Find out why gong-ans or koans are highly spiritual in Zen cultivation although they appear illogical

Kwan Yin Bodhisattva

Kwan Yin Bodh Satt — the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion

Why do many people find it hard to understand Zen although it is actually simple and direct; what are the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, and how may we cultivate spiritually irrespective of race, culture and religion?

Different Meanings of Zen

Zen is an area where many people interested in it face much puzzlement and a lot of mis-understanding. This is quite ironical because Zen is actually simple, direct and effective.

We can avoid a lot of mis-understanding if we are aware that the term "Zen" has the following four related meanings:

  1. meditation.
  2. a glimpse of cosmic reality.
  3. cosmic reality.
  4. Zen Buddhism.

Hence, almost any questions or statements on Zen, such as "Who founded Zen?", "What benefits can I get from Zen?", "We practise Zen" and "Zen is non-religious", become relevant only if we are clear of the meaning we use for our point of reference.

For example, if we take Zen to mean any of the first three meanings above, then there is no founder. But if we take Zen to mean Zen Buddhism, many informed westerners would refer to Bodhidharma as the founder. Zen Buddhists, however, would call Bodhidharma the First Patriarch instead of the founder, because, as if to make matter even more complicated for the less informed, Zen Buddhism was already present before Bodhidharma, or even before Guatama Buddha, rediscovered it for us in our era in our world system.

Zen is Not a Play of Words

While such subtleties reflect the profundity of Zen, you need not worry about them (at least not for the time being) and still derive tremendous benefits from Zen. In this webpage, we shall leave aside these subtleties and focus on clearing the confusion over Zen Buddhism, but bearing in mind that there is also a lot of non-Buddhist Zen.

To have an understanding of Zen Buddhism, first of all we should have some understanding of Buddhism. We shall start our interesting journey by examining this true statement: Buddhism is a religion, and Buddhism is not a religion. The paradox lies in what we mean by the term "religion". If we refer to religion as a general system of beliefs, then Buddhism, like Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, Islam or even capitalism and communism as some people may insist, is a religion. If we refer to religion as a body of rituals and dogmas, then Buddhism is not a religion.

Even if we take Buddhism as a religion, the concept of religion here is not the same as what many westerners would normally take it to be. For instance, from the Buddhist perspective, a pious Christian or Muslim, a staunch capitalist or communist can also be a devoted Buddhist.

All these sound very Zen-like. Some people — mistakenly — think that Zen is a play of words. It is the reverse, although Zen masters frequently do not clamour for words. When words are used, Zen masters always employ them as accurately and precisely as possible. If a student asks a Zen master where the Buddha is, the master means exactly and seriously what he says when he answers, "three pounds of flex". We shall have some fun in another webpage with such "gong-ans" ("koans") or seemingly illogical Zen stories, but here let us look at some examples which can clear the puzzlement from these seemingly complex situations.

When your friend asks you whether the apple you are eating is sweet, you are perfectly right if you answer "yes", or "no", or "either yes or no", or "neither yes nor no". The crucial point, of course, is what you and your friend mean by the word "sweet". Similarly, scientists are serious when they say an electron is a particle, is not a particle, is either a particle or a wave, is both a particle and a wave.

You may have a better idea of this actually simple situation, although it may appear complicated, if you are holding an apple that is green in colour but also has patches of yellow, and your friend asks you what colour is the apple. You can correctly say it is green, is not green, is either green or yellow, is both green and yellow. Similarly, to say that if one is a Christian he can also be a Buddhist, is like saying if one practises karate he can also practise kungfu, or if one enjoys playing football be can also enjoy playing the piano.

Fundamental Teachings of Buddhism

How does one become a Buddhist? Not by force, fear or favour, but by choice. And there is no need for any initiation ceremony or ritual. Many people are actually Buddhist without their conscious knowing. A Buddhist is a follower of the Buddha, which means the enlightened one. While in our era and in our world, the term "the Buddha" often refers to Guatama Buddha, he is not the only Buddha. There are literally countless Buddhas, or enlightened ones, in countless worlds in our universe.

It seems that today only rigid scientists believe our earth is the only world to have intelligent life. Most easterners and many westerners, as well as some far-sighted scientists believe that life exists in other worlds. Buddhists go one step further; not only there is life in the countless worlds in the universe, there are also countless Buddhas — and they may not necessarily be in the same form as we earthlings appear to ourselves.

Even in our world, there are many Buddhas, and in Zen philosophy everyone is a Buddha, except that most of us have not actualized the innate Buddhahood in us. In western terms this concept can be expressed as everyone is an integral part of God, but most have not returned to Him.

The next logical question is: What is the aim of Buddhism? The answer is to develop spiritually. It is worthwhile to realize that Buddhists never claim that Buddhism is the only way to spiritual development. In fact, a Buddhist will tell you that if you have found a satisfactory way of spiritual cultivation, carry on with you own way.

How does a Buddhist cultivate spiritually? In the Buddha's own words, this can be achieved by:

  1. Avoiding all evil.
  2. Doing good.
  3. Purifying the mind.

Different people may have different ways of avoiding evil and doing good. The Buddha prescribes five fundamental precepts for his followers to avoid evil:

  1. Do not kill.
  2. Do not steal.
  3. Do not tell lies.
  4. Do not indulge in illegitimate sex.
  5. Do not be intoxicated (as it dulls the mind).

To do good, the Buddha prescribes six fundamental "paramitas" or perfection:

  1. Charity.
  2. Discipline.
  3. Tolerance.
  4. Effort.
  5. Meditation.
  6. Wisdom.

In a nutshell, to do good can be achieved by being charitable, disciplined and tolerant — which concern much with doing good to others; and by resolving to put in persistent effort in meditation to attain cosmic wisdom — which concern much with doing good to yourself.

There are different ways to purify the mind, such as through sanctified rituals, devoted worship, chanting sutras (or scriptures) and singing praises to God. But the most fundamental method is meditation. In a wide sense, all the other methods are also different forms of meditation, as they are means to deepen the mind to different levels of consciousness.

What results can we expect from spiritual cultivation?

There are countless results but they may be generalized into three categorical levels according to the developmental stages of the aspirants:

  1. Achieving a happy, meaningful life in this world.
  2. Attaining "eternal" bliss in heaven.
  3. Actualizing transcendental cosmic reality.

Transcendental cosmic reality is called by different names by different people, such as God, Allah, Brahman, Tao and Tathagata. In Buddhist terms, actualizing transcendental cosmic reality is called enlightenment or nirvana.

As the needs and abilities of people are vastly different, not only the approaches and methods of spiritual cultivation need to be different, the effects and goals are also not the same. For someone who has little knowledge of metaphysics, or who believes that life ends when the brain dies, attaining a happy, meaningful life in this world is a remarkable spiritual fulfilment. Theravada Buddhism, mistakenly regarded by some people as a philosophy of life rather than a religion, fulfills this need very well.

The great majority of people hope to go to heaven after this earthly life. The Amitaba School and the Meitriya School of Buddhism cater specially for such a need, providing very practical methods for their followers to accomplish their spiritual goals.

The highest spiritual goal is to go even beyond heaven. In Buddhist terms, this is beyond life and death, beyond the three realms of existence. When Saint Teresa said that "it is wholly impossible for her to doubt that she has been in God, and God in her", and when the Muslim saint, Mansur al-Hallaj, exclaimed that "I am He whom I love and He whom I love is I" they are saying the same things in different words. In a similar ecstatic situation, a Zen master would say "I have seen my original face" or "I realize why Bodhidharma came east".

Actualizing Transcendental Cosmic Reality

The road to actualizing transcendental cosmic reality is long and arduous for most people, usually taking numerous life-times. But for those who are ready, Zen Buddhism aims to attain this highest spiritual goal now and here. If you have read this far, you would appreciate that Zen is not just repairing motor cycles or learning to be an archer, not just giving cryptic answers or chopping Buddha statues for firewood.

How do Zen Buddhists actualize transcendental cosmic reality, and what is the philosophical explanation behind their vision and action? Very briefly, the explanation is as follows. Ultimate reality is undifferentiated. In Zen terms it is expressed as "we are originally Buddhas". A Christian or a Muslim would express the same concept as "God is omnipresent." In scientific terms, we may say that if we look at the phenomenal world through a super-super gigantic electron microscope (yet to be built), we would not see stars and houses, people and fruitflies; we would only see sub-atomic particles. If we could see through an even more powerful microscope, the particles are not particles; they are just concentration of energy with no clear-cut boundaries.

Then why do we see stars and houses, people and fruitflies instead of boundless energy? In other words, why are we ordinary persons and not Buddhas? This is because we are limited by our senses. We interpret the mass of sub-atomic particles or boundless energy as houses and fruitflies. A bacterium might interpret the same mass of particles or energy as its own universe. In Buddhist terms, the phenomenal world we see is both relative and illusory; it is not ultimate reality. The illusion — such as houses and fruitflies to us — is a creation of our mind. The illusion is relative to our conditions. Another being, such as a bacterium or a god would interpret the illusion according to his own set of conditions.

Hence, since it is our senses, collectively referred to as the mind, that cause us to experience ultimate reality as the phenomenal world, we can experience ultimate reality again if we can go beyond our senses. In Zen terms, this is pointing directly at the mind. When we can successfully point at the mind, we will realize that our own body is also an illusion, and that we are actually the transcendental boundless energy. In Christian or Muslim terms, the soul is liberated and ultimately be united with God. A yogi would say that his atman is now in union with Brahman, while a Taoist would call this attaining the Tao. Buddhists describe this highest spiritual fulfilment as nirvana or enlightenment.

How do Zen Buddhists point directly at the mind? There are numerous methods, which are now streamlined into two major systems known as Cao Dong or Soto Zen, and Lin Ji or Rinzai Zen. Soto Zen emphasizes meditation to point at the mind, whereas Rinzai Zen makes extensive use of gong-ans (koans) which are seemingly illogical stories. One must note that the division here, as elsewhere in Buddhism, is arbitrary: Soto Zen also uses gong-ans, and meditation is utmost important in all schools of Buddhism, including Rinzai Zen.

If you want to practise meditation or gong-ans, you have to seek a master. No matter how keen your ambition or fancy may be, you cannot get good result by just practising from books or videos. And if you think you can be enlightened over a summer vacation in an exotic land, it is evident you are still unclear what spiritual cultivation is. Remember that people who have dedicated their lives to spiritual cultivation spend years meditating or solving gong-ans in temples specially built for that purpose.

Zen in Everyday Life

Zen, therefore, is a serious matter, although there is also a lot of humour and fun in it. Zen is seeking for spiritual fulfilment, although we can also use it rewardingly for our mundane needs. In other words, even if you are not ready for serious, dedicated spiritual cultivation in a temple or some appropriate places, you still can get a lot of benefits from Zen in your everyday life.

Amongst the many mundane benefits, Zen makes us alive for the very moment. If you are fully aware of what you are doing when you perform a kungfu set or a chi kung exercise, if you can fully appreciate the beauty of nature or your daily chores when you hold a flower or sweep the floor, you are practising Zen. Hence, when a student complained to his teacher that he had not received any Zen teaching since entering his temple many months ago, the master said, "Go and eat your porridge." "I've done that, sir." "Go and wash the dishes!" the master commanded.

Another noteworthy benefit from Zen is doing rather than merely talking or even learning. In the example above, instead of delivering a lecture on Zen, or asking the student to read some Zen books, the master asked the student to eat his porridge and wash dishes, which are practical ways to practise Zen. When Hui Ke pleaded with Bodhidharma to calm his mind, the master did not philosophize on what mind was; he told his pupil in a simple, direct and effective manner to bring out his mind and he would calm it. At that instant Hui Ke, who was ripe after many years of practical cultivation, was enlightened.

Hence, if you want to be proficient in kungfu or chi kung, you practise it, instead of just talking about what kungfu or chi kung is. Similarly if you want a project to be implemented, you do it — in a simple, direct and effective manner, instead of setting up committees to discuss about it over and over again, but with no practical work done.

In characteristic Zen manner, if a student asks his teacher a question, instead of intellectualizing on the answer, the master may do what uninformed people would consider a crazy response, such as hitting the student, shouting at him or asking him to wash his face. The master is in fact teaching Zen in a most practical way, exemplifying the Zen tenet of doing, not just talking.


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