Koan commentary

If there had been some sort of answer that Kyosei could give the monk, he might have offered it up. We grow into understanding, purifying ourselves along the way.

Painting from “Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers,” 16th century

Kyosei asked a monk, “What is the noise outside?”

The monk said, “The sound of raindrops.”

Kyosei said, “Men’s thinking is inverted. Deluded by their own selves, they pursue things.”

The monk asked, “What about you, teacher?”

Kyosei said, “I am almost but not quite deluded.”

The monk asked, “What do you mean by ‘almost but not quite deluded’?”

Kyosei said, “Though it is fairly easy to express what one realizes through awakening, to transcend is difficult.”

Blue Cliff Record, Case 46

Kyosei [Chinese name Jingqing] lived in the ninth and tenth centuries. He was a disciple of the great Seppo [Chi., Xuefeng]. According to Kyosei’s biographical story in The Transmission of the Lamp—also known as the Denkoroku—at the age of six he refused to eat meat or strong foods. Interesting, because those are foods that are prohibited for Buddhist monks. When his parents forced him to eat dried fish, he would immediately vomit it up.

When I was in Japan at Bukkoku-ji, mostly vegetarian meals were served, but once in a while there would appear some bright-pink, dried-fish cakes, one for each resident’s bowl. These were popular among the Japanese monks, but most of us Westerners usually passed ours to them.

In Andy Ferguson’s trusty volume of biographical information about the Chinese masters, Zen’s Chinese Heritage, there are some stories about Kyosei. In one, Kyosei entered the hall and addressed the monks, saying “If you have not already realized the great matter that is before us today, then listen carefully to what I say. It has been a long time since you left your homes, and you’ve traveled for many years. During this whole time, you have merely experienced the conditions and dust of the world. This is called ‘turning your back on enlightenment and facing the dust,’ or ‘forsaking your father and running away.’ Today I urge you all to not give up nor turn away. Wouldn’t it be disappointing if you children of the great worthies did not exert yourselves in this manner? Throughout the day, look everywhere for the Official Road. But don’t ask me to give you the Official Road.” Although none of here us has taken the traditional Chinese monastic vows, in sesshin it’s as though we’re all “monks for a week,” and by taking Kyosei’s encouraging words to heart, we can harness them just as effectively as those monks sitting in Kyosei’s meditation hall.

One day during the work session, Seppo said, “Zen master Guishan [Jap., Isan] said, ‘Seeing form is seeing mind.’” And Seppo then asked, “Is there any error or not?” And Kyosei said, “What about the ancient teachers?” Seppo said, “Although that’s true, I still want you all to discuss it.” Kyosei said, “In that case, it can’t be compared to my hoeing the ground.”

Kyosei’s “What about the ancient teachers?” may mean, “What about the insistence by our ancestors that in Zen we reject unnecessary words?”—a rejoinder to Seppo’s challenge. Kyosei then presses his point at the end: “It can’t be compared to my hoeing the ground.” That is, even the most profound words are just a shadow of the actual functioning of our True Nature.

At another time, a monk said to Kyosei, “This student has not yet arrived at the source. I ask for the master’s expedient guidance.” Kyosei said, “What source is that?” The monk said, “The source.” Kyosei said, “If it’s that source, how can you get any expedient guidance?” The monk bowed in thanks and went away. Kyosei’s attendant said, “Just now did the master give that monk support or not?” Kyosei said, “No.” The attendant said, “Then you didn’t answer his question?” Kyosei said, “No.” The attendant said, “Then I don’t understand the master’s meaning.” Kyosei said, “One drop is just black ink. Two drops and a dragon is created.”

How could you look to anyone else for directions to the source, as if there were a map? Where could we turn but inward to find the Source?

Back to the case: Kyosei asked a monk, “What is the noise outside?” He’s heard rain before, of course, and as Yuan Wu, the author of the Blue Cliff Record, notes, “he doesn’t suffer from deafness.” Yuan Wu also comments, “He casually lets down a hook. What is he asking?” So what’s he up to here?

So then, what is the noise outside, really? In dokusan, the student working on this koan must present her experiential understanding with her own response—that is, not with an explanation but with a demonstration.

The monk replied, “The sound of raindrops.” This monk really didn’t want to play ball with Kyosei. He gave this very commonsense, obvious answer. To which Kyosei quotes the Avatamskara Sutra: “Men’s thinking is inverted. Deluded by their own selves, they pursue things.”

In the Lankavatara Sutra, reportedly Bodhi­dharma’s favorite, the Buddha expounds on the matter of delusion. The theme of the sutra is that everything we perceive is the projection of our own mind. This is a highly esteemed sutra in Zen, and as such it places Zen in what’s called the Yogacharya division of Mahayana Buddhism.

Yogacharya literally means “mind only”—beyond the mind there are no things and beyond things there is no mind. We chant this in “Affirming Faith in Mind” with just a different phraseology: “Things are things because of mind / as mind is mind because of things.” That text, “Affirming Faith in Mind,” is one of the very earliest Zen texts and goes right to the heart of the Zen school. Mind only. Everything is just this mind. And another word for mind is Mu. So is “This.” So what is it?

A technical definition of delusion—I’m reading here from Red Pine’s notes in his translation of the Lankavatara Sutra—is “what the mind gives rise to.” In the broadest sense, whatever the mind gives rise to may be seen as delusion. Consider the word makyo, commonly defined as any unusual side-effects of zazen. We could say that ultimately everything is makyo. People sometimes report an unusual experience and ask, “Was that a makyo?” If you see this world of appearances as just a projection of your own mind, you could say that everything is makyo. But then, it’s not a very practical use of the word. Still, the point is that if everything is the projection of our own mind, then it’s a very broad and thought-provoking understanding of the word delusion. And when we add our projections to what the mind gives rise to, we are sure then to misrepresent those things that the mind gives rise to.

A footnote by Red Pine says, “The wise don’t add projections to what the mind gives rise to, but accept it for what it is: the mind. Hence, for them delusion becomes reality.” Elsewhere in the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha says, “Delusions also appear to the wise, but they aren’t confused by them.” So we can distinguish between delusions—what we might call the dreamlike nature of reality—and delusions-plus-our- interpretation of them: the way we cast our projections onto them.

The first time I ever read this koan, decades ago, with its opening exchange between Kyosei and the monk, I must admit that I felt a bit annoyed—do these masters have to take issue even with answers that are plainly correct? It’s the sound of raindrops. Hello!

But Kyosei knows that, of course. So in his response to the monk, he’s not disputing that it’s the word we give for that stuff that is formed in the sky. Yes, we call it rain. The sound of raindrops. But he’s working to draw this monk out of his ordinary way of seeing the world. He’s trying to move him out of a conventional dialogue to what is beyond words—beyond objects as standing apart from subjects. He’s warning him about being attached to words, those representations of reality, and about mistaking the representation for the thing itself. Or, to use a Zen phrase, mistaking the mark on the scale for the weight itself. That’s the work of the Zen school: seeing that which cannot be encompassed in words and concepts. The direct experience. Seeing through words like raindrops and I and it. And Mu. To grasp the thing itself, the living reality.

One of the verses added by Yuan Wu to the original Blue Cliff Record was this:

An empty hall.

The sound of raindrops.

Hard to respond, even for an adept.

If you say he’s ever let the streams enter,

as before you still don’t understand.

Understanding or not understanding.

On South Mountain, on North Mountain

more and more downpour.

Above our heads and under our feet.

If you call it the sound of raindrops, you’re blind

If you don’t call it the sound of raindrops,

what sound will you call it?

Your feet must be treading the ground of reality

before you can get here.

Imagine if we didn’t have a word for what we call “rain.” Then what would it be? Or if we never learned the word for “tree,” or for “sorrow,” for “anger,” for “love.” In order to communicate—a form of sharing—humans have found words for these things. But real understanding only comes through directly experiencing them.

Attachment to words creates all kinds of mischief. And more than that, suffering. There’s a potent passage in the Lankavatara Sutra where the Buddha says, “Fools let their thoughts wander among the names and appearances of convention to which they are attached, and as they wander among the multitude of shapes that appear, they fall prey to views and longings concerning a self and what belongs to a self, and they become attached to excelling.” “Excelling”? Perhaps the Buddha meant that as soon as we buy into the notion of a fixed, permanent self, we become attached to the doings of the self and then fall into judgments of the self.

A famous Taoist, Wei Wu Wei, said, “Why are people so unhappy? Because 99% of what they think about is the self—and there is none.” Again, the Buddha: “They fall prey to views and longings concerning a self and what belongs to a self”—the “I,” the “me,” and the “my.” All we have to do is examine our thoughts: it’s 99% “I,” “me,” and “my.” The Buddha continues: “And once they are attached they are blinded by ignorance and give rise to passion. And once they are inflamed, the karma produced by desire, anger and delusion accumulates. And as it accumulates they become enveloped in their own projections like silkworms and cocoons, or submerged in boundless states of existence in the sea of birth and death as if they were on a waterwheel.”

That’s quite a string of causation the Buddha laid out, so here’s a simpler version of it: Words and language in general reinforce the illusion of fragmentation. We have assigned different words to different things, different names to different people, tribes, nations, and religions, and the longer we use these words, the more likely we will get drawn into seeing the world as not unified but divided. So there are enormous consequences to the use of language and words. Naturally, we are always using words—Zen has no quarrel with that—but let’s be aware that words are the finger pointing to the moon and not the moon itself.

Kyosei seems to have been fond of the line of inquiry presented in this case. When he asked another monk what the sound outside was, the monk replied, “The sound of a snake eating a frog.” To which Kyosei warned, “When you acknowledge the suffering of beings, then there are more suffering beings.”

What? What could be wrong with stating the obvious and pointing out suffering where we see it? Well, nothing, conventionally speaking. Our bodhisattva vows enjoin us to respond to suffering beings. But “suffering” and “being” are just half of the story. The other half is that of non-being—no beings to suffer, no beings to help. This is the ultimate perspective, the other half of reality. Awakening reveals these two as not two. And to deny either is to invite more suffering. The Buddha says as much, again in the Lankavatara Sutra, when he continues: “But because of their ignorance they do not realize that their own existence is an illusion, a mirage, a reflection of the moon in water. And that [their own existence is] without a self or what belongs to a self. And that it arises from the projections of their own mind and not from a creator, from time, from motes of dust, or from a supreme being. Thus do fools wander among names and appearances.”

Here’s yet another instance of Kyosei posing his favorite question, “What is that sound outside the gate?” The monk at hand said, “The sound of quail.” And then Kyosei warned, “If you wish to avoid uninterrupted hell, don’t slander the wheel of the true Dharma of the Tathagata.”

If rain were to fall without hitting trees, bushes, buildings, pavement, ground, would it make any sound? This is kind of an idle question, one like that old philosophical riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? In the Mumonkan, Zen master Mumon raises a similar question: “Just tell me: does the ear go to the sound, or does the sound go to the ear?”

Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of Zorba the Greek and other books, had at least a passing interest in Zen and recognized how we can use words to shut out direct experience. He said, “Great indeed is the strength of the letters of the alphabet, those 26 miniature soldiers that stand at the edge of the cliff and defend man’s heart, at least for some little time, preventing it from falling and drowning in the black bottomless eye of the Buddha.” That “bottomless eye” may sound menacing, but it’s the very source of all phenomena—the “Mother of the buddhas.”

When the monk gives his commonsense answer, “The sound of raindrops,” Kyosei chides him: “Men’s thinking is inverted. Deluded by their own selves, they pursue things.” Yuan Wu comments, “People all misunderstand and call this intentionally upsetting the man, but this has nothing to do with it. How little they realize that Kyosei has the skill to help people.” He’s not just testing the monk, but giving him the truth.

The monk then asks, “What about you, teacher?” To which Yuan Wu comments, “As it turns out, the monk suffers a defeat. He’s turned the spear around. Inevitably it will be hard for Kyosei to stand up to it. Instead of Kyosei, the monk grabs the spear and stabs the man back.” The more you read of the Blue Cliff Record, the more you can understand why it’s considered one of the great works of literature in all of Chinese history. It’s just marvelously rich in vivid language, colorful metaphors, and even humor.

How does Kyosei parry the monk’s thrust? “I am almost but not quite deluded.” A different translation of this reply is, “I am on the brink of falling into delusion about myself.” And another is, “A little more and I would be deluded, too.” What do all these mean? Hakuin once said, “No matter how little sickness there may be in one’s body, there is pain in his heart because there is delusion in his mind. This is the chronic sickness of all sentient beings.” Hakuin would seem to be referring here to the unenlightened. However, we can take it in a broader sense to mean every one of us. Until supreme, perfect enlightenment, all of us have traces, at the very least, of dis-ease still to work through. Hakuin himself, after his first enlightenment experience, and then a second and third, still remained dissatisfied. After each period of savoring the experience, he came back to earth—back to the realization that, as Zen master Dogen put it, “There is no beginning to practice or end to enlightenment; no beginning to enlightenment or end to practice.”

A monk once asked the great T’ang master Guishan [Jap., Isan], “After one has attained instantaneous enlightenment, must he still practice?” Guishan replied: “If one is truly enlightened and has realized the fundamental, he’s no longer tied to the poles of practice and non-practice. But ordinarily, even though the original mind has been awakened by an intervening cause, there still remains the inertia of habit, formed since the beginning of time, which cannot be totally eliminated at a stroke. He must be taught to cut off completely the stream of his habitual ideas and views caused by the still operative karmas.”

This is sobering news for those who harbor the notion that after awakening our job is done. But it’s also true that after awakening the work is different. When you have seen the illusory nature of self, when you’ve seen that it’s just a cluster of dust in the mind, based on old memories and associations and self-images that have accumulated in the course of one’s life, then it’s a very different project. It’s one without the same oppressive burden of the self—the self that has never even existed.

At a Vipassana Buddhist retreat my wife attended, the leader of the retreat compared this ongoing work of a seasoned meditation practice to leading a pet on a leash. We still have our residual habit forces—vestiges of the Three Poisons of greed, anger, and delusion—but now they’re not dragging us through the mud on our belly. It’s not the same battle. Those residual forces may still tug at us, but we find a way to manage them. What’s important is that we make every effort to uphold the Precepts, to live in harmony with others, so that we don’t cause unnecessary harm. But we have to keep working—until full enlightenment.

Here’s another exchange with Kyosei, where the monk says, “Why don’t you do something to make me enlightened quickly?” (Who couldn’t relate to that wish!) To which Kyosei answered, “If I did that I should deprive you of your own property.” It’s in facing our delusions and patiently working through them that we grow into vessels of the Dharma by which we can serve others. To just pop into some kind of awakening experience without the seasoning, the maturation, of years of sustained exertion, would be of very limited value. The longer we spend in practice before awakening, the more we are refining this container we can call character, so that when we do awaken to our True Nature, we will have the structure that will enable us to really help “all beings without number.”

If there had been some kind of answer that Kyosei could give the monk to truly settle his mind, he might have offered it up. But there is no “answer,” as such. We grow into understanding, purifying ourselves all along the way.

Back to the case. The monk asked, “What do you mean by ‘almost but not quite deluded’?” Yuan Wu comments on this line in a tongue-in-cheek way: “He presses this old fellow and crushes the man. His first arrow was still light, the second arrow was deep.” The first monk’s first arrow was, “What about you, teacher?” and his second is when the monk presses Kyosei, “What do you mean by ‘almost but not quite deluded’?” He’s pinning him to the wall. Another teacher, one like Rinzai or Tokusan, those fierce T’ang Dynasty masters who were known for their roughness, might have just struck the monk at that point. But Kyosei must’ve felt that for this monk, at this time, a little something in words would be more helpful, so he said, “Though it is fairly easy to express what one realizes through awakening, to transcend is difficult.”

After awakening it is easy enough to express one’s understanding because the essential point is uncomplicated. In words, “Just this!” covers it. So does “Not two,” and “From the very beginning there has never been a single thing.” Ditto “Only Mu!” Without words it’s even simpler—just eating, washing, driving, responding in all situations, without the mind somewhere else. Likewise, in the koan collections we have Gutei presenting his understanding by simply raising a finger, Kempo drawing a straight line in the air, another master stretching out his arms, and another simply turning his back on the questioner. And Vimilakirti just sat in silence.

But then, what does Kyosei mean by “transcending”? And what is so difficult about it?

Anyone who’s been at this business long enough has learned how deep in each of us the layers of karmic obstruction run. This is our karmic wiring, the well-worn path of activity and reactivity—habit energy. And “habit” encompasses vastly more than the troublesome patterns that we know so well, like smoking, recreational drug use, internet compulsions, and overeating. The truly glacial habit forces we have to contend with are the many forms of greed, ill will, and delusion that underlie these self-sabotaging habits that give rise to them.

And then there are our stubborn patterns of reactivity we’re not aware of. Sustained zazen will expose more and more of these over time, and in that sense the effects of Zen practice reflect Freud’s understanding of the goal of psychoanalysis: “to make the unconscious conscious.” But to take self-awareness even further, look to others for feedback—your immediate family, co-workers, your teacher, the Sangha. Best of all may be your spouse!

As if the task of transcending our individual reactive tendencies were not daunting enough, we have our collective karma to contend with. For us as Americans, that starts with racism, our country’s Achilles heel, and with gun violence, another national affliction. But the medicine for these scourges is the same as for our individual afflictions—zazen. There are social and political remedies available to us—the leaves and branches of renewed life. But the root cure is to see into the mind and its projections.

To better understand what Kyosei says is so difficult to transcend, we can look to the second of the four bodhisattva vows: “Blind passions” are endless, and originate with the deepest of all—the craving to be, and to become. And this itself arises out of fundamental ignorance—ignorance of the true nature of all things.

To the degree that we cling to the illusion of self-and-other we remain bound to suffering. That most basic, illusory split engenders fear, anxiety, and all the other emotional vexations: existential insecurity, envy, conceit, resentment…. Kyosei recognized, through his own personal struggles, the difficulty of reaching true realization—what Japanese Soto Zen master Menzan referred to as “melting the frozen block of emotion–thought.”

But as a man of attainment, Kyosei also would have known that that “frozen block” itself is without any enduring substance to it, that all beings are originally enlightened. Or as Zen master Hakuin declared:

From the very beginning all beings are Buddha.

Like water and ice, without water no ice,

Outside us no Buddhas. / / /


Roshi Bodhin KjolhedeKoan commentary by Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede

On day six of the September-October 2013 seven-day sesshin