Q: I was struck by your idea that koans are expressions of pure Mind. Could you talk more about this?
A: Sure. It was koans that got me deeply interested in Zen. The more I read them the more I realized I couldn’t answer them—not a single one. Nevertheless, I was hooked on Zen. Yes, it’s true that koans are the expression of pure Mind or the same, the Buddha Mind. It’s just my own impression, but Western Zennists don’t fully understand this. They take koans to be somewhat like riddles without realizing that the entire basis of Zen is about awakening to pure Mind. Koans help us to do just that by showing us just how caught up we are in conceptualizing pure Mind which is the same as trying to conceptualize Gautama’s awakening whereby he became Buddha.
Q: I take it that not just any teacher is qualified to use koans is that right?
A: Right. They have to be awakened to pure Mind. Short of that one is taking a chance that they are not going to ever realize pure Mind. It takes special skill to cut off a student’s habitual tendency to conceptualize pure Mind. The skillful teacher as to put the student between a rock and a hard place with no other way out except to realize pure Mind. Before he awakened to pure Mind one student made forty-nine attempts to answer the koan: “The eastern mountain sails up the river.” Why so many times? It’s because his teacher Yüan-wu who had already awakened to pure Mind was not about to let his student off the hook with some inferior grasp of this koan. He wanted his student to really awaken.
Q: Does everyone need to answer koans?
A: No, not at all. The early Zen masters didn’t answer koans when they were just students. Chances are their teacher had the light. The students were sensitive enough to pick it up thus realizing Mind’s dynamic power. Once a Zen master said that the spiritual light of living beings originally had no obstruction. When those obstructions are removed this light is there—it’s always been present. It doesn’t take a koan to realize this. But once you behold the light, you quickly see that koans are nothing more than ingenious expression of it in various ways from a shout, to saying Mu.
Q: So when a monk asked a Zen master, “What is Buddha? and the Zen master replied, “Three pounds of burlap,” this is all related to pure Mind. Right?
A: Absolutely. It is like me asking you to show me a chair, then the table, then the tree outside. Then I ask you, show me pure Mind. Suddenly, you freeze up, like what the fuck? In that moment a well delivered slap across the chops might awaken you by crushing your conceptualizing habit for a split second—it throws you back to pure Mind which is not obstructed.
Q: So the phrase “three pounds of burlap” could have easily been “dog shit” right?
A: Yes, what ever cuts off your habitual tendency to conceptualize. At that moment the answer is clear, that’s the Buddha which is pure Mind. It’s not the burlap or shit. It’s not Mu or the Buddha holding a flower up and blinking. It’s not go wash your bowl. It’s not a slap across the chops. Still these things help to turn off the conceptualizing tendency when it comes to seeing pure Mind. If it’s not turned off for a split second how will you possibly understand Bodhidharma’s profound words: “Not one of them understands the movement of his own hands and feet”? You’ll never escape rebirth either, without awaking to pure Mind since it does not transmigrate.