What “What is it?” Isn’t and Who Gets to Say Anyway?

Here’s the Bodhi dog asking “What is it?” in his 100% doggie way.

By the way, the talks from the Boundless Way Rohatsu 2011 are now up here (encouragement talks are listed first and then the talks by the teachers – Melissa Blacker gave the first teisho, David Rynick the second, Dosho the third, and we all chimed in on the fourth – probably our best collaboration to date imho).

The theme for the sesshin was Xuefeng’s “What is it?” (Blue Cliff 51 and Book of Serenity 50):

When Xuefeng was living in a hermitage, two monks came to pay their respects. When he saw them coming, Xuefeng thrust open the gate of his hermitage and jumped out, asking, “What is it?”

One of the monks also said, “What is it?” Xuefeng hung his head and went back inside.

The koan goes on to deal with the last word of Zen but that’s not what I’m interested in today so I’ll ignore that part for now.

I also got an email notice recently from a San Francisco Zen priest, Dairyu Michael Wenger, in part about his book, 49 Fingers. Check out his blog with a really nice “What is it?” painting here. Michael describes 49 Fingers as “…a collection of 49 American Koans, written in traditional case, commentary, verse format alongside 22 of my original brush works.”

“Case 47: What is it?” is a great scene that’s been kicked around a lot so you probably have seen it but in case you haven’t I copy it here:

When Seung Sahn (1927-2004) met Kalu Rinpoche, they were seated at a table. Seung Sahn pointed to an orange and said, “what is it?” Rinpoche did not respond. Sahn Sunim repeated, “What is it?” Rinpoche turned to his attendant and asked, “Don’t they have oranges in Korea?”

I heard this story some time ago, perhaps embellished, with the wild Korean monk picking up the orange and shoving it in the refined Tibetan master’s face, shouting repeatedly “What is it?” I bust my gut laughing at Kalu’s fresh presentation.

Michael’s refined version works too, of course.

I’d like to make just two unrefined points now. First, when it comes to “What is it?” who gets to say? And second, what “What is it?” isn’t.

Who gets to say? is a tough issue. Soto priests without koan training comment on koans regularly (including myself in my nefarious past). Koan Zen teachers without direct training in Dogen’s teachings speak definitively about Dogen. I’ve heard a well-known Vipassana teacher go on and on (and way off) about Mu.

And this isn’t limited to the dharma whirl. Nobel laureates famously develop a halo effect and have been known to talk about areas (like racial genetics) that are far from their specialty. And we are suspicious for good reason.

I’m of the school of thought that thinks that it’s best to be really careful when importing something from another tradition and imputing meaning based on our training and background to it – because we might well miss the point. Rumi, for example, coming from his Islamic/Sufi background, may well have had a depth of meaning, an angle on truth, that we modern Zennies cannot fathom.

So at least qualifying our comments are in order, “From my shikantaza training, here’s what I think this koan is about,” for example. For listeners, it’s best to assume that such qualification is always implicit.

Now that I’ve done some koan training, I confess to this hubris in my own past and from my current perspective would like to encourage my Soto non-koan trained friends to consider the possibility that there might well be something in a koan that they have not seen from their shikantaza perspective.

I suppose that goes for all of us all the time.

I recently saw a comment on another blog saying that Zen (“What is it?” in this case) is whatever each of us say that it is. That’s fine and dandy (and willy-nilly), of course, but it ignores the many practitioners in the past who really put their butts on the line to go beyond their own personal feelings about what Zen is and isn’t and just might have discovered something beyond relative pluralism.

In addition, and most importantly, by not engaging in the question (“What is it?”) with someone else with an open heart, we miss the opportunity to hear something like “Well, there’s a better answer.”

And then dig deeper into the issue at hand.

That’s the point, you see. It’s not about authority but about discovering the healing point of Zen, as Dogen put it.

Koan Zen is likewise incredibly practical. The usual drool about what Zen is and isn’t, is often just too mushy and spacey (in the guise of spaciousness) to bring home the bacon.

So although “What is it?” is a question that can be asked forever, there is also a clear and powerful response that can be actualized while walking the dog or chewing the fat. And although “I don’t know,” what Michael nicely calls “straightforward puzzlement” might close the gap, it might well not be clear or powerful or compassionate enough to bark up the right tree.

So when you hear, “What is it?” and think that you don’t know,  you might not be so sure about that.

Your thoughts welcome.

  • Oreb

    What isn’t what is it? It’s not an it or anything else but very small rocks or a duck might do.

    Arrgh I got that commenting bug again. I blame Dosho.

    Hangs head and goes away.

  • doshoport

    hanging my head too.

  • http://www.treeleaf.org Jundo Cohen

    would like to encourage my Soto non-koan trained friends to consider the possibility that there might well be something in a koan that they have not seen from their shikantaza perspective.

    Hi Dosho,

    This is true.

    I would also like my Rinzai friends to consider that there may be something in Koans that they have not tasted in their dreams without piercing the purity of Shikantaza. I would like my ‘mixing this and that’ friends to taste that there may be something not tasted by them in a Koan because they see it through the lens of “this and that”.

    It is a little bit classical musicians arguing with Jazz musicians about the best way to play the piano. All luscious music, man. .

    We will be beginning working through-and-through the Book of Serenity soon at our Sangha … through-and-through and back again.

    Gassho, Jundo

  • doshoport

    Hi Jundo,

    Of course, it is possible that someone without any koan (or shikantaza) background, a four-year old even, might see through a koan in a totally fresh and invigorating way. I’ve seen in my short time working koans with students that some long-time shikantaza practitioners have been doing their shikantaza in a way that when they encounter koan, it’s like warm butter spreading on toast.

    That’s not true for everyone, however. For some practitioners, the shikantaza instructions (especially when the fundamental is reified as something beyond our reach) can lead to trance and avoidance of what’s really going on in life and can leave people clueless about how to bring the zazen heart forth in daily life.

    There are, of course, many possible negatives of koan practice too – like competitiveness and arrogance, for example. We humans can sure make a mess of whatever we pick up.

    I see the koan masters as teaching the same point as Dogen with incredibly innovative and creative ways to help us discover and actualize the fundamental point.

    As many people have noted, (my koan teachers Ford, Blacker, and Rynick for example), the two practices can be very much complementary, not “this and that” as you say. Koan and shikantaza seem to me to be two foci interacting. I have gone on and on in blog posts about this and how this view elegantly fits with the overall teaching of Dogen – imv.

    Granted, you and I see things differently and have come to different (provisional, I hope) conclusions. No problem. I like differences as they provide the opportunity to learn.

    I’m surprised to see that although you agree with my point of caution for Soto teachers who haven’t done koan work you plan to work through the Book of Serenity with your students. Be careful, some of them might find themselves considering koan in zazen and defiling their shikantaza! :-)

    Seriously, I suggest that you don’t. From what I’ve read of your views on koan and shikantaza, I wonder if you might be misleading your community by working through koan with them – koan that you yourself have not worked through with anybody. Perhaps qualifying what your doing by saying that this is just your view….

    Specifically, you seem to see koan and shikantaza as rigidly different (I say this from seeing your comments on your blog and at ZFI) and this itself suggests to me that there might be a better answer than how you would tend to interpret any koan.

    If you would like to discuss this further, I suggest that we have a Skype conversation.



  • Harry

    Hi Dosho,

    I think it’s fine to play with koan in any way, to consider them from all sorts of approaches, including sitting down and thinking about ‘em from the point of view of our shikantaza practice or whatever… and I see Dogen as advocating all sorts of efforts.

    Problem arises though when we take the ‘magical thinking’ approach of assuming that, because we’ve sat a bit of zazen (or a lot), then we know everything about Buddhist philosophy, zen koans, life, the Universe, and everything and everybody. Pretty arrogant really (I know, I do it all the time! :-)) and quite contrary to how Dogen advocated we use the words as far as I currently see.

    I’m afraid Master Nishijima’s approach to koans is not at all immune from this sort of thinking/assumption, but I find his commentaries on the Dogen koans are insightful and valuable and valid, often refreshing… but not the ‘Ultimate decoded’ or whatever as they are sometimes held to be. That’s the worst sort of notion to get stuck on methinks.

    Dosho: “For some practitioners, the shikantaza instructions (especially when the fundamental is reified as something beyond our reach) can lead to trance and avoidance of what’s really going on in life and can leave people clueless about how to bring the zazen heart forth in daily life.”

    I think this is very true (in my case at least). I can sit and non-think in my bubble til doomsday, but if I can’t bring it to bear on my deluded thinking, and my actions arising from my deluded thinking, then I wonder what the point is (other than a sort of little rest from it all)? People who haven’t realised directly that this is what koan work is about could be forgiven for thinking that it’s about sitting around just thinking about stuff as opposed to the ultimate ‘Real Zazen Thing’… and that’s just the sort of 2D black-and-white impoverished thinking that koans can help us with! And there are other methods to bring everything here into vivid expression…surely it’s not just ‘koans or zazen’ as the hackneyed old sectarian double act suggests ?

    Rock on, Heretic Boy!


  • Harry


    Also am now fairly convinced that there is another type of learning that happens in zazen; that it does have effects in how I act in the world regardless of what I percieve the quality of the zazen to be or think about or non-think (as long as I just keep sitting). I think there is an argument for an intuitive element to it as some teachers seem keen to emphasise… but that’s not the whole story by any means. The experiments continue. Wonder what you’re take on that is?


  • Desiree
  • doshoport


    Wonderful photo! A coyote, me thinks? The phrase for me is double edged – it could mean that 2 practitioners had the same enlightenment and actualized it the same – wonderful and perhaps not so creative.


    I don’t have much to add to what you’re saying above. I agree. Could quibble a bit about “nonthinking” but might save that for a fuller post. Some lineages do seem inclined toward a shikantaza fundamentalism which I think is both dangerous in how misleading it is and not very interesting.

    You do your traditional Irish music thing!


    • Desiree

      By same enlightenment do you mean both practictioners are of the same lineage of realization (Lankavatara sutra pg. 93)?

      I don’t have graspable concepts for actualizing realization, yet.

      • doshoport


        I mean that they’ve had the same experience – mind/body/heart. They might be of the same lineage.


  • Weasel Tracks

    I come looking for an answer, and all I find are questioners.

    What is it?
    You could call it an orange
    if you don’t live in Korea
    or Cumberland

    or it’s just sun-driven mists
    in the Catskill mornings

    Personally, I think
    dwelling so much on
    unanswerable vagueness
    is a big waste of time . . .

    I think

  • doshoport


    I like the poem … but you’re belief that “what is it?” is unanswerable vagueness is not correct.


  • Weasel Tracks

    If I believed in “unanswerable vagueness,” that would be rather definite.

    The second “I think” half negates the previous half-assertion.

    One reason I was drawn to Zen was its appreciation of question over dogma. Though I haven’t found an answer to “What is it?” yet, and though I don’t deny there is such, I find the question valuable enough.

    I am also in favor of “big wastes of time.”

  • Pingback: Honor Among Theives: A Briefest of Meditations on Engaging Koans, and With Whom | Monkey Mind

  • http://arobeandabowl.blogspot.com Shodhin

    Here’s something I wrote not too long ago on a very related (almost similar) point, for what it’s worth: http://arobeandabowl.blogspot.com/2011/11/reading-vs-doing-koans.html

  • susan

    like the poem. “thinking” about what it is will not reveal what it is, methinks.

    (are weasels and foxes related?)

  • Desiree

    Looks like it.

    Looking at this “non-true” fox which evolved in the Pliocene (more-new, “continuation of the recent”) epoch. Reading that Vulpes “true-foxes” appeared in the late Miocene, true? It doesn’t look like their territories crossed.

    birthed by a conch shell
    black gem encrusted water spider
    walks toward foamy waves

  • doshoport

    Nice to see today’s batch of comments – and that I mistook the Weasel for a weasel.

    Thanks Shodin for the blog link – I was moved by the quote about Mozart … or was it Bach (long day! sorry) and at the end of the day, the thing is to play. Hope things are going well in Chicago.

    Bows to all small furry creatures,


  • David clark

    “What is it?”
    Abandoning caution,
    I blurt out a reply,
    “It is who asks.”
    A passing breeze stirs a branching pine
    And my thinning hair as well.