1. Origins, Functions, and Modern Receptions of Koans: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives

From: Zen Koans

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A monk asked Zhaozhou, “What is the meaning of the first patriarch Bodhidharma coming from the West?” The master replied, “The cypress tree standing in the courtyard.” Koan Case 37, Gateless Gate (1229) Koans from Past to Present Koans as concise, confusing, and often contradictory sayings expressed by ancient masters serve as the centerpiece of Zen Buddhist learning and training on several levels. First, koans form the central component of a remarkable body of literature contained in voluminous collections produced in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These works include various styles of elegant poetic and eloquent prose commentaries on cryptic dialogues like the one involving master Zhaozhou cited at the beginning of this chapter. The koan compilations were very much influenced by, and also greatly contributed to, one of the high points in the distinguished history of the literary tradition in East Asia. The texts appealed to intellectuals in China and Japan as well as Korea, who sought spiritual fulfillment through interpreting elaborate rhetoric related to mysterious metaphysical exchanges. In addition, koans have long been the main object of attention in Zen meditation. Contemplating koans in Zen Buddhist practice requires reflecting on the significance of an enigmatic conversation to the point of exhausting the capacity of the rational mind and the CHAPTER 1 Origins, Functions, and Modern Receptions of Koans Classic and Contemporary Perspectives 8 zen koans expressiveness of speech to comprehend and explain the meaning. In that way, a realm of transcendence beyond ordinary thought and words is disclosed. From the standpoint of meditation, the value of koans is found not in terms of fluent rhetoric. Rather, it is revealed through a drastically abbreviated and cryptic style of discourse that highlights the value of minimal verbiage or even full silence. There is an underlying link between these seemingly inconsistent approaches to the question of whether the literature should be emphasized and elaborated or, instead, should be abandoned when the use of words detracts and distracts from the path to realization. This important connection is based on the utility of koans as an ideal method for attaining and transmitting an unimpeded experience of enlightenment on multiple levels. Referred to as “cases,” since the term initially derived from the legal precedents of public (ko) records (an) recognized by the Chinese court system, the puzzling exchanges that constitute the core of a koan make use of an innovative style of rhetoric. The Zen dialogue is supposed to seem absurd at first glance because the link between question and answer is deliberately disconnected or indelibly broken. In the case cited at the beginning of this chapter, master Zhaozhou gives an inscrutable response that further baffles an already confused disciple. Through the seemingly incomprehensible interaction, a profound sense of spiritual significance springs forth. The creative construction of koan records contained in masterful collections of commentaries and used in rigorous meditative practice was the key factor that enabled Zen to succeed as a thriving religious institution. Zen spread throughout East Asia, especially from the twelfth through the sixteenth century, and has expanded in modern times through dissemination to America as a distinctive religious as well as a more broadly based cultural phenomenon. In the past century , Zen has become a source of inspiration with far-reaching implications for the contemporary era, greatly influencing intellectual and popular culture on both sides of the Pacific. What provides the bridge between classic developments in the East and their contemporary impact on the West? How did a relatively obscure premodern cultural product launched in faraway mountain landscapes, as refined as this literature was in the original sociohis- Origins, Functions, and Modern Receptions of Koans 9 torical context, come to expand so pervasively and have an effect on modern society throughout the world? The body of koan records has enabled Zen to interface with diverse spiritual traditions in Asia, including other Buddhist as well as Confucian , Daoist, and Shinto forms of practice. This trend continues in America with the expanding role of immigration across the ocean as well as Western travel abroad, especially after World War II, when enthrallment with the Orient as the hub of global cultural and commercial exchange was building. By evoking the depths of existential angst in confronting nihilism and nothingness in a compelling though detached manner, koans have been interpreted through a variety of modern perspectives beyond traditional religious practice, spanning the Kyoto School of philosophy in Japan and Beat literature in the United States. Both movements evoke Zen rhetoric in order to define the...


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