The Koan (Ch. Gongan)
A Nudgeless Nudge through the Gateless Gate

From Huineng (638-713)
to Mazu (709-788)

The two main lines of Chinese Zen Buddhism derive from Ma-tsu and Shih-t’ou. While it is clear that Chinese Zen in no sense began at this time, it is also true that Zen as we know it today first took a clearly defined form during the third generation after Hui-neng. ... In contrast to the passive style of meditation practices in the Northern school, Ma-tsu promoted the dynamic Zen of the Sixth Patriarch; his teacher, Nan-yueh Huai-jang, had convinced him of the futility of simply sitting in meditation. The chronicle reports:
[Ma-tsu] was residing in the monastery of Dembo-in where he sat constantly in meditation. The master, aware that he was a vessel of the Dharma, went to him and asked, “Virtuous one, for what purpose are you sitting in meditation?”
       Tao-i answered: “I wish to become a Buddha.”
       Thereupon the master picked up a tile and started rubbing it on a stone in front of the hermitage.
       Tao-i asked: “What is the Master doing?”
       The master replied: “I am polishing [this tile] to make a mirror.”
       “How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?” exclaimed Tao-i.
       “And how can you make a Buddha by practicing zazen?” countered the master. (Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 1, 161-163)
Ma-tsu is the dominant figure in early Zen. The principal stage of his activity was Chiang-hsi (Kiangsi) Province. Crowds of disciples streamed after him and he often changed location. With him begins the mainstream of Chinese Zen, out of which would arise the powerful Rinzai school. He was the first to make use of shouting (Chin., ho; Jpn., katsu) as a means of fostering enlightenment, a means later made famous by Lin-chi (Jpn., Rinzai). With Ma-tsu paradox is mixed with rudeness. On one occasion, at the conclusion of a paradoxical dialogue, he suddenly grabbed the nose of his disciple Pai-chang and twisted it so violently that the disciple cried out in pain — and attained enlightenment. (Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 1, 163)

Mazu on Buddha Mind
Apart from mind there is no other Buddha. Apart from Buddha there is no other mind. Do not grasp what is good nor reject what is bad. Don’t lean toward either purity or pollution. ... Whatever forms are seen are but the perception of mind. But mind is not independently existent. It is co-dependent with form. ... Comprehending this, one acts in the fashion of one’s time, just wearing clothes, eating food, constantly upholding the practices of a bodhisattva, and passing time according to circumstances. If one practices in this manner is there anything more to be done? (Zen’s Chinese Heritage, 75)
Buddha Mind vs. No Mind
A Pair of Mazu Koans

Taibai asked Baso [Ch. Mazu] in all earnestness, “What is Buddha?” Baso answered, “The very mind is Buddha.”

A monk asked Baso in all earnestness, “What is Buddha?” Baso replied, “No mind, no Buddha.”
Master Baso knew that Taibai was doing solitary sitting in the mountains, so he sent an attendant to examine him. The attendant asked, “What did you realize at Baso’s before you came to the mountain?” Taibai replied, “Once I asked Baso, ‘What is Buddha?’ He answered, ‘The very mind is Buddha.’ The instant I heard those words I suddenly attained a deep realization. After that, I came to the mountain.”
       The attendant said, “Recently Baso’s teaching has changed.”
       “In what way?” asked Taibai.
       “Nowadays Master Baso says, ‘No mind, no Buddha.’”
       Taibai said, “The great master Baso perplexes many Zen students. He may say ‘No mind, no Buddha’ if he wishes to, but for me it will be, ‘The very mind is Buddha’ until the end of the world.”
       The attendant returned and reported this to Baso, who commented, “The plum has ripened.” The literal meaning of Taibai’s name is Big Plum. Thus Baso’s remark certified that Taibai’s realization has ripened sufficiently. (Gateless Gate, 149)
Mountains & Waters
Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters. (Qingyuan Weixin [J. Seigen Ishin])
Mumon’s Commentary
If you can see into what was said here, your study is at an end. (Gateless Gate, 161)

On Mumon’s Commentary
Mumon says, “If you can see into what was said here, your study is at an end.”
(Gateless Gate, 163)
From the Tang to the Song
In the Song, powerful processes of religious change led to the development of what we might call the “mature” Chan school of the later Song dynasty. ... Later in the Song, in what in many ways marks a culmination in the development of mature Chan, the crucial distinction between silent illumination and kanhua [i.e. koan] Chan arose within the Chan school — an event that had a far-reaching impact not only on the Chan but on all of Chinese Buddhism and even on Confucian and Daoist thought, and that also created the framework for subsequent developments within Japanese Zen and Korean Son. ... Silent illumination is associated with a quiet meditation in which the inherent Buddha-nature that all sentient beings possess naturally shines forth, while kanhua Chan is associated with an intense focus on the punch line of a gongan (Jpn. koan) that is meant to lead to a dramatic breakthrough experience of original enlightenment. The split between the two may be the most monumental event in the history of Chan doctrinal development, because for the first time it brought out into the open an internal conundrum that had existed in Chan almost from the beginning: how to go about becoming enlightened when the most fundamental teaching of Chan is that we are already originally enlightened. ... Most Chan masters would seem to have been caught somewhere in the middle, unable to deny that most beings are far from enlightened but also reluctant to discuss practical steps to be taken to bring an end to delusion and usher in enlightenment. ... In Japan, silent illumination inspired the teachings of the famous Japanese Soto Zen founder Dogen Kigen (1200-1253), while kanhua Chan was systematized and codified by Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768) and his disciples, becoming the foundation for the modern Japanese Rinzai Zen school. (How Zen Became Zen, 2-4)

The “Gateless Gate”
Wu-men Kuan (J: Mumonkan)

China’s true age of enlightenment occurred in the Classical period, stretching roughly from 765 to 950 C.E. In this era, contemporary Zen records exist to describe famous Zen events. From about the time of Zen masters Mazu Daoyi and Shitou Xiqian, Zen students in China commonly recorded their teachers’ words and collected them into books called yulu (“records” or “discourses”), many of which have survived. ... Famous Zen teachers of this era were widely recognized and subjected to public and royal adulation. Great Zen masters created public sensations when they traveled from one place to another. Zen now reached all levels of society, as emperors and street peddlers alike became willing students. The unique teaching styles of memorable Zen personalities adorned the culture of Chinese society, as well as the parallel Zen religious culture. Zen possessed a verdant oral, and a developing literary, tradition. ... From around the time of the Fayan Zen school (circa 950), and begining with the Linji school teacher Fenyang Shanzhao (947-1024), Zen stories, known as gongan (in Japanese, koan), were compiled and, in a more formal fashion, posed by Zen teachers to their students in the course of their training. ... [As] stories of the classical masters had come in some sense to exemplify the essence of the tradition, these stories naturally assumed a more formal role in Zen practice and teaching. (Zen’s Chinese Heritage, 3-5)
Gateless is the Great Tao,
There are thousands of ways to it.
If you pass through this barrier,
You may walk freely in the universe.
(Mumonkan, 10)

The Koan “Mu!” (Chinese: Wu)
Case 1

A monk asked Joshu [Ch. Zhaozhou] in all earnestness, “Has a dog Buddha nature or not?”

Joshu said, “Mu!”

Mumon’s Commentary
... concentrate your whole self, with its 360 bones and joints and 84,000 pores, into Mu making your whole body a solid lump of doubt. Day and night, without ceasing, keep digging into it, but don’t take it as “nothingness” or as “being” or “non-being.” It must be like a red-hot iron ball which you have gulped down and which you try to vomit up, but cannot. You must extinguish all delusive thoughts and feelings which you have cherished up to the present. After a certain period of such efforts, Mu will come to fruition, and inside and out will become one naturally. You will then be like a dumb man who has had a dream. You will know yourself and for yourself only.

Then all of a sudden, Mu will break open and astonish the heavens and shake the earth. It will be just as if you had snatched the great sword of General Kan. If you meet a Buddha, you will kill him. If you meet an ancient Zen master, you will kill him. Though you may stand on the brink of life and death, you will enjoy the great freedom. In the six realms and the four modes of birth, you will live in the samadhi of innocent play.


Mumon’s Final Verse
Dog! Buddha nature!
The perfect manifestation, the absolute command;
A little “has” or “has not,”
And body is lost!  Life is lost!

(Gateless Gate, 11-2; cf. Mumonkan, 19-20)

Buddha Mind vs. No Mind?
The master [i.e. Zhaozhou/Joshu] asked Nan-ch’uan (Nansen), “Mind is not Buddha, Wisdom is not the Way. Then is there any mistake or not?” Nan-ch’uan said, “Yes, there is.” The master said, “Please tell me where the mistake is.” Nan-ch’uan said, “Mind is not Buddha, Wisdom is not the Way.” The master left the room. (The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu, 15)




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to this koan on the BodhiBlog!