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Purification Sutra

All the evil karma, ever created by me since of old;
on account of my beginningless greed, hatred and ignorance;
born of my conduct, speech and thought;
I now confess openly and fully.

Browse Zen Koans


Zen Buddhism has become popular in the West as a result of the importation of these spiritual ideas by, amongst others, Dr. T. Suzuki. Zen promotes a very different way of understanding and dealing with reality. One of the most baffling aspects of Zen to the Western mind is the practice of Koans. Koans are teaching tool used to break down the barriers to enlightenment.

What are the purposes of Koans?

Koans are a method of training the mind in order to achieve the state of Satori. Satori is a very difficult concept to describe in a few words. It is essentially the goal of all Zen mediation and can be compared to the term enlightenment or insight into the nature of reality. These two aspects, Koan exercises and Satori are the central aspects of Zen. A further aspect to Zen should also be considered. This is the practice of Zazen. Zazen is the practice of mediation that involves sitting cross-legged in deep contemplation.

Another term for Zazen is "Dhyana". This term means to perceive or to reflect upon. Zazen is used to reach the conclusion of a Koan. Therefore the Koan and Zazen methods are essential in Zen training.

Koan literarily translated means "A public document". It refers to a statement made by a Master to a student of Zen or a discussion or dialogue between Master and student. The purpose of a Koan is to open the mind and perception to the truth. Koans are questions or riddles designed as instruments by the Zen Master to aid the student in finding the truth behind the everyday images of reality.

How do Koans function?

Koans are not rational questions with final linear conclusions. They are especially designed for one purpose; this purpose is to open the mind that has been closed by habitual responses to the world and reality.

The above statement needs a bit of explanation. Our perception of the world is clouded by, firstly, the habitual responses that we are taught by society and secondly, by the habit forming creation of our own selves or ego's. In everyday life and through societal education, we develop ideas about reality and possibilities that our peers verify. We accept these "laws" as immutable on the basis of their habitual occurrence and certification by society. For example, scientific authorities state that there is a law of gravity and that time is linear and proceeds form one second to the next. These "truths" are supported and bolstered by schools, society and our peers until they become unquestionable fact. This also applies to our ideas of human personality and of ourselves. Change then becomes an almost impossible task within the framework of conventional society.

However, science has already placed question marks next to the accepted facts of western society. Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum physics are just two examples. The purpose of Zen Koans is to upset or dislocate the mind from these habitual ideas of reality and open the mind to the other possibilities and, eventually, to Satori or knowledge of reality.

The Koan works at various levels and on various stages of the student's progress in understanding Zen. At its most elementary stage the Zen Koan is intended to question what the student takes for commonplace reality and to question that which is seen to be logically impossible. It is only in this way that the student can be prepared for spiritual reality that transcends or goes beyond ordinary logical knowledge.

The following is an example of a Zen Koan.

The Monk Mayo asked this question of the Sixth patriarch: "What is Zen?" the Patriarch replied that, "when your mind is not dwelling on the dualism of good and evil, what is your original face before you were born?"

This question seems nonsensical, but this is only so when measured against the linear logical requirements of society. The question is intended to open the initiated mind to possibilities beyond the rational. It is also designed so as to waken the student to the possibility that spiritual answers require a different mode of thought.

Zen master Dogen had a saying that is appropriate in the present context. He said that in order to perceive reality we must "drop mind and body". In other words, it is essential to drop all habits of thought and preconceptions in order to understand the truth. The Koan forces the student to face this type of thinking. The answer to the question " what is your original face before you were born?" cannot be answered on the level of rational logic. It points towards the possibility of knowing or understanding without the constructs of reason and habitual response. The question suggests we have to approach spiritual reality as if we had knowledge of things before we were taught the ways of thinking of this world: in other words, " before we were born".

In trying to answer the Koan, the student will come to a mental "precipice", as it were, where all the methods and procedures of accepted thinking no longer function. The purpose of the Koan is to shove the student over this precipice into an area of experience that is completely new. This is the spiritual reality that the Zen master is attempting to guide the student towards.

A similar Koan is "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Of course, in terms of the conventional world there can be no sound from a single hand. Sound logically needs two hands clapping. However, the question presumes that one hand clapping has already created a sound and that it can be heard. The question is not about sound or hands clapping, although this is quite conceivable within the context of Zen. The question is rather about hearing the impossible, which is only termed impossible within the framework of conventional reality. The Zen master is therefore pressing and encouraging the student to critique ordinary reality and to force the mind into other areas of understanding.
Browse Zen Koans

Written by Gary Smith


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