The kong-an (Ch., kung-an; Jp., koan) is a unique and distinctive feature of the Zen tradition that sets it immediately apart not only from other Buddhist meditation practices, but also from all other spiritual traditions.
A kong-an is a seemingly illogical question posed by a Zen teacher to awaken a student. During the golden age of Zen creativity
in the Tang dynasty in China (618-907), teachers and students lived in close proximity and spontaneously confronted each other in everyday life situations. One famous kong-an involved a student approaching Zen Master Dong Sahn while he was weighing flax and asking, "What is Buddha?" Dong Sahn replied, "Three pounds of flax." The clarity and directness of the reply— quality of pointing directly to mind— it valuable as a teaching tool even beyond that immediate situation. It was remembered, recorded, and used over and over again.
For the practitioners of that era, it was like living on the razor's edge— one could not afford to be slothful. In those days every person
could be both teacher and student at the same time. Every exchange, no matter how innocuous, was a potential minefield and a test of one's attainment of the enlightened mind. There were numerous instances when the exchange between teacher and student helped the student reach enlightenment.
Such exchanges were avidly recounted all over China and became part of Zen folklore. It was not until the Sung dynasty (960-1280) that the exchanges were formally recorded and organized into collections, then commented on and used as teaching tools by generations of Zen teachers. The two most important collections of kong-ans are still in use by Zen teachers today. The Blue Cliff Record (Ch., Pi-yen-lu; Jp., Hekigan-Roku) was compiled in 1125 and was similar to the Models of the Elders gathered by the monk Hsueu-tou (988-1052). A century later the Gateless Gate (Ch., Wu-men-kuan; Jp., Mumonkan) appeared, collected by the monk Hui-kai (1184-1260).
Today, the body of traditional kong-ans numbers 1,750. From these, Zen Master Seung Sahn selected ten which he calls the Ten Gates and through which he requires his students to pass. The Ten Gates represent the various styles of kong-ans to be found among the 1,750. Zen Master Seung Sahn explains:
Many kong-ans are quite similar. From among all the kongans I have chosen ten which are representative of all the different types and show a distinctive style. So the Ten Gates are like a map to all the traditional 1,750 kong-ans.
For example, there are four kinds of "like-this" kong-ans:
There are also "opposites questions" kong-ans that address issues like good and bad. There are kong-ans that teach "moment to moment keep correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function." Then there are kongans where seemingly you can't do anything, but one clear action is required. And then there are kong-ans where you "just do it." There are kong-ans called "last-word" kong-ans, such as Duk Sahn carrying his bowls. The Nam Cheon cat kong-an teaches "moment-to-moment great love, great compassion and the great bodhisattva way." This is a "love" kong-an that points to attaining unconditional love. The mouse kong-an is a "subject-like-this" kong-an, very simple, very easy.
- "Without like this" kong-ans: true emptiness, silence, complete stillness.
- "Become-one like this" kong-ans: KATZ, hit, etc.
- "Only like this" kong-ans: the meaning is truth— "When spring comes, the grass grows by itself."
- "Just like this" kong-ans: just doing is truth— go drink tea, wash your bowls, etc.
Each of the ten chapters in this book, corresponding to the ten types of kong-ans, begins with a statement of the kong-an followed by Zen Master Seung Sahn's questions and commmentaries. Over the years he added two more gates, the eleventh and twelve, to help deepen his students' wisdom.
Zen Master Seung Sahn used kong-ans to teach students correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function in their daily life. Here the kong-an is not so much a "test" as a technique to reveal how to live with wisdom and compassion. He called this his "Zen revolution," using the kong-an to teach us how to function in our everyday lives. As he says, "Do not think that the kongan is separate from your life." It is not a rarefied or dry intellectual game played out in the interview room. Rather,
[y]our kong-an practice and your daily life must connect. This is very important. Moment-to-moment correct situation,
correct relationship, and correct function give rise to great love, great compassion, and the great bodhisattva way. So we use kong-an practice to make our everyday life correct.Then there is no difference between what we understand during interview time and the way we act in everyday life. Getting enlightenment is not special. Take away "opposites" thinking, become the absolute, and then there is no understanding, only wisdom! At that point, action and understanding have already become one.
Zen Master Seung Sahn was always a traveling Zen master. As a result, it was not always possible for his students to have personal meetings with him. He always encouraged them to write him about their problems and questions regarding practice. These letters grew into a voluminous correspondence, selections from which were then collected into "kong-an books." In residential Zen centers, a letter to Zen Master Seung Sahn and his reply are read as part of formal morning and evening Zen practice. These lively exchanges full of wit, pathos, cleverness, and arrogance— in short, the whole range of human experience— have served as the raw material for this book.
Kong-ans originate in the "before-thinking" mind, what Zen Master Seung Sahn called "don't-know mind." A clear response to a kong-an can only come from the same source, hence the reputed difficulty and the simplicity of kong-an training. If you are not thinking, the kong-an is no problem. But how can we reconnect to our before-thinking or don't-know mind? That is the point of Zen— finding our original self and allowing it to function to help our world. A good answer or a bad answer to the kong-an doesn’t matter; an answer appears, an answer doesn't appear, it doesn't matter. What is important is keeping a don't-know mind moment to moment in your everyday life. Kong-an practice is a very powerful tool in this endeavor. The only way to attain it is to practice it; thinking won't help you.
However, if all this true, of what use is a book like this? Its genesis lies in what Zen Master Seung Sahn calls his students' "understanding sickness." We human beings suffer from our desire to rationalize and reduce our experience to something that will fit comfortably into our private world views. While it is the function of kong-ans to shatter our opinions, it is also necessary to treat understanding sickness with "understanding medicine." In a country such as Korea, which has an established Zen tradition, students are not accustomed to seeking, nor do they receive, elaborate explanations about kong-an practice. Students may encounter a Zen master, receive a kong-an, and practice it for years while having little or no contact with the teacher. After a lot of hard training, they again visit the master to test their minds. Here in the West, with our newly emerging Zen tradition, students have many questions, as well as strong opinions about practice. There is a tendency to rely on an outside authority in the form of a teacher, coupled with a real lack of information about kong-an practice—both what it is and how it is used. Hence this book.
As a teaching tool, kong-ans are an effective way for Zen teachers to check their students' attainment. The word kong-an, or "public case," refers to the Chinese custom of authenticating copies of public documents with a seal:
If you have copies of a paper elsewhere, then you can compare the seals to check whether it is a true copy or not. So if someone says, "I have attained enlightenment," then the Zen master uses the kong-an to check whether that is true or not. He uses it to find out whether the student had correct understanding.
In the ongoing dialogue of kong-an practice, the teacher continually offers half of the public case and checks the authenticity of the student's half. In Zen Master Seung Sahn's words, "Your bodies are different, but your minds are the same." This face-to-face meeting in Zen dialogue is sometimes called "Dharma combat." In the following excerpt Zen Master Seung Sahn explains Dharma combat and how he has adapted it to teach kong-ans through letters. The student is checked on two things: clear mind (meditation energy) and wisdom (cognition).
First clear mind is checked:
Korean Dharma combat style is like swordsmen fighting. A very high-class swordsman will, with his first attack, strike and completely kill his opponent. The next class of swordsman must attack and strike two or three times before killing. A Zen master is like a sword master, always checking his student's mind by allowing space for attack. If the student's mind is not clear, then the master will strike and kill his student. But if the student is keen-eyed, he will attack in the space and with one blow strike the master dead.
Q: What is the way of Nansen?
A(holding up a sickle): This sickle cost me thirty cents.
Q: I didn’t ask you about your sickle!
To this second question, the keen-eyed student would answer, "The dog runs after the bone," which means "You are attached to my words." Then the master would say, "Is this correct?" to which the student would respond, "A second offense is not permitted." The master would then say, "Oh, wonderful!" Both attacking and defending are very important. This style of checking the student's meditation energy allows no chance for thinking and is used in face-to-face interviews.
Second, the student's cognition is checked by using such kong-ans as "Nam Cheon Kills a Cat" or "Duk Sahn Carrying His Bowls." The student is given the kong-an repeatedly and is allowed time to respond. Answers show the student's wisdom and whether he or she has attained the correct situation. Thus it is possible to be accurately checked in letters. For example:
- The mouse eats cat food, but the cat bowl is broken. What does this mean? (the Tenth Gate)
- One man makes a sword sound, another takes out a handkerchief, and another man waves his hands. What does this mean? (the Twelfth Gate)
In Korean style, attack and defense in these kong-ans is not necessary. Only one word or action is very important.
The basic requirement for undertaking kong-an practice is an attitude Zen Master Seung Sahn calls "try-mind," something a teacher can point out but not create in a student. It is the mind that refuses to quit, that comes back to try again even after mistakes, obstacles, and discouragement appear. Only through such trying can students come to believe in themselves completely. Without that sort of independence, simply understanding kongans is not enough.
You may understand that the sky is blue, but how much do you believe in that? That is important. If I ask you, "Why is the sky blue?" then what? If your mind is clear, then a correct answer can appear. "The sky is blue" must become yours! The understanding of a kong-an must become yours! Then you have wisdom.
There is perhaps an inevitable tendency for students to turn kong-an practice into something special, mysterious, or competitive. Actually, it is nothing special: a tool we can use— or a tool that uses us!— changing us in ways we can't foresee. Most important is not attaching to the kong-an. As Zen Master Seung Sahn says, we must "use kong-ans to take away our opinions. Don't attach to kong-an practice! Don't make it special. OK?"
A special thanks to Stanley Lombardo and Dennis Duremeier who prepared the first edition of this book.