Database definition

Master Zhongfeng Mingben gives a definition of Zen Koan

A definition of the Koan

Zhongfeng Mingben

Translated by Ruth Fuller Sasaki

The koans [kungans] can be reconciled with the records of the public law court. Whether or not the ruler succeeds in bringing order to his kingdom depends critically on the existence of law. Kung (ko), or “public”, is the single path followed by all sages and worthy men, the highest principle which serves as a road for the whole world. An (an), or “records”, are the orthodox writings which record what the wise and worthy people regard as principles.

There have never been rulers who did not have courts of public law, and there have never been courts of public law who did not have records to serve as precedents for laws in order to eradicate injustice in the world. When these public records (koans) are used, the principles and laws come into effect; when these come into force, the world will become upright; when the world is straight, the royal way will be well ordered.

Now, when we use the word “koan” to refer to the teachings of Buddhas and ancestors, we mean the same thing. The koans do not represent the private opinion of a single person, but rather the hundreds and thousands of bodhisattvas of the three realms and the ten directions. This principle accords with the spiritual source, corresponds to the mysterious meaning, destroys birth and death, and transcends the passions. It cannot be understood by logic; it cannot be conveyed by words; it cannot be explained in writing; it cannot be measured by reason. It is like the poisoned drum that kills all who hear it, or like a great fire that consumes all who come near it. The so-called “Vulture Peak Special Transmission” was the transmission of this; what is called “Bodhidharma’s direct pointing to Shao-lin-ssu” pointed to this.

From the remote time when the lotus flower was held on Vulture Peak until today, how could there have been only seventeen hundred koans? Still, koans are something that can only be used by people with enlightened minds who want to prove their understanding. They are certainly not intended to be used simply to increase one’s knowledge and provide useless discussion topics.

The so-called venerable masters of Zen are the principal officials of the public law courts of the monastic community, so to speak, and their sayings on the transmission of Zen and their collections of sayings are the case files which have been vigorously defended. . From time to time the men of old, in the intervals when they were not teaching, in the spare moments when their doors were closed, would take these case files and arrange them, pass judgment on them, compose verses of praise about them and wrote their their own responses.

Surely they did not do this just to show their scholarship and contradict the worthy men of old. On the contrary, they did it because they could not bear to think that the Great Dharma might become corrupted. Therefore, they stooped to using expedients in order to open the Eye of Wisdom of people of future generations, thus hoping to enable them to attain understanding of the Great Dharma for themselves in the same way. That’s all.

The word kung (ko), or “public”, means that koans put an end to private understanding; the word an (an), or “case records”, means that they are secured in accord with the Buddhas and ancestors. When these koans are understood and accepted, then there will be an end to feeling and discrimination; when there is an end to feeling and discrimination, birth and death will become empty; when birth and death become empty, the way of the Buddha will be ordered. What do I mean by agreement with Buddhas and ancestors? The Buddhas and ancestors were deeply saddened to see sentient beings bond with the realm of birth and death and sensual illusion, so that through the countless kalpas from past to present, no could not free himself. . Therefore, they displayed words amid wordlessness and conveyed forms amid formlessness. But once the bonds of illusion have been loosened, how can there be words and forms left to discuss?

If an ordinary man has a case which he is not able to settle on his own, he will go to the public law court to ask for a decision, and there the officials will consult the case files and, on the basis of these, will settle the matter. matters to him. In the same way, if a student has that in his understanding of enlightenment that he cannot sort out on his own, he will ask his teacher about it, and the teacher, based on the koans, will sort it out. for him.

The koan is a torch of wisdom that illuminates the darkness of feeling and discrimination, a golden scraper that cuts the film that darkens the eye, a sharp ax that cuts the root of birth and death, a divine mirror which mirrors the original in the face of both the sacred and the profane. Through it, the intention of the patriarchs is made abundantly clear, the mind of Buddha is opened and revealed. For the essentials of complete transcendence, final emancipation, total penetration, and identical realization, nothing can surpass the koan.