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Zen Stories from the Past

Teachers throughout Zen history have used great ingenuity in finding ways to impart the truth to their students. Koans existed since the beginning of Zen, but they were not used the way we use them today until much later. Quite naturally a means of training students in the way of Zen practice arose, and so koan study was undertaken.

The koan texts that have been passed down for centuries were created by Zen masters, who were like scientists of the mind. They understood ways in which they could get their students to move deeper into practice, and they could unlock the firm hold the ego had on the mind, allowing the mind to open, like a lotus flower. Although koans can seem mystical, remote, and impossible to break, students have been solving koans for centuries. With diligence, any student can break the seemingly impenetrable wall of a koan. All the student has to do is completely let go of the self.

There are collections of koans that have been handed down through the years, and several of these well-known collections are frequently used today. These include The Blue Cliff Record, compiled by Hsueh-tou in the twelfth century, which contains 100 koans, and the Mumonkan (The Gateless Gate), compiled around 1229 by Master Wu-men, which contains forty-eight koans. These collections were eventually taken to Japan and survived the centuries, passed down from teacher to teacher. Koan practice lost strength over the years, but it was eventually revived by Master Hakuin in the eighteenth century in Japan. Hakuin organized the koans in a sequence that enabled the student to move from one koan to another in a systematic way. Koan practice evolves as the student moves from one koan to another.

Master Wu-men called his collection of koans the Mumonkan, which means “The Gateless Gate” or “The Gateless Barrier.” The title came from a poem he wrote, and the gateless gate means there is no gate in Zen. Therefore, there is no door to open, no gate to pass through—the only thing keeping us from seeing our true nature is our own self.

There is an old Chinese saying: Nothing that enters by the gate can be a family treasure. What does this inscrutable saying mean? A family treasure is something that remains in the family, that does not come from an outside source. You cannot be given a family treasure by someone outside of the family. Zenkei Shibayama tells us that this can be understood to mean, “Nothing given by others can be really good.” Enlightenment cannot be given to you by your teacher or found in words. What is the real family treasure is already inside you. As the saying goes, a fish does not know that it is in water. We do not know that we are already in our true nature. How can we “wake up” to the reality of our own true nature? Koan study is one way we can try.

The Purpose of Koan Study

Koans are designed to teach the student about the true nature of reality: how the true nature of reality functions in the world; how we can loosen our attachment to words and phrases; and about the subtle teachings that deal with understanding the apparent dual nature of the universe. Different lineages of Zen use a different number of koans. Depending on what lineage you are studying under, you might be required to answer a specific number of koans. However, do not get attached to the idea that you must do a certain number of koans in order to be enlightened. Koan practice is a tool, and the student should not have a sense of pride at accomplishing koans. If that is the case, the student must work harder to release the pride and move deeper into the practice. Pride is attachment and attachment, as we now know, leads to suffering.

It is important to remember that enlightenment doesn't come from stories and dialogues. Your true nature is not contained within an ancient dialogue or a few paragraphs handed down from a Zen master who lived a thousand years ago. Your true nature already exists inside you. You already have what you need: You just need help finding it again.

Koan practice is designed as a tool to help you once again discover your true self. It is a means to an end and not an end in and of itself. Once you have solved a koan, it is important to let it go. There is a Zen saying that goes like this: “If you meet the Buddha on the way, kill the Buddha!” In other words, do not hang on to anything. Attachment is not the way to enlightenment. So leave the koans, leave the teacher, leave everything behind once you understand what it has to teach. The Buddha taught us this with the following simple story.

A man needs to cross a great river in order to get to the other side and continue his journey. He fastens a raft together from some nearby trees and uses the raft to navigate the roaring waters. He reaches the other side safely, grateful for the vehicle that enabled him to cross. Now it is time to continue his journey overland. Will he take his raft, strapped to his back and continue on? Or will he leave it behind, eternally grateful for its service, but aware it is no longer of use?

It is the same with our teachings. Once we have learned the lessons, it is time to let the teaching go.

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