boat - the unreliability of my own mind and intellectual ideas. Prior, the delusion and party line were force-fed, reinforced and any doubt was completely discouraged. The aspirant is told to rely on their warm, fuzzy feelings as the source of "TheTruthTM"

Maybe I wound up too far on the other side of the confidence/doubt spectrum due to this prior experience.

Longchenpa says in his commentary on the Choying Dzod:

"How emotionally biased is a view that holds to
intellectual speculation.
How disappointing is meditation that relies on it.
How exhausting is conduct that engages in it.
How utterly confused in the hope of fruition coming from it.

The sources Astus provided and the comments have helped me understand a lot better how Koans are used. Mind used to investigate mind and lean into the cognitive dissonance, ramp it up until it implodes. In order to do this, it makes sense that reading someone else's story from a book and then attempting to work with that would be a happy hunting ground for delusion. Much better if one is fortunate and finds a teacher with knowledge, to let them prescribe for us what we need to have the necessary experience based on their understanding of us, the student, and our own unique makeup and proclivities. Finding such a teacher is the difficult thing, I guess.

Thanks, Keith and everyone else who participated. I Enjoyed this and learned something.

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Re: A Zen story that stayed with me for decades

Post by Way-Fun » Fri Mar 16, 2018 1:53 am

In private interview, after the student recites the koan, the teacher will say a line from the koan, or not, and pause for a response. Sometimes the teacher will ask for comment line by line, or there are specific checking questions. Unless the response is exemplary, the teacher may either send the student away or ask for elaboration until they are satisfied that the point is clear.

When you pass a koan, you should see that its presentation is masterful. The point is being made in a clear and elegant way. Although it is true that when you really get it you will not need confirmation, the degree to which students 'get it' varies. A teacher is still necessary because of the likelihood that we think we understand when we do not.
Drenpa wrote:
Fri Mar 16, 2018 1:09 am
I spent a couple of decades deluding myself before I met the Dharma. I'm not saying I'm beyond that, but its one of the first things that was stressed to me in this boat - the unreliability of my own mind and intellectual ideas. Prior, the delusion and party line were force-fed, reinforced and any doubt was completely discouraged. The aspirant is told to rely on their warm, fuzzy feelings as the source of "TheTruthTM"
The feeling of knowing is not other than the mind's inclination to deceive itself. How, then, do you know?

Case 20 from The Book of Equanimity:

Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “I am wandering aimlessly.”
“What do you think of wandering?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not knowing is most intimate.”
Fayan was suddenly awakened.

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KeithA
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Re: A Zen story that stayed with me for decades

Post by KeithA » Fri Mar 16, 2018 12:53 pm

Drenpa wrote:
Fri Mar 16, 2018 1:09 am
KeithA wrote:
Thu Mar 15, 2018 8:04 pm
Drenpa wrote:
Thu Mar 15, 2018 7:56 pm
Thanks for the sources cited comments and additional stories folks.

Does the modern practice still involve the process of checking with the teacher to make sure understanding is correct, or when the student finally breaks through her doubt in the process of wrestling mightily with the cognitive dissonance engendered by the koan is it patently obvious to them and thus there is no need to confirm anything with anyone?
There have been many times when I thought I understood something 100% and was wrong. My personal opinion is that koan practice is impossible without the teacher. It's like like a lock and key, both are useless without the other.

_/|\_
Oh, I agree totally. I was wondering how it's done in the tradition these days as I have no idea. So to practice Zen, like some other Buddhist teaching a teacher is indispensable. I just wasn't sure as I simply have not had much exposure to Dharma outside of one tradition, so better to ask than assume.
To be clear, I am only speaking from a little corner of the Zen tradition. I don't know how it works for others. I honestly don't know how the teacher "checks" the student in the Soto tradition, for example.
I spent a couple of decades deluding myself before I met the Dharma. I'm not saying I'm beyond that, but its one of the first things that was stressed to me in this boat - the unreliability of my own mind and intellectual ideas. Prior, the delusion and party line were force-fed, reinforced and any doubt was completely discouraged. The aspirant is told to rely on their warm, fuzzy feelings as the source of "TheTruthTM"
Yes, not taking one's own idea and opinions too seriously is pretty important. Everything changes, even our outlook on things. I am always weary of people who spout the "Truth", especially when I am the one doing the spouting! :crazy:
Maybe I wound up too far on the other side of the confidence/doubt spectrum due to this prior experience.
It's a delicate balance. Having confidence in one's experience and wisdom, and being overconfident. As a friend used to say, "just practice and see what happens".
Longchenpa says in his commentary on the Choying Dzod:

"How emotionally biased is a view that holds to
intellectual speculation.
How disappointing is meditation that relies on it.
How exhausting is conduct that engages in it.
How utterly confused in the hope of fruition coming from it.
Wise words.
The sources Astus provided and the comments have helped me understand a lot better how Koans are used. Mind used to investigate mind and lean into the cognitive dissonance, ramp it up until it implodes.


Interesting way of putting it. The phrase "Mind used to investigate mind..." seems a bit off to me. So many minds! lol! To me, koan practice dramatically shifts our perception and understanding of our own nature and the nature of the world around us.
In order to do this, it makes sense that reading someone else's story from a book and then attempting to work with that would be a happy hunting ground for delusion. Much better if one is fortunate and finds a teacher with knowledge, to let them prescribe for us what we need to have the necessary experience based on their understanding of us, the student, and our own unique makeup and proclivities. Finding such a teacher is the difficult thing, I guess.
Without a doubt!
Thanks, Keith and everyone else who participated. I Enjoyed this and learned something.
Good luck and thanks for practicing!

_/|\_

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