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February 25, 2007

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The interpretation of kung-an mentioned is, I presume, based on Foulk, who states that the term originally referred to a case on a magistrate’s desk and that koan literature is basically constructed on the metaphor of a magistrate sitting in judgment.

This view of the Zen master sitting in judgment on the insight of the student in parallel to the judge preceding a case is not unanimously supported, neither in the academic world, nor in many present-day lineages.

The etymology of 公 kung is "speaking from the mouth" (厶) and "released (八) and made public". The character has been used in a manifold of meanings, including: unselfish, unbiased, fair, to make public, open to all, office and official duties. By itself, it does infer the concept of a public speaker or function, but not necessarily a judge.

案 an indeed derives phonetically from a long table made of wood (木), but also contains the character 按, which means legal case or offense. Generally, the meaning of Chinese characters is not derived from its phonetic compound.

The translation thus generally agreed upon for 公案 is "public case". On this subject, Victor Hori states:

“I believe, however, that the paradigm of the magistrate sitting in judgment applies more aptly to koan commentary, but not to original koan cases themselves. Commentary is a one-sided judgment in which the party being judged does not get a chance to answer back. In the koan itself (but not in the koan commentary), the parties to a dialogue are often depicted in mutual thrust and parry with each other. In addition, despite its popularity, the legal metaphor does not explain the more important features that are essential to the koan—the perplexing language, the sense of fun, the criterion for a good win (“turning the spear around”), insight, and mind-to-mind transmission.”

On a personal note, I would like to add that the expression “facing a koan to see if one is making progress” implies duality and the sense of “solution” and “progress”. I’d submit that a koan is both means and realization that, as Dogen-Zenji put it, drops off body and mind. Inserting the very notion of progress does not heed Mumon’s warning verse:

This old Buddha has a way of teaching:
Thirty blows of the stick without raising a hand.
Directing yourself toward it, you move away from it.
What person’s life is lacking?

Lastly, on the statement “One stays in samsara to suffer endlessly who fails to answer the kung-an”: the heart of koan practice is dynamic and living. As Mumon concluded, “what person’s life is lacking?” The “failure” to “answer” a koan is merely a sign that one has not yet fully realized the koan (in both senses of the word). A lotus bud that has not blossomed yet is not a failure. It is merely a lotus bud that has not blossomed yet.

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