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Use of Koans in Zen Buddhism

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Relation between Koan and Zen Meditation
Because koan is the Way which leads a person to mindfulness, koan is essential to Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism has had such great influence on the life and culture of Japan. Zen Buddhism is a “just sitting” style of Japanese Buddhism that has been influenced by Chinese Zen. The person who discovered or revised this technique was Tendai monk Eisai. “Eisai went to Mountain Tiantai in China and practiced by eliminating all traditional aspects of Chinese Zen Buddhism except for shikantaza (just sitting) and the meditation of koans (puzzles aimed at overcoming dualistic thoughts) and returned to Japan with Zen” (Koller 278). As Eisai returned, he forcefully headed to Kamakura to establish new temple. At Kamakura, Samurais recognized the importance of Zen in mental detachment and practices of daily life, they allowed Eisai to flourish the temple and after his death, Samurais built Rinzai school of Zen which exercised great influence in Japanese culture, thoughts, and philosophy. The origin of Japanese tea culture is also from Rinzai. Similar to original Buddhism, Zen Buddhism is not a theory or a conception of the world but it is practical experience. A person who meditates is already a Buddhist. One cannot truly understand or comprehend Zen Buddhism until experiencing it. “While intellectual understanding and thinking only grasp the subjects of representation of things, experiencing not only grasps subjects but also does not have distinction between subjects and objects” (282). One of the quotes of James Dean is “Live as if you’ll die today”. The quote has parallelism with the concept of Zen Buddhism because both emphasizing the experiences of present life. While practicing Zen Buddhism, a person should not concern about future or the past, but live and enjoy the moment. When a person thinks about future or have regrets of the past, they cannot fully concentrate on the present and cannot completely understand the reality in present moment. Zen Buddhism is not interested in rituals or theories but focuses entirely on the practice of Zazen. “Zazen is an attitude of spiritual awakening, which when practiced, can become the source from which all the actions of daily life flow - eating, sleeping, breathing, walking, working, talking, thinking, and so on’’ (Your Guide). Zen is Zazen because Zen is practice is daily life that can influence the outcome of Zazen. Difference styles and practices of daily actions will result difference outlook of spiritual awakening. Mediation in Zen Buddhism is essential part since Zen is a form of Buddhism that relies heavily on the practice of mediation. Concentrating to get rid of any distractions leads to awaken of non-dualistic existence and ultimately leads to Living Enlightenment which is incorporation of enlightenment into every day actions. Enlightenment does not take the ordinary things of life and enhance the meaning but allows people who practices Zen Buddhism to experience the same things with new perspective, new light and reveal their profundity which is the aim of Zen Buddhism. One of the aspects Tendai monk Eisai mainly focused on is koans. Koans are “dialogues, riddles, stories, or sayings that can be used to make a person think spontaneously, to think outside the box, and trigger enlightenment” (Koans). They are paradoxical statements or questions assigned by Zen masters to help novice monks. Koans are used during meditation to help the Buddhists to think and exhaust their intellectual minds while solving and searching for meaning of koans to overcome the dualistic thinking. Koans are served in two purposes: to teach and to test the candidates (Koller 287). Koans teach young immature minded people to make actions rather than thinking. Zen Buddhism emphasizes doing rather than thinking in order to experience a complete life. In uses of testing candidates, koans are used to test a person’s intellectual level and their level of concentration and enlightenment. Koans are composed of many different philosophical riddles and each dialogue contains different meanings. In Rinzai school of Zen, formal koan study exists. In koan study, Zen master assign students a koan. Students then concentrates on the koan. They do not think about it or trying to figure it out. With meditation, students are segregating unnecessary thoughts while more intellectual and spontaneous insights occur. Students with their own interpretation, presents their understanding with words or short sentences which is called sanzen (O’Brien). Sanzen is an interview between a student and a Zen master to determine whether the student truly “solved” the answer. If student pass, master assigns another koan but if the answer is inadequate, teacher may give a hint to enlighten the student. This question and answer structure study or introspection exist to help people to understand the practices of zen, zazen,and koans. Koan is essential in Zen Buddhism because while meditation, koans help one’s mind to be fully concentrated to find and solve the riddle which isolates and erases any distraction. This is why koan is used in both teaching and testing. Koan tests one’s level of concentration by giving a riddle to think about and solution of that riddle will give enlightenment and new perspective of the both subjects and objects. Meditation and koans are key elements in Zen Buddhism. Interaction of two elements and understanding the collaboration of the two elements is the true way to practice Zen Buddhism. One of the most famous koans is mu-koan. Zhaozhou, Master Joshu, traveled throughout China and settled into a small temple in northern China and guided his own discipline. A monk who is one of Master Joshu’s discipline asked about Buddha-nature,
“In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha-nature is the fundamental nature of all beings, does a dog have Buddha-nature?”
Master Joshu replied immediately “Mu!” (Koller 287).
“Mu” literally means “nothing”. The word is a nonsense answer to the question. However, since the question was inappropriate, answer also should be inappropriate. Master Joshu could said yes because it is common study in Mahayana Buddhism that every beings have Buddha-nature and dog is a “being.” However, Master Joshu did not either said yes or no because by accepting one side, it assumes the contrast between being and non-being. One of the purposes of koans in Zen meditation is to escape from dualistic mind. To escape from dualist mind, a person should have great level of concentration. However, when monk asked if a dog is a Buddha-nature, he created the division of what is and what is not, indicating he has not surpass the dualistic mind. The monk has failed the test of koan. By saying “Mu!” Master Joshu let go of the underlying dualistic assumption and the problem of whether dog is or is not a Buddha-nature has been disappeared. The question also has been improperly asked because the question indicates that Buddha-nature is a property of a “being.” Buddha-nature is the fundamental nature of ALL beings, which one cannot separate being and non-being. The question is improperly asked because it assumes a mistaken view of dog, being, and Buddha-nature. Also, a being does not “have” Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature has been within a being from the beginning. Existing or nonexistent beings do not choose or decide whether to have or not to have Buddha-nature. Dogs cannot “have” Buddha-nature and even Buddha cannot “have” Buddha-nature. By asking if a dog “has” Buddha-nature, the question is inappropriate. Before Master Joshu was enlightened and traveled the world, he had a teacher, Nansen. Nansen enlightened Joshu and when Nansen passed away, Joshu started to travel the world. In “What is the Way” of koans, the conversation between Joshu and Nansen is stated.
Joshu asked, “What is the Way?” “Ordinary [or everyday] mind is the Way,” Nansen answered.
Joshu asked again, “How do I try to get it?
Nansen answered, “The more you pursue it, the more you will be separated from it.”
Confused Joshu questioned “Well, if I don’t pursue it, then how can I know it?”
Nansen answered, “The Way is not about knowing, nor is it about not-knowing. Knowing is an illusion, and not-knowing is disorientation. The Way is vast, free, and boundless like outer space—so where is there room in that for good and bad, or right and wrong?”
Upon hearing this, Joshu was enlightened (Koans).
The Way has many different meanings. However, in this dialogue, Joshu’s first question can be translated as “What way should I take to be enlightened?” The Way meaning destination, Joshu is asking Nansen, what is the way to travel the Way? Reply of Nansen is very simple but has lots of meanings. The everyday mind is getting out of bed, eating, going to work, and going to bed. And feeling emotions: happy, sad, fear, love or joyful, are all part of everyday mind. Zazen is one of the practices Zen Buddhism. Zazen is influenced by daily activities and doing ordinary, everyday mind will lead to the Way. Ordinary mind is being at the present, not deciding if something is right and wrong, or better and worse. Ordinary mind is boundless as outer space because not interfering can result limitless freedom and opportunities to encounter and experience the reality. The main concept of answers that Nansen gives to Joshu is that knowing or thinking is not everything but bafflement. When a person tries to seek and chase after the Way, the Way will be even further to reach because a person thinks and wants to know about the Way. For example, when a dog chases its tail, humans think the chasing action is hilarious. Chasing Way and Chasing tail is similar concept. Chasing Way is simply ridiculous and pointless. One cannot follow the Way if he thinks or wants to know about the Way. To follow the Way, a person should not consider about knowing the Way but should experience the world. When a person is open to experience, limitless knowledges can be gained and eventually he will find the Way. No one can tell if the way is right and wrong or good and bad when a person is satisfied. Joshu wanted to follow the Way because he was unsatisfied with his life; he believed that he was heading wrong way. However, when a person is experiencing the world, there should not be a room for good and bad, or right and wrong because of satisfaction. The notion of this koan is to teach monks one of the aims of Zen Buddhism which is doing rather than thinking. Another famous Zen koan that helps to understand the reason of use of koan in Zen Buddhism is “The Sound of One Hand.” During sanzen between Master Mokurai and a student, Toyo, "You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together," said Mokurai. "Now show me the sound of one hand" (The Sound). Toyo meditated and gave multiple answers to Mokurai. However, all of those answers were rejected. At last little Toyo entered true meditation and transcended all sounds. "I could collect no more," he explained later, "so I reached the soundless sound." Toyo had realized the sound of one hand (The Sound). The purpose of riddle, koan, is to be isolated from any distractions while thinking about the riddle, which makes a person closer to reach enlightenment. However, “The Sound of One Hand” is an answerless riddle; it is a riddle that is design not to have an answer. Thinking about the sound of one hand clap, helps to focus the tension down into one thing and one step away from being emptiness. But when a riddle does not have an answer, that one step becomes even less. Just like original Chinese meditation, purpose or goal of meditation is to reach emptiness which is mindfulness. By reducing more distractions while thinking about less will eventually lead to not thinking. The main notion of “The Sound of One Hand” is to realize the activities of mind. By recognizing and understand the mind’s activity, person can control thoughts and obliterate pointless activities of the mind. In this content, the sound does not mean the sound of two surfaces, hands, clapping but refers as the sound of mind activities. One can recall the sound of a clap because when a person thinks about two hand clapping, one is usually calm and ordinary because two hand clapping is normal. However, when a person thinks about one hand clapping, the mind asks questions because it is extraordinary and uncommon. Mokurai assigned this zen koan to Toyo to control the appearing thoughts in the mind and when Toyo finally found the soundless sound which indicates the emptiness of mind, he was enlightened. By focusing on koans and increasing level of concentration and enlightenment, people may experience enlightenment. However, disciplined practices is still required to clear the way. Even when a person reaches enlightenment, even greater concentration and mindfulness to grasp and to use in daily life. The story of the ox and oxherd is an old Daoist story that has been updated and modified by modern Chinese Zen masters to explain the path to enlightenment (Koller 289). The story is organized with ten pictures and each picture indicates the progression of enlightenment. Oxherd, the self, is desperately looking for his ox, the ultimate and the Buddha-nature, because he is unsatisfied with his life. With use of koan and meditation, Oxherd has caught sight of the tracks of the ox, hoping Ox is not forever last. When oxherd catches ox and disciplines it, disciplining ox overcome the bad habits of previous conditions. With answer found of koans, now the oxherd joyously rides on the back of the ox and returns to home. Now, ox has been vanished leaving oxherd alone and both ox and oxherd has been forgotten and vanishes which indicates that separation of ordinary reality and ultimate reality has been vanished and he escaped from dualistic mind which is one of the aims of Zen Buddhism. With great level of concentration and true revealed of Self, enlightened oxherd does ordinary things but because of his deep awareness, everything he does is extraordinary. Using koans, oxherd has been followed the Way to be enlightened, and collaboration of meditation and koans, oxherd achieved even greater enlightenment to use in daily life activities which makes him extraordinary while he is doing ordinary things. Meditation is the key component of Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism has been modified based on Chinese Zen by Tendai monk Eisai, focusing on shikantaza and koans. Koans are used in Zen meditation in two purposes: to teach and to test. While studying and trying to solve koans, students automatically only think about the koan while isolating from any distractions. However, to solve koans, great level of concentration is required. Therefore, koans teach students how to reach enlightenment while testing who is worthy to be enlightened. However, one thing that I was confused was the purpose of koans and aims of Zen Buddhism. One of the aims of Zen Buddhism is to make students do rather than thinking. However, how can students experience the world if they are meditating about numerous koans? To deeply and profoundly understand a koan, monks spends several years to think about the koan. And even with the solution and possible enlightenment, even more meditation and higher level of concentration is required to use in daily life which means that more practices are necessary. My question is why Zen Buddhism so focused on mediation and koans when the goal is to do rather than to think?
Issue also occurs in modern days. Koans are created and edited by Zen masters of past generations. However, as time passes, the understanding and connection between student and koans has been weakened due to lack of similarities in life. In modern days, many recent Zen masters publisheed new and adequate koans that can be related to modern students and practitioners. With original koans, students might understand the concept of the Zen Buddhism but it might be difficult to actually achieve enlightenment. To improve the understanding and to create more similarities for modern students, modern Zen masters announced koans based on modern society. Several different collections of koans has been assembled and two of the most famous classic collections: Blue Cliff Record and the Gateless Gate, exist. To spread or to help other countries to practice Zen Buddhism, collections of koans also has been translated. However, the problem I noticed is that with different languages, the meanings of the words cannot be exactly translated. When translators translate the sentences, they cannot fully compose unless they truly understand the topic. Monks spent average of ten years to solve these riddles and if translators does not comprehend the true meaning behind the koans, of course, some of the behind meanings of koans will vanish. If a person is just translating the koans with words by words, he cannot depicts the same meaning. Words and translation might be correct but the meaning behind the words will be different from the original. While translating, some meanings also get lost or cannot be translated due to different languages and cultures. Even though koans are short dialogues, they are created to help meditation and enlightenment. With a same koans, many different translations exist in today’s society. No one knows which translation is most accurate and which one is least accurate. It is struggle for students who speak different languages to fully interpret the koans. In modern society, internet made easier to encounter with Zen Buddhism and its koans. However, that does not mean that internet made reaching enlightenment easier because to practice Zen Buddhism, one must need a teacher for guidance. Practices of Zen Buddhism has been spread around the world. People gain wisdoms from understanding the koans and the number of people who practice Zen Buddhism increases. However, inadequate translations of commentary result confusion and misrepresent some of koans. Koans are essential in Zen meditation and misinterpreting one of the key elements in Zen Buddhism results misinterpretation of Zen Buddhism itself.

Works Cited
"Koans." Zen. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <http://www.rodneyohebsion.com/zen-koans.htm>.
Koller, John M. Asian Philosophies. 6th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.
Kuruvilla, Carol. "These Zen Buddhist Koans Will Open Your Mind." Huffpost Voices. N.p., 31 Oct. 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2016. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/zen-buddhism-koan_us_563251dce4b0631799115f3c>.
O'Brien, Barbara. "The Koan Mu, Its Origin and Use in Zen Buddhist Practice." About.com Religion & Spirituality. N.p., 15 Aug. 2015. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <http://buddhism.about.com/od/chanandzenbuddhism/a/What-Is-Mu.htm>.
"The Sound of One Hand." Zen Koans. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <http://www.ashidakim.com/zenkoans/21thesoundofonehand.html>.
"Your Guide to Zen Buddhism and Zen Meditation." ZEN BUDDHISM. N.p., 2011. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <http://www.zen-buddhism.net/>.…...

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...By the time Buddhism entered Japan in the sixth century C.E., it had already become a world religion with a history of a thousand years. The form of Buddhism that from the start was dominant in Japan is known as Mahayana, the Buddhism of the Greater Vehicle, and it brought with it an enormous canon of religious literature, an elaborate body of doctrine, a well-organized priesthood, and a dazzling tradition of religious art and architecture - all of which Shintô lacked in the sixth century. Although its view of the world and mankind differed markedly from that of Shintô, it is important to understand that within the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism both differences from and similarities to the native tradition could be found. On the one hand, for example, Buddhism regarded the world as transient and saw it as a source of suffering for those who remained attached to it, a view that contrasts sharply with Shintô's ready acceptance of the world. On the other hand, however, there was an optimism in Mahayana Buddhism that meshed well with Shintô - an optimism about human nature, for it was committed to the belief that all human beings had the potential to attain the wisdom that brings an end to suffering, and an ultimate optimism about the world itself, since it taught that once human attachments are discarded, the world takes on a new and positive significance. At first the Japanese regarded the Buddha as simply another kami and were drawn to the religion by the beauty of its art...

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Buddhism

...Chapter 1 INTRODUCTION Thich Nhat Hanh: “Buddhism is already engaged. If it is not, it is not Buddhism.” Walpola Rahula: “Buddhism is based on service to others”…political and social engagement is the “heritage of the bhikkhu” and the essence of Buddhism. Robert Thurman: “The primary Buddhist position on social action is one of total activism, an unswerving commitment to complete self-transformation and complete world-transformation.” Stated in simplest terms, engaged Buddhism means the application of Buddhist teachings to contemporary social problems. Engaged Buddhism is a modern reformist movement. A practitioner is socially engaged “in a nonviolent way, motivated by concern for the welfare of others, and as an expression of one’s own practice of the Buddhist Way” (King Being 5). In this description Sallie B. King invokes the spirit of the Bodhisattva vow: May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. According to Ken Jones engaged Buddhism is “an explication of social, economic, and political processes and their ecological implications, derived from a Buddhist diagnosis of the existential human condition” (Kraft New). Jones emphasizes the social theory underlying engaged Buddhism. According to engaged Buddhists the “three poisons” of greed, anger and ignorance apply both to the individual and to “large-scale social and economic forces” (Kraft New); their remediation is therefore the collective concern of society. As the......

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Buddhism

...Buddhism To begin Buddhism originated in Northern India towards the end of the sixth century B.C. (Layman 3). The founder of Buddhism was a noble of the Sakya clan whose name was Siddharta Gautama his first name means “he who has accomplished his objectives”. However, faithful Buddhists refer to him as “Buddha” meaning “enlightened one”. The Buddha is called the enlightened one because after leaving his wife and son in search of answers to the cause of sorrow and suffering in the world, the Buddha remembered how he once experienced a flash of inspiration while meditating. The Buddha decided to try meditation for answers. He found a spot under a tree commonly referred to as the “bodhi tree” it was under this tree where the Buddha felt he found the meaning of life, and a way to live that would bring freedom from all bondage and get the deepest satisfaction. This story seems a little far-fetched; I feel as though if I were living back in those days I would look at the “Buddha” as if he was a joke. I don’t see how by just sitting under a tree how the “Buddha” got such a large group of followers by just thinking of an idea that just suddenly popped in his head. Anyway, who am I to criticize, this has obviously worked for him and has caused a tremendous following. I guess the meditation process isn’t that bad after all, since Buddhism has turned into such a big phenomenon. The topic of Buddhism caught my attention because recently a lot of stars have started......

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Buddhism

...Huy Pham ACCT 6318 Buddhism and Ethical Reasoning First of all, about the definition of Buddhism, this is a religion indigenous to the Indian subcontinent that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Buddha (meaning "the awakened one" in Sanskrit and Pāli). The Buddha lived and taught in the eastern part of Indian subcontinent between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. He is recognized by Buddhists as an awakened or enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help sentient beings end suffering through eliminating ignorance and craving, by way of understanding and seeing dependent origination and non-self and thus attain the highest happiness. Two major branches of Buddhism are recognized: Theravada - it means School of the Elders and Mahayana – it means Great Vehicle. Ethics in Buddhism are traditionally based on what Buddhists view as the enlightened perspective of the Buddha, or other enlightened beings that followed him. Moral instructions are included in Buddhist scriptures or handed down through tradition. Most scholars of Buddhist ethics thus rely on the examination of Buddhist scriptures, and the use of anthropological evidence from traditional Buddhist societies, to justify claims about the nature of Buddhist ethics. According to traditional Buddhism, the foundation of Buddhist ethics for laypeople is The Five Precepts: no killing, stealing, lying, sexual......

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