Buddhist Koans: Duality of Language and Its Transcendence

RemPsyc
9 min readJan 27, 2023

April 10, 2014

A monk asked, “By what means is ‘hearing without hearing’ accomplished?” The Master said, “Setting aside not hearing, what do you hear?” (Addiss 2008a, 76)

Chan Buddhism is reputed to have been transmitted “outside scriptures and writings”. As much as the teacher must teach without talking, the student must learn without hearing. How is that possible? Although the Chan school of Buddhism adopts this rhetoric, it is the school of Buddhism that has produced the most literature in East Asia. One popular tradition in Chan is yulu literature, or recorded sayings, which originally were notes that disciples would take of Chan masters’ teachings. With time, however, these writings were rewritten and considerably modified to fit the image of the Chan ideal that monks wanted to convey. These stories, called koans, take the form of an interaction between a disciple and his master. Even though they are supposed to transcend thoughts and convey a message situated “beyond words,” koans still point at central Buddhist concepts. In this paper, four central concepts are examined to show how koans convey their message: impermanence, non-action, meditation, and liberation.

Concept 1 (Impermanence)

Impermanence is one of the central concepts of Buddhism. It is one of the Three Marks of Existence — the others being unsatisfactoriness and no-self. (The Buddhist Publication Society). The principle of impermanence says that all things change from one thing to another, one day or the other, having thus no essence, no self. Not surprisingly, impermanence appears as the disguised answer of Master Zhaozhou when a student asks him about the nature of the ultimate self. Although he uses words, Zhaozhou use them in a strategic and instrumental way, because he cannot give the answer directly: if he did, the monk would keep this knowledge at the intellectual level.

A monk asked, “What is the substance of the true person?”

The Master said, “Spring, summer, autumn, winter.”

The monk said, “In that case, it is hard for me to understand.”

The master said, “You have asked about the substance of the true person, didn’t you? (81)

The example of seasons is often used to represent the universal nature of impermanence. In this example, “What is the substance of the true person,” the conventional Buddhist answer would be “nothing,” no substance. The idea of no-self is explained by the idea that everything, including the self, changes constantly — that is, the expression of impermanence. How would we answer the question: “What is the substance of the seasons?” Impermanence and change would again seem the most logical answer because the seasons don’t have an essence by themselves — there is no one identifying element we could pin down except the fact that the weather changes. Thus, the question, asked concerning the true person or the seasons, has the same answer in Chan: impermanence. That is why the monk answers in this way: he cannot simply give the answer directly. To get to the truth, one must transcend language, even though it is used as the medium to channel it. As religious scholar Addiss puts it, “[t]hose who seek the truth by means of intellect and learning only get further and further away from it” (2008c, 42).

Concept 2 (Non-action)

A second Chan Buddhist concept is non-action, that is, that one should act not with the mind, but with spontaneity and naturalness. Originally a Daoist concept, later Chan traditions assimilated it and adapted to their own needs. For Chan, there is nothing special to do, because one is already Buddha. One must only actualize one’s Buddha nature through daily, humdrum activities. Thus, students seek to understand what truly is this non-action:

A monk asked, “What is non-action?”

The Master said, “That [asking a question] is action.” (Addiss 2008a, 80)

When a monk asks what non-action is, the master replies that asking the question is action. Asking a question is thus the opposite of non-action, which in turn implies that true non-action is not asking questions. This interaction of duality (action) and non-duality (non-action) is seen in many koans, including the following one:

A monk asked, “What is the perfect question?”

The Master said, “[That’s] Wrong!”

The monk said, “What is ‘not asking’?”

The Master said, “Consider what I just said.” (80)

In this example, the same principle resurfaces: the perfect question refers to what one should know, learn or practice in line with one’s ultimate goal of enlightenment, but the Master answers “Wrong!” What, indeed, is wrong with the question? It is, again, asking the question itself! So the monk wonders, “What is not asking?” How should he be “not asking”, indeed, but the problem remains: he keeps trying to understand with his logical mind. “Consider what I just said”: asking the question is fundamentally the wrong question. The perfect question cannot exist because the perfect question is asked without using words, that is, through non-action. The perfect question is non-action, which is also the perfect answer. Master Zhaozhou’s ability in answering the question furthermore allows him to solve the apparent duality of the question-answer dynamic, as the question and answer become one. Indeed, Zhaozhou still uses words to convey his answer, but they act as an instrument to an end. In this case, the end, or the Chan Buddhist concept, is non-action, but most of these concepts, including non-action, are strongly linked to non-duality, a core concept of Mahayana Buddhism, as we will see later.

Concept 3 (Meditation)

The concepts of non-action and non-duality are better expressed by the Chan understanding of meditation. Indeed, Chan means “sitting meditation” and is known as the “meditation school.” Thus, it is very important for disciples to understand what meditation really means.

A monk asked, “What is meditation?”

The Master said, “It is not meditation.”

The monk said, “Why is it ‘not meditation’?”

The Master said, “It’s alive, it’s alive!” (75)

In this example, the Master tries to say that meditation cannot be explained by words, it can only be lived, by experience. Thus, “meditation” (the word) is not really “meditation” (the practice). Understanding what meditation means can only happen through insight, which is supposed to be experienced as the result of koans. Another insight is provided by the koan on the practice hall:

A monk asked, “What is the practice hall?”

The Master said, “From the practice hall you have come. From the practice hall you will go. Everything [everywhere] is the practice hall. There is no other place. (78)

The master says that the practice hall, where disciples normally do meditation, is everything and everywhere. That means, on the one hand, that one should not only do “meditation” in the practice hall, because in this case it becomes a mind game. The true enlightened mind practices everywhere and all the time. On the other hand, there is also the idea that there is no practice hall at all, and even that there is no meditation. In Chan thought, everything is meditation. One could ask: “What is there to practice then?” What is there to practice is the actualization of selflessness and emptiness. That’s why there is no meditation, because in that case one would be “doing something,” and thus not manifesting selflessness and emptiness. As we can see, each koan can be interpreted on many different levels, and the beauty of the art of koan is precisely that: each time you read it, you can have a new, different understanding. What master Zhaozhou teaches is indeed beyond words.

Concept 4 (Liberation)

Likewise, understanding impermanence, non-action, selflessness and emptiness is necessary to attain liberation. Liberation, understood as the attainment of Buddhahood through the realization of one’s Buddha nature, is generally considered the central goal of Buddhism. However, in Chan Buddhism, liberation is somewhat paradoxical because of its strong entanglement with non-duality. Indeed, liberation can only be attained by transcending liberation. Otherwise, the drive to attain liberation can itself become a source of attachment. In other words, we are talking about a non-dual liberation: true liberation is non-liberation. Hence, disciples often ask questions about liberation, and the following dialogue shows the problem that seeing it in a dualistic perspective may bring.

A monk asked, “Has someone who cannot be taken in by ‘good and bad’ liberated himself or not?”

The Master said, “He has not liberated himself.”

The monk said, “Why has he not liberated himself?”

The master said, “Obviously he exists in good and bad.” (74)

In this case, the monk asks if a person has liberated himself or not if he cannot be taken in by good and bad. On one hand, precisely by saying these words, the monk enters a dualistic logic where true liberation is impossible. Thus, the master answers, “He has not liberated himself.” Why? The answer is because he exists in good and bad. That refers to his existing in good and bad in his mind. Thus, as long as the person perceives good and bad, the person exists in them and cannot be liberated. In this example, good and bad are shown to be relative and subjective: the koan tries to demonstrate that an enlightened being is liberated from dualities, including good and bad.

On the other hand, the first interpretation presents a problem, because it creates yet a new duality: the duality between moral judgment and the absence of moral judgment. “Someone who cannot be taken in by ‘good and bad’” thus exists in the duality of non-duality. This is why that to overcome this ultimate duality, one has to come back to duality: true non-duality is duality. Don’t get tricked, however, on thinking that one simply returns to the initial stage of duality. In fact, one does not get liberated from duality, but gets liberated within duality.

Similarly, when a monk asks about trying to be Buddha, the Master tells him he does it in vain:

A monk asked, “What about it when I seek to be Buddha?”

The Master said, “What a tremendous waste of energy.”

The monk said, “What about it when I’m not wasting any energy?”

The Master said, “In that case, you are Buddha.” (78)

Why is that effort done in vain? Because one must not try to be Buddha, one must be Buddha. If this is not the case, then the disciple is still playing the mind games of duality and cannot be Buddha. By trying to be Buddha, one distances oneself from one’s goal. This is why Linji said “If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha”: one must detach from everything, including one’s desire for liberation (Addiss 2008b, 43). It is only, again, in non-action, non-effort, that one can be Buddha. Only giving up on becoming Buddha can bring one to Buddhahood — one’s already existing Buddha nature, in fact. If effort or intention is used, it is a “tremendous waste of energy,” because it will never bring one to one’s Buddha nature. As Linji’s “killing the Buddha” refers to a teaching beyond words, most koans are designed specifically to get over the intellectual mind. Words are used as a way to provoke insight.

Conclusion

These koans are necessary to reveal the Chan mind (Green xxii). If teachings were transmitted literally, directly, then students would not understand the true meaning of the teachings. It is said that one cannot understand the teachings with the rational mind; they must be understood intuitively, by experience. That’s why Chan masters had to find indirect ways to convey the teachings. Words and phrases are used here as a medium, but, as in the metaphor of the monk looking at the finger instead of the moon at which the finger points, these words and phrases are used as away to transcend words. Ultimately, we have seen that traditional Buddhist concepts such as impermanence, non-action, meditation and liberation are all transmitted in a subtle, indirect way for Chan disciples. If one understands them beyond the shallow, literal meaning, then one can progress on one’s path to becoming Buddha.

References

Addiss, Stephen, trans. “Chao-chou, Recorded Sayings (excerpts).” In Zen Sourcebook, ed. Stephen Addiss et al., 72–84. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008a.

Addiss, Stephen, trans. “Linji Record (excerpts).” In Zen Sourcebook, ed. Stephen Addiss et al., 43–51. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008b.

Addiss, Stephen, trans. “Transmission of Mind (excerpts).” In Zen Sourcebook, ed. Stephen Addiss et al., 34–42. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008c.

Green, James; ed. and tr. The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1998.

The Buddhist Publication Society. “The Three Basic Facts of Existence: I. Impermanence (Anicca)”, with a preface by Nyanaponika Thera. In Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013. Accessed April 10, 2014, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/various/wheel186.html.

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RemPsyc

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power. (Laozi)