Sunday, September 15, 2013

Is a 公案 a "trick question?"

Brad Warner, back from a retreat, wrote a blog entry, in which, describing shikantaza (只管打坐 ) he says,

Being in Dogen’s lineage, the folks up at Tassajara practice shikantaza style zazen, just as I was taught by Tim McCarthy and Gudo Nishijima. It’s propless meditation. There’s no goal to the practice. There are no mantras to recite. There are no trick questions to answer. Nobody tells you you’re doing it wrong. Nobody asks you to assess the relative success or failure of your meditation afterward the way they often do in other Buddhist lineages. You just do it and then do something else. But you keep on doing this pointless thing and years later sometimes, if you’re lucky, you notice the point to it. Which is precisely that there is no point to it. And, goofy as that sounds, it makes perfect sense.

Now, maybe it's me, but I detect a teeny tiny bit of boasting here, and a teeny tiny bit of passive-aggresiveness, in not naming the specific other practices to which he is obliquely referring. 

There's actually a lot in Brad's post on which to comment on, and I might have another post on the role of belief in ritual.

But back to the point of this post.  I think it might help to clarify, though I've written before, just what kōanzazen (公案座禅)  is, and how it compares with 只管打坐.

Now first of all, yes, I suppose there is a wrong way to do 公案座禅, and that is to try to give an answer that attempts some discursive approach to the 公案.  But I'd find it hard to believe that this happens a lot in 参禅.  The reason I find it hard to believe is you're in a zendo.  If someone in a Rinzai zendo hasn't figured out that this isn't about finding a narrative but being awake and in the world - showing up - well they probably took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

The "answer" given in the 公案 is an expression of the student's "understanding" ("apprehension," not in the fearful sense may be a better word [On edit: even "understanding" and "apprehension" are pretty inadequate, here because of a presumed subjective/objective relationship between the student and the 公案, but thankfully I put quotes there])  and being in the relation of the Relative and Absolute, that relationship certainly doesn't lend itself  to discourse in a conventional sense. In 参禅 the "point" of feedback from the oshō ( 和尚) is to help the student drop the discursiveness and deepen the answer.   And similar to 只管打坐, there is no technically right or wrong answers per se, because the student will do what the student does. So no, Brad, there's no real trick questions per se in 公案座禅.

So in this sense it's somewhat similar to  独参, except for the fact that there's the 公案 and there's the watō (話頭), which I and others have written about elsewhere (e.g., here.)

I suspect that there may be differences as well, and at least in my case, those differences tend to militate in favor of 公案座禅.  Some Rinzai folks have said one of the issues with 只管打坐 is it may be possible to become complacent in one's practice.  The Soto folks can and do answer that one, and usually the answer is about using dokusan (独参) to spice up practice or something like that.  But I think the difference can be viewed in another aspect as well: it's not about complacency that might be an issue for 只管打坐, but rather I can't see how 只管打坐 trains one necessarily to be responsive,  that is, I don't see how it trains one  to realize moment to moment  this:

事存函蓋合    Phenomena exist; box and lid fit;
理應箭鋒       principle responds; arrow points meet.

I'm sure the Soto folks have an answer for that,  but I'll let them answer that.  I will say that this particular point as caused lots of colorful literature to exist on the Rinzai side, that's for sure.  But I'm not convinced the Soto response is completely adequate here. One of the things my teacher mentioned a while back is the relationship between Rinzai zen and martial arts, and the fact that there was the closest affinity between Rinzai zen compared to other schools.   Although he mentioned this within the context of breath practice,  I have found it goes much deeper than that.   That is to say there's not a great deal of difference between the issues I see in 参禅 versus when I practice 詠春券, and those issues are the issues I need to continue to bring to the totality of my life. 

But that's just me. Your mileage may vary.


Al said...

I haven't seen a lot of commentary about how modern Rinzai (as opposed to other schools) practice with koans in current times? I'm personally most familiar with Seung Sahn's approach, since that is where my own training is, and I know it is a bit different. I'm told that the Harada Yatsutani lineage, which seems to be the most common "koan" school in the US, does something a bit different than the standard Rinzai approach too.

Mumon K said...

Modern Rinzai pretty much deals with kōans the way Suzuki wrote about them; the watō (話頭)- the "before the word mind" (literally "word head") related to the "point" or summary phrase of the kōan.

One difference I know about is that the order of the kōans is not necessarily what Hakuin did.

I really don't know what the Yasutani folks do relative to Rinzai - I don't recall if kōan practice as 話頭 mindfulness was actually covered in Kapleau's book, come to think of it.

Not sure if that's Seung Sahn's approach either.

Al said...

I know that the Harada Yatsutani approach focuses on emptiness, etc. somehow. That was what I gathered from what I've both heard and James Ford's books.

The Seung Sahn approach looks to cut through discursive thinking and have an immediate and unfabricated response, spontaneous and appropriate for the moment, situation, etc. Richard Shrobe's book comes from Seung Sahn's approach (see

Al said...

One of my eventual hopes is to find a teacher who is using traditional Rinzai methods so I can try another koan lineage and see how the approaches compare.