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From 'Religions Of The World'

by Douglas Harding

Life in a Zen Monastery 

Let us take a look at a typical Zen monastery. The chief building is the meditation hall, where the monks sit cross-legged on two long low platforms, facing each other. Here they meditate for several hours a day, perfectly silent and still, with half-closed eyes. The abbot’s raised seat is at one end of the hall. Up and down the central aisle walks a monk with a stick, and if anyone shows signs of dropping off to sleep, he gets a whack. Daily each monk has to visit the abbot, whom he greatly reverences and fears, in his private room, to obtain spiritual counsel. And daily each monk spends some time working hard, in the fields or the kitchen, the latrine or the guesthouse. He has no opportunity for idle chatter or relaxation or even study, no free time at all. His business, the whole reason for the monastery, is Zen meditation (the word ‘Zen’ in fact means meditation), leading to Satori or sudden Enlightenment. 

The Koan and its Solution 

What does the disciple meditate on? This depends on which Zen sect he belongs to (there are several) and the stage of his spiritual development. Maybe the abbot has given him a Koan to solve. A Koan is a sort of crazy puzzle, the complete solution of which amounts to Enlightenment. Its craziness is essential. It isn’t an intellectual puzzle, like “What is the meaning of life?” Quite the reverse, its purpose is to baffle the intellect, to halt the restless mind, to get down to its unconscious source. That’s the first reason why the Koan is crazy: its job is to undermine thinking. The second reason is that it must reduce the disciple to utter desperation. Again and again the master, sometimes with blows and a show of anger, sends the disciple back to his meditation with the crushing remark that he’s just as far as ever from solving his Koan. This unmerciful treatment goes on for months and years. He may never attain Satori or Enlightenment — in this life. But still he perseveres. 

The third reason why the Koan is crazy is that, in fact, it isn’t: it’s the disciple who’s crazy! Let me try to illustrate this. The best-known of all Koans — the key to them all — is the Koan of the Real or Original Face. According to the fourteenth century master, Daito Kokushi, “The 1700 Koans to which Zen students devote themselves are all only for making them see their Original Face”. Put into modern English, the “Original Face” Koan itself comes to something like this: “Stop wanting anything, stop thinking, relax, forget all you imagine you know about yourself (including what you see over there in your mirror), look right here at the place where you are, and see what your face looks like now — the Face you had before you were born.” Note that the disciple has to see: it’s no good understanding the fact that his Real Face is only another name for the Void of Mahayana Buddhism, the Emptiness of Taoism, the Atman-Brahman of Hinduism. He has to see his real, non-human Face, and see it even more clearly than he sees that other, human face some three or four feet away, in the mirror — the human face that never was much nearer than that. He has to see that he never was that separate, small, opaque, solid, coloured, local thing he appears to others to be; but is forever boundless, at large, containing and not contained in the world — in a word, omnipresent.

If this does not yet mean anything to us, we mustn’t be surprised. It doesn’t mean anything to the disciple either. Or else it means too much, and the point is sight, not meaning. But one day the disciple at last gets 
to the end of his resources and gives up, can’t think any more, and in total despair just looks. At once he sees in a flash his Real Face, and is Enlightened. Sweating, trembling, crying and laughing with joy, he rushes into his master’s presence. And the master, all his fierceness gone, gently strokes the head of his kneeling disciple. Explanations are unnecessary, and anyhow impossible. “At last,” the master says tenderly. “At last you see!” 

“How could I have missed anything so obvious?” whispers the disciple. 

“It’s too clear,” replies the master, “so it’s hard to see! People can’t stand simplicity: they like things to be difficult and complicated. The trouble is it’s too easy!” 

('Religions Of The World' was first published in 1966 and used in schools.)

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