The Zen Koan of the Buddha’s Teaching and Bodhidharma’s Intention

The Zen Koan of the Buddha’s Teaching and Bodhidharma’s Intention August 27, 2017


The Case

An ancient worthy said, “Buddha’s teaching is expressed through reason; Bodhidharma’s intention is expressed through devices.

Entangling Vines, Part Two, Case 170

For many of us who practice in the Soto Zen reformed koan tradition usually called the Harada Yasutani school, it was such a treat when the traditional Japanese Rinzai text the Shumon Kattoshu, rendered as Entangling Vines, became available in an English version.

The American born Rinzai priest Thomas Yuho Kirchner gives us the English text of the 272 cases in the collection, along with some enormously helpful annotations. It is a rich, rich volume. Of course it contains many of the same cases we encounter in the earlier Chinese texts the Gateless Gate, the Blue Cliff Record, and the Book of Serenity. But it is further enriched with both additional material from Chinese sources, and a raft of material that comes out of Japan’s long and deep encounter with the tradition.

The approach of the volume is different than we’re used to in the Chinese texts. Gone are the extensive commentaries and pointers that layer the older anthologies. Instead we’re simply given the bare case. And with that fewer distractions. On my first read it reminded me of how in the Christian tradition the four canonical Gospels that attempt to capture the teachings of that ancient enigmatic rabbi who has captured the world’s dream time, blend in the collected sayings, collected miracle stories, together with a narrative. But, that other powerful document, The Gospel of Thomas, non-canonical but very early, at one time thought to be the long sought source document of the sayings part of those early accounts of Jesus’ ministry, but now believed to be at the very least contemporaneous with the Gospel of John, if not earlier – is also simply an unadorned collection of the master’s teachings.

That bare approach can be startling. Both Thomas, the Entangling Vines. And, returning to the collection of koans, it can leave the student out to sea, with no compass, no star to guide, not even a paddle.

As koans are meant to work.

Among these cases, one of my favorites is in the second part of the book, case 170. It’s a straight forward pointing with two parts.

I’ll give you a free bit. You are the ancient venerable. Act like it.

The Venerable Kirchner, who in addition to being a Rinzai priest is a researcher at the International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism at Hanazona University, offers us something. If not a compass, at least a pointer. A little bit of explanation of the words he has rendered into English. The character he translates as “reason” he explains means a “clear, logical explanation.” And “devices” is that old term that dates to the Lotus Sutra, skillful means.

Historically we can see there really is a divide between the Buddhisms of India and China. In India the nikayas and agamas, those texts we receive in Pali and Sanskrit, attempt with varying degree of success to give us the direct teachings of Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha of history. While Zen, which is one device after another, manifests as a cosmic play seemingly reminiscent of Lucy with her football, with you and me forever Charlie Brown, invited to go for the kick that always evades. Seemingly. Only seemingly.

Personally I find it important to be able to maneuver through both paths. Straight forward words can be enormously helpful. We humans are meant to think and ponder. And that way has opened more than one heart.

However. But. And. And, pushing and prodding us until we stand in the place for ourselves, see for ourselves, know for ourselves, well, what a gift is that? It has worked for so many. And it is the nub of the Zen way as a unique gift to the world’s spiritual traditions.

So, two assertions. Two invitations.


Buddha’s teaching is expressed through reason.

How do you understand that? What is your best presentation? Not someone else’s. Only the presentation that you and old Gautama Siddhartha himself share. Can you bring it forth?

And, second.

Bodhidharma’s intention is expressed through devices.

How do you understand that? What is your best presentation? Not someone else’s. Only the presentation that you share with the seven Buddhas, the many ancestors, and your own teachers. Can you bring it forth?

And, of course, there’s a third.

Are these two? Or, are they one?

Don’t forget. You’re the ancient venerable. Act like it.


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