Koan & Shikantaza
by Taizan Maezumi Roshi (In: 'Appreciate your Life', Shambala, 2001, page 49 - 54)
In Japan we hold a special sesshin, during which we express our gratitude toward the three benevolences. Generally these benevolences are the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; our teachers, parents, nation, and all sentient beings; and all beings in the six worlds. We understand sentient beings as living human beings and also, in a broader sense, as everything. We should be grateful for everything, literally everything.
Showing our gratitude for just the Three Treasures is sufficient because these treasures are all-inclusive. Everything is included in the Buddha Treasure, in the Dharma Treasure, in the Sangha Treasure. At their most condensed point, what are these treasures? They are the life of each of us. We express our gratitude toward ourselves as well as toward everything, not as two separate things but both as one life. Do you see? Whether you realize it or not, this one life is the most fundamental koan. What does that mean? It means that at every moment, our life is the unity of the absolute and the relative, of oneness and diversity. This very concrete and profound aspect of each of our lives is koan, absolute reality, fact.
Shikantaza and koan are seemingly two different practices. They are different and yet they are the same. This sameness and difference are our practice, and we appreciate the Buddha dharma in this way. In what sense are shikantaza and koan the same? What is shikantaza? What is koan? And most important, how do we practice shikantaza, how do we practice koan? How much are you getting out of it? Of course, on one hand, there is nothing to get. On the other hand, there is immeasurable value in these practices.
We can say that shikantaza is doing zazen as the manifestation of your life as the Buddha Way, as the Buddha dharma itself. When you truly do zazen in this way, your life functions as the triple gem--as the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha-as the unity of these Three Treasures. You do not look for anything else because everything is here with you. Who is you? It is not what you think you are, but you as the Three Treasures. How you do shikantaza is very important. If you do not sit as the Buddha Way, you are not doing shikantaza.
What is koan practice? Koan practice is to embody this life as the koan. What is koan? Ko means "public", such as a governmental or authoritative position. One definition of ko is a document issued by the government that has authoritative value. The Chinese chararater ko has two parts. The top part, which looks like the figure 8 in two strokes with space in between, has the implication of being separate, or apart from the other. The bottom part means I, myself. In other words, when there is separation, the I is there. Ko is a universal, or absolute, position as opposed to shi or shian, which is the position based on our own ideas. Shi means "I, my, my ideas, my understanding". Shian is something private, personal. The more we base our life on shian, the more problems we have. If we base our life on ko, then we are just as we are, without our personal thoughts. Isn’t it interesting? When we really come to the point, a koan is very ordinary. Just as we are is the koan, it cannot be shian. How can we ourselves be as koan?
In the Soto tradition, another definition of ko is "equal and unequal existing together." It is not that some things are right and other things are wrong, but rather that evenness and unevenness, equal and not equal, are all together ko. Even regarding ourselvesæmale and female, young and old, tall and short, heavy and light, having a beard and not having a beard; having hair and not having hairæwe are different and yet one, the same. This is also ko. According to Senne, who studied with Dogen Zenji, an means "to maintain one's own intrinsic position." Each of us as we are, as male or female, tall or short, however we are, has our own relative position. That relative position and its intrinsic nature are not separate. In other words, regardless of the differences in appearance or conditioning, we are in a way the same. This is true not only for human beings, but literally for anything, everything. We are all of equal intrinsic value. This is the value of no-value, in the sense of emptiness. We are conditioned as male or female, tall or short, or however we are. That is called the Dharma Treasure. Yet we are also the Buddha Treasure, which is not at all conditioned. The unity of the Dharma Treasure and the Buddha Treasure is the Sangha Treasure, and that is true for each of us. That means that each of us, as different as we are, as conditioned as we are, is the Buddha Treasure. We are the Buddha Treasure! As we are, we are the Dharma Tresure! We have our intrinsic nature and our relative position. That is the koan. Dogen Zenji talks about this manifestation as the genjo koan, the embodiment of koan as your life. How do you appreciate this manifestation of koan as your life?
The Record of the Transmission of the Lamp numbers seventeen hundred Zen masters, each with his own koans. So koans are literally numberless. Anything could be a koan. How to really appreciate it? We can look at koan practice as a kind of scheme or expediency,where we expect a result. But the point is not the number of koans you solve or practicing koans as something apart from yourself. If you are not realizing your life as the manifestation of koan, then you are reinforcing another kind of ego, which is not good. The important point is how do you realize the absolute and the relative in your life?
The same can be said of shikantaza. I know there are people who believe that shikantaza is superior to koan practice. They even speak badly about the practice of koan Zen. The point is how are we practicing shikantaza? How much are we manifesting or realizing the real value, the richness and boundless merit contained in the practice of shikantaza? Dogen Zenji calls this self-fulfilled samadhi. Self-fulfilled samadhi literally contains everything, not restricted to my way or our way of practice, not better than something or someone else. It is not something that human beings create, rather it is the subtle dharma that is handed down without discrepancy from ancestor to ancestor to now.
This self-fulfilled samadhi is the key to checking whether your practice is right zazen, whether you appreciate yourself as the treasure transmitted from Buddha to Buddha, from ancestor to ancestor. Self-fulfilled samadhi is all-inclusiveness. Each of us is equally living this all-inclusive life. And when you really do zazen in this way, it naturally becomes shikantaza. When you work on koan, the koan naturally becomes your life. Furthermore, your life all together becomes nothing but the genjo koan, the manifestation of that. Please do not forget that your life itself is the practice. Practice is no other than your life. Live each moment as the manifestation of koan regardless of how it goes one moment after another, not judging according to your ideas. In the very beginning of Genjo Koan, Dogen Zenji says, “All dharmas are Buddha dharma.” Everything exists. And “All dharmas are without self.” Nothing exists. Dogen Zenji continues, “Buddha dharma goes beyond, with, and without self.” Once again, everything exists. What does “without self” mean? This is very important. “Without self” is expounded in the Heart Sutra as emptiness. What is emptiness? This body and mind. This body and mind is empty. If you do not see this emptiness, you are seeing something else. In another part of the Genjo Koan, Dogen Zenji says, “To study the Buddha Way is to study oneself. To study oneself is to forget the self.” Be without self. What happens when you are without self? Dogen Zenji says, “To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas.” When you are without self, you are enlightened, confirmed by literally anything, everything. Dogen Zenji continues, “To be confirmed by ten thousand dharmas is to free one's own body and mind as well as that of others.” In this passage we also realize Shakyamuni Buddha's remarks upon his enlightenment. Upon seeing the morning star, Shakyamuni said, “I and the great earth, all beings, simultaneously attain the Way.” In other words, the liberation is not just of oneself, but of anything, everything, everybody. All are liberated. And Dogen Zenji concludes that paragraph, “The traceless enlightenment continues forever.” Allow that traceless enlightenment to manifest as is. This is your life at this very moment, now.
When I was studying with Yasutani Roshi, he emphasized over and over the importance of checking our practice from the intrinsic and the experiential perspectives. The principles that Dogen Zenji talks about are the intrinsic perspective: what is the Buddha dharma. The experiential side is you. You must experience the Buddha dharma by yourself. Otherwise, you cannot appreciate it as the treasure. Of course, regardless of whether you experientially appreciate the dharma or not, it is what it is. That is the intrinsic side of it. Regardless of what you think, even your crazy thinking itself is nothing but that, do you see? It is no other than the Dharma. The Dharma manifests as your crazy thinking, it manifests in every way under every circumstance. But in order to truly appreciate it, we must experience it. Dogen Zenji says that traceless realization is already manifesting as your life in each moment. Let it be so.
This practice is truly wonderful. Our Buddha ancestors have shown us how to appreciate our life in this way. We should be most grateful for their benevolences. However much we do will never be too much. The best way to repay our debt to our Buddha ancestors is to do true shikantaza and manifest our life as the realization of koan, or manifest koan as the realization of our life. Whatever your practice, the important point is this life that you are living and how to take care of it. Under certain conditions and involvements, a good thing is good, a poor thing is poor, an inadequate thing is inadequate. When you truly appreciate that all the dharmas are Buddha dharma and all dharmas are without self, your life will unfold naturally and you will know what to do.