© 1969 Far West Editions
THE ZEN KOAN
BY ISSHU MIURA AND RUTH FULLER SASAKI
Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
One dreams of finding the rare Master who is able at any moment to penetrate the condition of his pupil, and, by a unique action appropriate to that momentary relationship, to free him of all the illusions and habits to which he is clinging and which prevent his development. One wishes for such precise understanding and effective action for oneself as the pupil. One wishes—then if I have had some contact with a master already, I watch and recognize that such a wish comes mainly from self-love, the wish to be understood as I am,—a diamond in the rough, or the wish to be liberated from what I at the moment dislike. I then see that this wish comes from “me,” object of the action; that is, one of the characteristics of this wish is the passive attitude, the leaning or dependence upon the teacher, as though he would voluntarily save me, lift me, without awaiting a participating effort from me.
What participation by the student would be necessary? His attitude toward this question must be his concern, as it is the concern of the teaching and of the teacher. The continuity of the teaching, as the teacher is more aware, requires a certain conformance and also a certain effort by the student. Without these, with only the teacher’s attempts to reach beyond his present being, the form of the teaching becomes empty.
To the degree the continuation of a teaching can be seen giving rise to repeated forms, it may be said also to depend upon these forms, which become part of the tradition. Looking in this way, one sees how the tradition may lose its significance unless those forms are large enough, flexible enough, to allow the essential content to exist and prevail throughout the generations. The design of such a sympathetic form requires the highest wisdom and an immense expenditure of energy and time. Once the form exists, the wisdom, energy and time required for its formation are then, at least partially, freed for the continual rediscovery of effective content.
Although the ultimate aim of any teaching would be the same, rediscovery of content is the ever recurring exigency of a teaching if it would remain alive. This is so because the congregation and the times are ever changing. The teaching needs continually to look outward upon contemporary life to see what is there, what may be coining in, and to determine how the pathways to the teaching need to be altered or relocated.
Not every occidental student of Zen literature, and certainly not every American reader, is properly prepared to accept the need for tradition at all. Within the bits of hearsay about
Zen he senses a newness, a possible relief from what he has heard about
ecclesiastical argument and monastic
tradition, and the freshness attracts him. He
begins to read the Haiku poems and Zen Koans, tries to imitate and “use “ them,
and those attempts degenerate into a
parlor game. Soon, however, as the subject is
unfolded in this simple and truly scholarly book,
he will sense that, to become effective, the use
of the Koan requires the discipline of a teaching and a tradition, within which his efforts could bear fruit. Speaking from within such a tradition and discipline, for the American author is an abbess of the
The book makes no ordinary demands: it allows the reader to seek his own relationship with it. Ile feels as though he had been admitted into a guest room of the temple, knowing that the abbess and her master arc beyond the stone wall, but not knowing how to call to her, nor even if one should. Shaken by the strangeness, feeling her graciousness only remotely, he begins to sense a welcome on seeing that she has, so to speak, left on the table the rules of the house, as well as some good reading, a collection of Koans, and some illustrations.
She says, or implies, that the would-be student must seek and gain admittance into a Zen Monastery; there to live a life in accordance with the “Four Vows “; attempting constantly to reach “kensho, “ or his direct experience of the reality of himself; and later finding “satori, “ or enlightenment. She invites the reader seriously to ponder the rigor and length of this discipline, pointing out, for example, that satori is not an absolute state that one suddenly achieves and subsequently maintains forever, but that it is found in various degrees beginning at first with illusory or false states which only the teacher can detect and appraise; and that even the true experience has at first only momentary duration.
For the many readers who will not enter a Zen Monastery, what is the use of such a book as Mrs. Fuller Sasaki has written? Apparent even on reading the many Koans included in one section of the book, is both the progressive rigor of the discipline and the fact that each Koan can be taken on several levels of meaning. Next to the literal level, a metaphorical one could be found. One Koan is: “The instant you speak about a thing you miss the mark.” On almost the same page, another says, “How many times for your sake have I not gone down into the blue dragon’s cave!” On putting the book down, it has become understandable how such Koans may arouse within the pupil the unspoken wish for being. One is even left with an unshakeable conviction that there is help to be found in this ancient traditional form whose content allows the conscious evolution of a man, just as the air and water of our aging earth contain the incipience of new life.