Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection


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The essence of enlightenment came to be identified with the interaction between masters and students. Whatever insight dhyana might bring, its verification was always interpersonal. In effect, enlightenment came to be understood not so much as an insight, but as a way of acting in the world with other people [20]. This mutual enquiry of the meaning of the encounters of masters and students of the past gave students a role model:. One looked at the enlightened activities of one's lineal forebears in order to understand one's own identity [ In China and Korea, "observing the phrase" is still the sole form of koan-practice, though Seung Sahn used the Rinzai-style of koan-practice in his Kwan Um School of Zen.

The desired "spontaneity" expressed by enlightened masters required a thorough study of Chinese language and poetry. In the officially recognized monasteries belonging to the Gozan Five Mountain System the Chinese system was fully continued. Senior monks were supposed to compose Chinese verse in a complex style of matched counterpoints known as bienli wen. It took a lot of literary and intellectual skills for a monk to succeed in this system. The Rinka-monasteries , the provincial temples with less control of the state, laid less stress on the correct command of the Chinese cultural idiom.

These monasteries developed "more accessible methods of koan instruction". By standardizing the koan-curriculum every generation of students proceeded to the same series of koans. They contain both the koan-curricula and the standardized answers. A series of questions is given, to be asked by the master. The answers are also given by the master, to be memorized by the student.

In the eighteenth century the Rinzai school became dominated by the legacy of Hakuin , who laid a strong emphasis on koan study as a means to gain kensho and develop insight. Koans are also understood as pointers to an unmediated "Pure Consciousness", devoid of cognitive activity. This is not the consciousness of the enlightened Zen master. According to Hori, a central theme of many koans is the 'identity of opposites': [41] [42].

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Hakuin's well-known koan, "Two hands clap and there is a sound, what is the sound of one hand? The koan asks, you know what duality is, now what is nonduality? In "What is your original face before your mother and father were born? This is obvious to someone versed in the Chinese tradition, where so much philosophical thought is presented in the imagery of paired opposites. The phrase "your original face" alludes to the original nonduality.

Comparable statements are: "Look at the flower and the flower also looks"; "Guest and host interchange". In the Rinzai-school, the Sanbo Kyodan, and the White Plum Asanga, koan practice starts with the assignment of a hosshi or "break-through koan", usually the mu-koan or "the sound of one hand clapping". Students are instructed to concentrate on the "word-head", like the phrase "mu". In the Wumenguan Mumonkan , public case No.

Day and night work intently at it. Do not attempt nihilistic or dualistic interpretations. It builds up "strong internal pressure gidan , never stopping knocking from within at the door of [the] mind, demanding to be resolved". Analysing the koan for its literal meaning won't lead to insight, though understanding the context from which koans emerged can make them more intelligible. For example, when a monk asked Zhaozhou Joshu "does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?

The continuous pondering of the break-through koan shokan [51] or Hua Tou , "word head", [52] leads to kensho , an initial insight into "seeing the Buddha- nature. The aim of the break-through koan is to see the "nonduality of subject and object": [41] [42]. The monk himself in his seeking is the koan.

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Realization of this is the insight; the response to the koan [ When the monk realizes that the koan is not merely an object of consciousness but is also he himself as the activity of seeking an answer to the koan, then subject and object are no longer separate and distinct [ I was dead tired. That evening when I tried to settle down to sleep, the instant I laid my head on the pillow, I saw: "Ah, this outbreath is Mu!

Next breath: Mu, Mu! Croak, croak; meow, meow - these too are Mu! The bedding, the wall, the column, the sliding-door - these too are Mu!


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This, that and everything is Mu! Ha ha! Ha ha ha ha Ha! He's always tricking people with his 'Mu, Mu, Mu'! But the use of the mu-koan has also been criticised. According to AMA Samy , the main aim is merely to "'become one' with the koan". These methods and techniques are forced efforts which can even run on auto-pilot.

They can produce experiences but not prajana wisdom. Those checking questions, and their answers, are part of a standardised set of questions and answers.


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In the Rinzai-school, passing a koan and the checking questions has to be supplemented by jakugo , "capping phrases", citations of Chinese poetry to demonstrate the insight. After the initial insight further practice is necessary, to deepen the insight and learn to express it in daily life. Who is dragging this corpse about? What is this? What is it? What was the original face before my father and mother were born? Who am I? The student is assigned only one hua-tou for a lifetime. This koan becomes a touchstone of our practice: it is a place to put our doubt, to cultivate great doubt, to allow the revelation of great faith, and to focus our great energy.

This importance is reflected in writings in the Rinzai-school on the koan-genre. He saw the kung-ans as "work of literature [that] should be used as objective, universal standards to test the insight of monks who aspired to be recognized as Ch'an masters": [13]. The koans do not represent the private opinion of a single man, but rather the hundreds and thousands of bodhisattvas of the three realms and ten directions.

This principle accords with the spiritual source, tallies with the mysterious meaning, destroys birth-and-death, and transcends the passions. It cannot be understood by logic; it cannot be transmitted in words; it cannot be explained in writing; it cannot be measured by reason. It is like the poisoned drum that kills all who hear it, or like a great fire that consumes all who come near it. What is called "the special transmission of the Vulture Peak" was the transmission of this; what is called the "direct pointing of Bodhidharma at Shao-lin-ssu" is this.

In Rinzai a gradual succession of koans is studied. However, there are a number of sub-branches of these, and additional variations of curriculum often exist between individual teaching lines which can reflect the recorded experiences of a particular lineage's members.

Koan curricula are, in fact, subject to continued accretion and evolution over time, and thus are best considered living traditions of practice rather than set programs of study. Koan practice starts with the shokan , or "first barrier", usually the mu-koan or the koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping? Hakuin's descendants developed a fivefold classification system: [74].

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According to Akizuki there was an older classification-system, in which the fifth category was Kojo , "Directed upwards". This category too was meant to rid the monk of any "stink of Zen". Completing the koan-curriculum in the Rinzai-schools traditionally also led to a mastery of Chinese poetry and literary skills:. Only when a master is satisfied that a disciple can comment appropriately on a wide range of old cases will he recognize the latter as a dharma heir and give him formal "proof of transmission" J.


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Thus, in reality, a lot more than satori is required for one to be recognized as a master J. The accepted proof of satori is a set of literary and rhetorical skills that takes many years to acquire. After completing the koan-training, Gogo no shugyo , post-satori training is necessary: [90]. Fukushima would explain that the student builds up a "religious personality" during this decade. It is a kind of period that functions to test if the student is actually able to live in regular society and apply his koan understanding to daily life, after he has lived in an environment that can be quite surreal and detached from the lives of the rest of humanity.

Usually, the student lives in small parish temple during this decade, not in a formal training monastery.

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The "soft-butter" method nanso no ho and "introspection method" naikan no ho involve cultivation of ki centered on the tanden Chinese: dantian. These practices are described in Hakuin's works Orategama and Yasen Kanna , and are still taught in some Rinzai lineages today. The Sanbo kyodan places great emphasis on kensho , initial insight into one's true nature, [92] as a start of real practice. It follows the so-called Harada-Yasutani koan-curriculum, which is derived from Hakuin 's student Takuju.

Koans pronounced KO-ahns are cryptic and paradoxical questions asked by Zen teachers that defy rational answers. Teachers often present koans in formal talks, or students may be challenged to "resolve" them in their meditation practice.

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For example, one koan nearly everyone has heard of originated with Master Hakuin Ekaku The question often is shortened to "What is the sound of one hand clapping? By now, most of you probably know that the question is not a riddle. There is no clever answer that glibly puts the question to rest.

The question cannot be understood with intellect, much less answered with intellect. Yet there is an answer. In the Rinzai or Lin-chi school of Zen, students sit with koans. They don't think about them; they don't try to "figure it out. The student then presents his understanding of the koan to the teacher in a private interview called sanzen , or sometimes dokusan. The answer may be in words or shouts or gestures.

The teacher may ask more questions to determine if the student truly "sees" the answer. When the teacher is satisfied the student has fully penetrated what the koan presents, he assigns the student another koan. Ebook 17, An essential guide to what it's like to spend a week inside a Zen Buddhist monastery. The notion of spending days at a time in… Meer. According to Zen teaching, everything in the universe exists interdependently, so valuing the welfare of one being over another,… Meer. Jack Maguire takes you within monastery walls to provide an insider's view of the elements of daily life: sitting and walking… Meer.

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Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection
Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection
Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection
Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection
Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection
Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection
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