The Many Ways Koans Have Been Used

In “Hakuin Ekaku and the Modern Koan System,” Philip Yampolsky states that “it is difficult to obtain an exact picture of the early role of the koans in Japan. We know that they were used by Shoho Myocho (Daito Kohushi), for a koan collection compiled by him remains … That koans were used throughout the Muromachi and Momoyama periods is demonstrated by the many records of koan interviews that remain. Exactly how they were used or in what number is not certain, but records indicate a system of approximately three hundred koans. Also involved was the custom of requiring the student to add verse comments, drawn mainly from Chinese poetry, indicating his understanding of a particular koan. This custom was maintained, in a modified form, in the Zen taught by Hakuin.”

As for “the exact details of the koan system Hakuin used, these are not clearly known either.” We do know that Hakuin used the “Mu” koan, and later, the “Sound of One Hand,” for the initial awakening, following which many more koans were used for the a post-kensho training. “The program of study was later organized by Hakuin’s disciple Torei and by the latter’s disciples Inzan Ien (1751-1814) and Takuju Kosen (1760-1833) into a formalized system of koan study … The programs of study require a progression through a specified series of koans.”

John Daido Loori tells us that Dogen himself, who had trained in a Rinzai monastery, and even received transmission in that tradition before introducing the shikantaza practice, had collected three hundred cases during his travels in China from 1227 to 1230. These are presented in his “other Shobogenzo” – the “Mana or Sambyakusoku Shobogenzo (The Shobogenzo of Three Hundred Koans), but Dogen used them frequently in his other writings, in particular in his better known Kana Shobogenzo where 55 koans are quoted, and the Eihei Koroku, where 99 koans are quoted. “Clearly, Loori asserts, “we can no longer assert Dogen was flatly opposed to koans.”

Koans had first developed out of the many stories of interactions between teacher and student which were commented on by Zen teachers during the Chinese Tang dynasty (618–907) for the benefit of their students. As Steven Heine emphasises in his book on koans, a koan was then presented in the context of the specific circumstances within which the story had originated. Students were educated and familiar with the background within which the exchange between teacher and student had taken place. They were able to see through specific references to contemporary teachers or ideas often debated in Buddhist circles. Heine then argues that, since we, unfortunately, are usually ignorant of this Chinese Tang dynasty Buddhist culture, for us the context is lost, and all the background knowledge is now beyond our reach. Wasn’t it similarly beyond the reach of a teacher living in 18th century Japan such as Hakuin?

On the other hand, Dogen, who lived in the 13th century and spent four years in Song dynasty China (960-1279) had a good grasp of Chinese Zen culture, at the time, as well as the recent past. Dogen tells us that “he had encountered in China a “formulaic” use of koans where both Soto and Rinzai masters taught their students to simply memorize the answers.” But he also says that he knew of “Dahui’s huatou method (literally, “head-word”) of working with koans.” Dahui (1089-1163) “emphasized seeing into the main point of a koan, but did not delve into its subtler details.” Unlike Hakuin, however, Dahui only used a few koans – one or two – and not a specific series arranged into a progression. To this day, Chan practitioners use short koan-like questions such as as “What is this? or “Who am I”as “huatou,” which they either repeat, or allow to “sit” at the back of their minds during zazen.

Loori writes: “In contrast to these approaches, Dogen’s study and understanding of koans had much more breadth and depth. Using a linguistic style unparalleled in the history of koan literature, Dogen addressed both the key phrases of each case, as well as the secondary – yet equally important – points nestled in the dialogues. He frequently examined koans from the perspective of the Five Ranks of Dongshan (Jp Tozan). And he pointed out the questions that should be addressed in each case, challenging practitioners to examine them deeply. These three characteristics of Dogen’s approach to koan introspection … set Dogen’s writings on koans far apart from the traditional commentaries available in the Zen literature.

Hakuin, of course, dismissed this approach as “koan study” rather than “koan introspection.” Loori writes: “Koan study tends to rely on the intellect. It aims to shed light on the basic Buddhist teachings communicated in the koan in a similar way that a teacher will comment on a case in a teisho or formal discourse, clarifying the koan’s key points. In koan introspection, students sit with the koan in zazen, letting go of trying to solve or understand it. They embody it as a whole body-and-mind experience.” Koan introspection requires a close teacher-student relationship, which allows the teacher to test the student’s insight during the daily interviews (sanzen or dokusan). It is said that a good Rinzai teacher can tell whether the student has broken through the koan the moment (s)he enters the interview room, before (s)he has even started to speak!

Loori writes: “Dokusan demands that one directly and dynamically present one’s own realization. Because of this, it can be said that there is no one answer to a koan. Seeing into a koan requires the embodiment of a certain state of consciousness. It is this direct seeing into a koan that the teacher looks for and tests to determine the clarity of the student’s insight. And it is this direct insight that is at the heart of realization.”

Hakuin came rather late in the millennium-long evolution of koan practice in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism. What he introduced is what he regarded as a genuine koan introspection in contrast to the koan study that was carried out at the level of the intellect. Placing koan practice within the context of the Great Doubt leading to the Great Death and, from there to the Great Joy of enlightenment, he saw the Mu koan, as well as his own “Sound of the Single Hand” koan, as the locus wherein ordinary doubt could be developed into the Great Doubt. This led him to give the enlightenment experience (kensho) resulting from the Great Death at the very centre of koan practice. Unless practitioners attain kensho, they won’t be given any other koans. Though the kensho is recognised as merely a first insight, rather than the attainment of a sort of “enlightened state” achieved once and for all, whether one continues to practice or not, it remains the gate to the all-important post-kensho training that will allow us to integrate our new insight within our daily life. A long series of koans, arranged into a progression, is used to help with this process of integration. This, then, is what contemporary Rinzai Zen practitioners owe to Hakuin’s reform of the koan practice. This is what underlies the emphasis on the kensho in Rinzai Zen practice. It also accounts for the intensity of its practices, with practitioners motivated to sit for long hours, even through the night, the use of the keisaku – a flat wooden stick used during periods of meditation to remedy sleepiness or lapses of concentration – and the shouting and badgering Hakuin is said to have used to prod his students to try even harder.

Philip Yampolsky – “Hakuin Ekaku and the Modern Koan System”
John Daido Loori – “Dogen and Koans”
both in Sitting With Koans edited by John Daido Loori
Steven Heine – Zen Koans

Ryūtaku-ji temple – Said to have been founded by Kukai in the Heian period, converted to the Rinzai school in the 17th century and relocated to Mishima by Hakuin Ekaku in 1761