Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: A Little Reflection on Zen History, 3

September 9, 2015

The koans are a treasury – the “treasury of the true Dharma eye” – a source of wisdom and kindness unlike anything else


Here are some issues with koans.

They have many strange powers and beauties that can’t be spoken of, so their use is best embedded in stable practice within a lineage. It may also be best for the same reason if teachers have ongoing relationships in a brotherhood and sisterhood of peers and elders, if possible. In effect, as with firearms and explosives, only licensed persons should handle them, especially as we are in such a young stage of Zen training in the West (about fifty years into a 300-year process). It’s proving hard enough to get the core teaching of the koans truly conveyed “from East to West” not to avail ourselves of all the help and guidance we can get from the old masters.

Koans are always new. They are immemorially ancient. We never finish with them. They are over and gone before we ever started.

Their real life is passed on face to face by word of mouth. It’s relatively easy, as they become more widespread, for their teaching to be compromised – all the more so since the reality they teach is non-conceptual, while we live in concept-based constructions of reality. There may be no faster way to obscure their real power to help us than for them to become topics of discussion. The greatest risk is still overly conceptual Zen. Dahui, Engo’s successor, actually tried to burn all copies of the koan collection his master had annotated, the Blue Cliff Record, for that very reason.

They are not disguised common sense. If we seek to extract commonsense meaning from them we are “on a false path.” “Common sense” is one the “eight difficult situations.” Nor are they tools for psychotherapeutic exploration. They are touchstones of “the most solemn reality”, as Yamada Koun calls it.

Traditionally koan study has been opened up to us only when we have passed through “the authentic gate,” the “gateless gate” – or kensho. As Engo said, “Before realization it’s all silver walls and iron mountains; after realization, the self is silver walls and iron mountains.” Realization is the crucial thing. But kensho is unreliable, unpredictable, untameable, unteachable, uneducatable, unknowable. It’s inconvenient for institutions. Sooner or later an institution may tend to sideline or ignore it, or set up a procedural mimicry of it.

The koans are a treasury – the “treasury of the true Dharma eye” – a source of wisdom and kindness unlike anything else…

…which is not to say better than anything else, just unlike. It’s natural that teachers be eager to share them. But if we try to sidestep the awkward business of kensho, student and koan are sure to miss one another, and “opportunity will be lost,” as Mumon puts it.

But even kensho is still only a start on the koan way…

Once we have tasted the reality of the “world of Mu,” the infinite-empty-oneness of this existence, we are opened, if only by a crack, to the wisdom of the koans.

But koans not only open us they also reveal that there is after all a way of sharing this unshareable, unspeakable fact. And not only share but refine, deepen, clarify and broaden our capacity to embody and live it. (And unless we live it, it’s “dead Zen.”)

And it turns out kensho is only a step toward a deeper experience anyway…

But enough dirty laundry…. In sum, our task is twofold: clarity about ourselves; kindness for all beings. Washing away all trace of awakening, and then washing away all trace of having washed it away; and saving this whole miraculous universe. How do you save it? Plant rice, harvest rice, eat rice, as Jizo said (paraphrased).

In summary: to the extent koans are handled “correctly,” they are volatile; to the extent they are not, they have no power to save us. But if the conditions are met, then there is a wonderful possibility for the most remarkable ever-unfolding liberation to occur, and our Zen way will repay infinitely all the sweat, tears and toil we have given to it – and repay not us, not us at all, but instead, all beings. Our practice then reveals its real purpose all along. As the “iron trees come into bloom,” and the great life of creation opens wide, our true calling as beings at last shows itself. But was it ever lost? Was it ever far away?

With thanks and love,

Message from Henry is taken from our September 9 Newsletter.
Image Credit: Cosmic Eye, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND, from

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