BG 109: Koan Training and the Different Styles of Zen

Episode Description:

Gerry Shishen Wick, Roshi is a dual-lineage holder of both the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen. His teacher Maezumi Roshi passed along both lineages, and so we take this unique opportunity to ask Roshi to compare these two different approaches. He talks about shikantaza (Just Sitting) and also about koan practice–sometimes referred to as logical paradoxes.

He explains that the koan system includes many different kinds of koans, each with different purposes. Some are meant to reveal the oneness of reality, while others are point to the multiplicity within that oneness. He also discusses the difference between “live words” and “dead words,” and why that distinction is so important in the practice of Koan training.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, Embodied Zen.

Episode Links:


Ryan: Hello Buddhist Geeks, we’re back again and as you might have heard we have a new studio and today we’ve had our first guest that’s actually in the studio with us today… so that’s a real treat whenever we actually get to meet with a teacher or practitioner face-to-face and of course here with me is Vince Horn, my buddy.

Vince: Yeah, and our special guest today is Gerry Shishen Wick Roshi. He is the Abbot of the Great Mountain Zen Center in Lafayette Colorado, which is just a few miles down the road from Boulder. And he’s also a faculty member at Naropa, where I took Zen Buddhism with him a few years ago and he teaches that each year. And finally he’s a lineage holder of Maezumi Roshi and the president of the White Plum Sangha which is a group of his lineage holders and you may have heard of a few of them. Genpo Roshi and Bernie Glassman and several others such as Joko Beck. So, yeah, he’s part of an illustrious family of Zen teachers here in the West and we’re really happy to have him with us so thank you Roshi for being here.

Roshi: Yes, it’s my pleasure.

Vince: And first question I had for you is is about your teacher, and about the unique history that he has and that you’ve adopted I guess as a result, and he was an interesting character. I understand in that he was a lineage holder both the Rinzai and the Soto Zen schools and so he ended up creating a bit of a hybrid between the two which sounds kind of unique and I was wondering if you could describe how that works in practice and what you do that’s different than if you’re just a Rinzai teacher. Just a Soto teacher.

Roshi: Actually, Vince, it’s a little more complicated than that because Maezumi Roshi is a lineage holder in three traditions.

Vince: Oh, really?

Roshi: Yes, his Soto lineage comes through his father, Baian Hakujun Kuroda and he trained with him and went through the traditional Soto protocols and training and then while he was a university student he lived at a dojo of Koryu Osaka Roshi who he was a lay Rinzai teacher and he did Koans with him. And it was at the behest of his father, you know, who wanted him to have a little broader…

Vince: Ah, cool.

Roshi: … Zen education. And then Maezumi Roshi came to the United States in the mid-50s but he was part of what they called the Japanese Soto Zen mission, which was the Soto temple and Japanese community center in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. But he was looking for practitioners…people who would sit meditation with him, and the Japanese community was more into ceremonial activities and social activities and eventually he broke away and formed a small zendo with some western students.

And during that time there were some Japanese teachers and most notably Harada-Yasutani Roshi who came to this country. And Yasutani Roshi, when he taught on the west coast, Maezumi Roshi was his translator. And eventually Maezumi Roshi became a student of Yasutani Roshi, and a successor to him. Yasutani Roshi’s teacher, Harada Roshi is the first one to merge the Rinzai and Soto traditions. So Harada Roshi and Yasutani Roshi were Soto priests who studied with Rinzai teachers and developed the Rinzai practices. That’s the history, and so Maezumi Roshi was also a successor in that hybrid tradition and he was a successor in pure Soto and pure Rinzai. So I’ve been asked by some Japanese teachers am I Soto or Rinzai ? And all I can say is that I’m a half-breed. [Laughter] I combine both.

Vince: Yeah.

Roshi: Now what does it mean in practice? Well, when students start there isn’t much difference. I mean they have to learn how to quiet and discipline their minds. That’s the most important thing. We have a phrase which is used in many traditions – monkey mind, where the mind just jumps around after one thought and then another thought, whatever is bright and shiny they go after. And, first thing is to learn how to sit still and quiet the mind so that we don’t keep distracting ourselves and constantly amusing ourselves by doing things that take us away from the present moment.

Then, in the Rinzai tradition there is a curriculum, or we call them upayas, or skillful means…which are called Koans. And Koans are not well understood by those who don’t practice them. In the popular press they sometimes call them logical paradoxes. That’s because the logical mind cannot wrap itself around them. A Koan that you might relate to is “what is your original face before your parents were born”? That’s a Koan. Or, another Koan which has been popular in the press is “what’s the sound of one hand”? And the Koan the way people usually report it is “what is the sound of one hand clapping”? And the clapping is not part of the original Koan but it has been added in order to make it more rational or logical or so people can wrap their heads around it. But the purpose of Koans is to drive the student out of the logical, rational mode in order to penetrate into their intuitive being, and to see these Koans. And they are perfectly logical and rational and you understand the basis of them. And the first basis is to see the essential impermanence or we use the word emptiness of all things and then coming from that place how you can relate to these Koans.

And then there is a whole series of Koans, depending upon which lineage one is in when you finish them usually the teacher will feel that you are prepared to be an independent teacher. In the Soto tradition which is called the school of silent illumination, the main practice is called Shikantaza, which literally means “just sitting”. But if you look at the character “Shikantaza”, Shikan means just, and ta is the emphatic syllable to the word just, and za is sitting. Like in the practice that we do in Zen is called zazen and za is sitting …sitting zen, and zen actually means meditation. So, Shikantaza isn’t just sitting, it’s JUST SITTING! [laughter]

Vince: Neat!

Roshi: Okay, and so that is where you just totally put all of your energy into just being present without focusing on anything in particular. Open to everything. Everything.

Vince: Yeah I had heard or read in Yasutani Roshis, The Three Pillars of Zen, when he talked about Shikantaza it was like this really intense thing where you are like sweating and burning and so that when you said JUST SITTING, that sounded more like the way I had heard it described by him, not like you’re just chilling out and hanging out. It’s interesting.

Roshi: Exactly…Yasutani Roshi told a story about Shikantaza where it’s like walking through a crowded marketplace and you are balancing a jug of water on your head and you don’t want to spill a drop. Now if you are too tight – if you know some kid running by or a dog bumps you, you’re are going to spill it. And if you are too loose and not paying attention you know you are going to spill it as well. So, you have to find that just that right balance, like finely tuning a string on a violin or a guitar. But then that intensity comes about, where, Yasutani Roshi said, walking behind you is a soldier with a drawn sword, and if you spill a drop, he’s going to cut off your head. [Laughter] So, you can’t be too tight, you can’t be too loose, and at the same time you have to be fully attentive.

Vince: Gotcha, and so, you do basically, in your teaching, all of these different kinds of practices?

Roshi: We do and you read in The Three Pillars of Zen, which actually came out first in the mid 1960’s and I read it then. It was one of the first books on Zen practice. There were a lot of books on Zen philosophy. This was edited by Philip Kapleau, who developed the Rochester Zen Center in this country. Yasutani Roshi was his teacher. And in the Three Pillars of Zen, Yasutani Roshi gave a transcription of these talks that he gives. Essentially he talks about how the personality of the student determines what practice is assigned to them. What kind of aspiration they have. I mean If a student has, or is primarily motivated by faith in that practice, then Shikantaza is appropriate practice for them. But if they are motivated by a strong aspiration or determination to be enlightened, then Koans are more appropriate. And if somebody is coming just to relax themselves, to get the health benefits and so forth, then just counting or following the breath would be an appropriate practice. But the reasons that bring people to practice whether it is Zen or any other form of contemplative practice…it doesn’t necessarily have to be Buddhism…the reasons that bring them to practice are not the reasons why they continue to do it. Or, these reasons constantly are changing.

Vince: So it sounds like if the reasons are constantly changing then as a teacher your methods or your suggestions are probably changing as well?

Roshi: Oh, yeah, you always have to be aware of what’s up with a student, where their main focus is, and what they are doing. And these are the Upayas, or the skillful techniques or skillful means that came to us from Japan, and the Japanese Zen tradition. But then there are new Upayas that are being developed in this country. And that is one of the strengths of Buddhism, that no matter what country it moves to, It can adapt itself to the personality and to the other traditions that already exist in that country. For example, Zen Buddhism arose in China about a 1,000 years after the death of the Buddha. And it evolved through a combination of the Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese Daoism with a sprinkling of Confucianism in there as well. So, in this country, and in the west…I’ll say not just necessarily this country, there are new Upayas and what they revolve around is the particular characteristics of the American psyche and the people who are practicing. For example, there are a lot more women practicing in this country and the traditions that came to this country from Japan and from the Southeast Asia or Tibet, and China are very patriarchal, and women have an inferior position and that is not particularly true in this country and it’s changing very quickly. And also, most of the people who practice are lay people. They are not monks, they are not monastics…you know so there have to be Upayas for householders. And then the other thing is that Americans are always interested in their psychological well-being. [chuckles]

So, these kinds of issues were not transmitted. And at our center we have developed meditative practices that deal with negative habit patterns, emotions, and using meditation on how to bring them into the conscious mind and transform them.

Vince: And you mentioned before the interview started, that your teacher had actually encouraged you in some ways to make Zen its own here in the West. And so, it sounds like you have have taken that suggestion to heart.

Roshi: Well, that’s very true. He told all of his successors that he cannot develop American Zen. He’s Japanese, and that it’s up to us. You’ve mentioned some of the successors. Some of the prominent ones are Genpo Roshi, who developed his own style of Big Mind, and Bernie Glassman has developed the Zen Peacemaker Order, and of course Daido Loori is also a dharma brother, and he developed The Zen Mountain Monastery, which is more traditional but he brings the arts in very strongly to it. And of course Joko Beck who has the Ordinary Mind School, which has focused a lot upon emotional aspects of practice.

Vince: Something we will get into a little later is that something that you are developing called The Great Heart Way. It fits in nicely with this series of different approaches that the Maezumi Roshi’s students have taken. So, I wanted to get back into Koans, because this is something that we haven’t really talked much about on the show. It sounds like not all of your students necessarily would be doing Koan practice.

Roshi: That’s right, I mean not all of them do it, but we find that Koans are a very effective way for people to let go of what we call the small clinging self and open up to a much larger awareness of who they are. It’s called Buddha Mind or Big Self or all kinds of names that we have for it and Koans are a very effective way of doing it.

Vince: And one of the things I was surprised to learn when I was in your class and learning about the Zen Koan system is that it actually is a system. That there are these initial Koans and that is what most people are aware of like “what is the sound of one hand”, and things like that or “mu”, and I’m wondering if you could say a little about how that system works, and what are the points of the system? The impression I got is that it wasn’t just to have an initial awakening but that it was to continue to refine one’s understanding and also to learn how to speak Zen, to like communicate the spiritual realization in some way.

Roshi: That’s right. In the tradition that I studied with Maezumi Roshi, there are 700 Koans that we studied together. And, the initial Koan is the most difficult one because that is the one where you have to open up your eye of wisdom and begin to see what we call the mysterious source of all things. It can take years sometimes of serious training to do that. You mentioned “mu” for the benefit of listeners I’d say that mu has been used for over a 1,000 years now. About 1,000 years in the Rinzai Zen tradition as the first Koan and it is the first case in a collection called the Muman Koan, which means the gateless gate or the barrierless barrier. And the Koan goes like this…A monk asked Joshu, the Master Joshu, “does a dog have buddha nature or not”, and Joshu answered “mu”. Now this mu literally means no, but that is not what Joshu is saying. Mu is demonstrating Buddha nature. So, the Koan is to take mu and get in touch and not just get in touch with but actually reveal your inherent buddha nature, your inherent unconditioned self. So, students will sit with that Koan and we direct them in private interviews how to work with it, and students have varying degrees of openings on these first Koans.

My teacher, Maezumi Roshi would comment to me that it was like being in a dark cave, and even the glow from a tip of a stick of incense is enough to see something. Obviously the more you see, the clearer you are. But once a student has had even a small opening they could move forward with other Koans. And the way I think about it, is that we are looking at this reality which is like a big jewel, and when you have your first opening you begin to see the nature of that jewel. And the individual Koans help you look at each facet. And clearly delineate what the facets are but some of the Koans will drive you very much deeper into your opening in your awareness. Each person gets stuck on different Koans. It’s really interesting. Having been teaching Koans now for about 20 years, I can see that certain Koans are hard for almost everybody, but some students breeze through Koans that other students get stuck on for months. So, you never know what a person sees.

Now, what you are alluding to, Vince, from the class, is that there are different kinds of Koans. And the first Koans are called Dharmakaya Koans which means to “become one with”, to become one with something. No separation. No duality. And you have to present it. Let me just tell a little story to talk about a Dharmakaya Koan. And this has to do with a contemporary Zen master who died in the last century. His name was Soen Nakagawa. And Soen Nakagawa is one of those Japanese teachers who came to this country and left a legacy here. And the story that I heard was that he was visited by a biblical scholar and they were having tea. And Soen Roshi asked him, “what were the last words that Christ uttered on the cross”? And the scholar said “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”? And Soan Roshi said, “No, he didn’t say that”. And the scholar was a bit perplexed, because you know he knew the bible. He had read it hundreds of times. He said, “Yes he did, he said my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. “No, he didn’t say that at all”, said Soen. And so the biblical scholar was getting a bit annoyed and finally, he said, “okay, you seem to know. What did he say “? And Soen Roshi jumped up and threw his arms out like in a crucifix, and said, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME”? And Soen Roshi WAS Christ on the cross, whereas the scholar was talking about Christ on the cross, and that is what we mean when we present Koans, it has to come from your experience. There is no separation. You have to be one with whatever it is. And there are Koans about all kinds of things. From listening, from singing, from to going to the bathroom, from cleaning yourself, and you know, and how we just really don’t pay attention to what we are doing.

So, that is one class of Koan. Another class is to see differences within that unity. To see the diversity within the unity. There is a whole series of Koans about that. And then you mentioned, using words. There is a whole series of Koans about how to use words. And what we mean is “live words” as opposed to “dead words.” So, live words are words that come directly from your experience. Dead words are abstractions. So, students have to learn how to express themselves. But live words also have the power to bring other people to awareness.

Vince: Does that connect with the whole idea of transmission in the Zen tradition?

Roshi: Well…

Vince: That’s a complicated question…

Roshi: Well, yeah, I’m thinking about it. I mean a transmission means that when the teacher decides to give transmission to a student he feels that the student has the same understanding and that they see eye to eye…face to face. Okay? So, going through this training is part of developing that intimacy. There is a real intimacy between a teacher and a student. There is essentially no gap between them. And then, there are other kinds of Koans, as well. I mean there is a whole class of Koans, which are called Nanto Koans which means difficult to pass through. And those are Koans that quite often my teacher would be really demanding on and one of the Koans is from a Chinese teacher named Nansen. Nansen said that people these days see reality as if in a dream. So, that’s a Koan. Actually there is another part to it, but that’s the essence of the Koan.

Vince: Wow

Roshi: So, what does it mean? Are we, what we usually view as realities of a dream? And what does it mean to be awake if it’s a dream? And then, beyond that there is another series of Koans. [laughter]

Vince: 700 Hundred!

Roshi: Yeah, and there is a hundred Koans that have to do with the relationship between the relative and the absolute. And It’s a very important topic. And then the final hundred Koans have to do with the precepts, which are the ethical and moral teachings of Zen. And it’s interesting they’re left to the end. Although at the beginning you receive the precepts, but the formal study of them is at the end.

Vince: That is really interesting. Usually it is flip-flopped in a lot of other traditions. And you wrote a book a few years ago called The Book of Equanimity and it looked at a hundred of these Koans that I guess were traditionally found in the Soto school and I as wondering if you could say a little bit about those and how they fit in.

Roshi: Well, with Maezumi Roshi we studied the hundred Koans in The Book of Equanimity. There’s several collections of Koans. In about the 10th century of the Christian era various masters collected these Koans together and used them as teaching devices for their students. I mentioned already the Mumon Koans or the gateless gate, which is used very frequently, that collection. There is a collection called The Blue Cliff Records. And there is another collection called The Book of Equanimity which came out about the same time. And The Blue Cliff Records was compiled by a Rinzai teacher and The Book of Equanimity was compiled by a Soto teacher. I don’t think at that time that there were such big differences between the two traditions. Now, interesting thing is that I did a count and about a third of the Koans overlap between the two collections. In other words they are not unique. However, the way that they are interpreted sometimes is different between the two compiled. The collection although it was collected by a master in the Soto lineage, The Book of Equanimity, they are treated as Koans in the Rinzai, some Rinzai schools, and the Soto school studied them, but more as liturgy, rather than as Koans.

Vince: So, they more like pondered the meaning of them?

Roshi: Yeah, they might have discussion groups about it or something like that and now a Rinzai teacher, or a Rinzai Zen master would just kind of roll his eyes when he hears something like that. But, there are strengths and weaknesses in both traditions and that’s what Yasutani Roshi and Maezumi Roshi tried to do is bring the strength of both traditions together.


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