At the beginning you have to take up a koan.
The koan is some deep saying of a patriarch. Its effect in this world of distinctions is to make a man’s gaze straight, and to give him strength as he stands on the brink of the river bank.
For the past two or three years, I have been giving, in my interviews, three koans: “The true face before father and mother were born,” “The heart, the buddha,” and “No heart, no buddha.” For one facing the turbulence of life-and-death, these koans clear away the sandy soil of worldly concerns and open up the golden treasure which was there from the beginning, the ageless root of all things.
However, if after grappling with a koan for three or five years, there is still no satori, then the koan should be dropped; otherwise it may become an invisible chain round one. Even these traditional methods can become a medicine which poisons.
In general, meditation has to be done with urgency, but if, after three or five years the urgency is still maintained forcibly, the tension becomes a wrong one and it is a serious condition. Many lose heart and give up as a result.
An ancient has said, “Sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, sometimes hot on the trail and sometimes resting at a distance.”
So this mountain priest now makes people at this stage throw down their koan. When it is dropped and there is a cooling down, in due time they hit on what their own true nature is, as the solution of the koan.
In concentration on a koan, there is a time of rousing the spirit of inquiry, there is a time of breaking the clinging attachments, there is a time of furious dashing forward, and there is a time of damping the fuel and stopping the boiling.
Since coming to Japan, this mountain priest has been making the pupils look into a koan, but when they have done this for a good time, he tells them to throw it down. The point is that many people come to success if they first have the experience of wrestling with a koan and later reduce the effort; but few come to success at the time when they are putting out exceptional effort.
So the instruction is that those who have not yet looked into a koan absolutely must do so, but those who have had one for a good time must throw it down. At the time of zazen they throw it all away. They sleep when it is time to sleep, go when it is time to go, sit when it is time to sit, and so on, as if they were not doing zen at all.
Maneesha, before I discuss what Bukko is saying, I have to introduce you to the word koan.
It is something like a puzzle that cannot be solved – basically insoluble. For example, how you looked before you were born – there is no way to solve the problem, there is nowhere to find the answer. Or the koan – the most famous one – the sound of one hand clapping. Now, one hand cannot clap; for clapping the other hand will be needed.
So first you have to understand the meaning of koan. It is some kind of statement which has no answer anywhere, and the master gives it to the disciple to meditate on and find the answer. From the very beginning the disciple knows, and the master knows, there is no possible way to find the answer. But it is a great strategy: when the mind cannot find the answer – and the meditation has to be very urgent, with total energy focused on the koan – the mind feels almost impotent. It looks here and there, brings out this answer, that answer, and gets hits from the master for bringing a wrong answer.
Every answer is wrong, because the very function of the koan is not to get the answer; the very function of the koan is to tire your mind to such a point that it gives up. If there were an answer, the mind would find it. It does not matter whether you are very intelligent, or not very intelligent – no intelligence of any category can find the answer.
But naturally, mind tries and tries. And the disciple comes every morning to see the master, to tell him what he has found in the twenty-four hours. In the beginning, the disciples think perhaps they may be able to make it out….
A disciple was given the koan of one hand clapping. He heard the sound of the wind passing through the pine trees, and he thought, “Perhaps this is the sound of one hand clapping.” He rushed to give the answer to the master, but before he could even open his mouth he was beaten.
He said, “This is too much! I have not said anything.”
The master said, “It does not matter whether you have said anything or not – you were going to say something.”
The student said, “But at least you should have heard it first…”
The master said, “It does not matter, whatever you say is going to be wrong. Just go and meditate!”
When disciples become accustomed, they don’t rush to the master with answers. They know there is no answer. Knowing that there is no answer, mind gives up. And the whole strategy is very subtle, to put the mind aside; tired, exhausted, it has no desire to function anymore.