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Eighteen Zen Koans from the Western Tradition

Eighteen Zen Koans from the Western Tradition December 22, 2021

 

 

 

I’m a life long student of the koan way. It has given me the contours of the formal part of my interior life. And, I remain endlessly grateful.

I’m also interested in how we might find koans outside of the formal canon, the received cases enshrined in the great anthologies and within the various schools of koan introspection.

So, I was pleased when a friend pointed me to a draft copy of a koan curriculum for Western students compiled in 1990 by the late Eido Tai Shimano.

Shimano Roshi is at the very least a controversial figure. He was a very important figure in the establishment of Zen in the West. And throughout his teaching career there were rumors of sexual misconduct. In the final years before his death this erupted into the public sphere. He was charged with targeting vulnerable women and taking advantage of his position as a prominent spiritual leader to seduce them. Seduce feels the mildest of possible terms for his misconduct. There are other words that perhaps are more appropriate. The upshot was that Shimano was removed from leadership in the sangha he led and only a few years later he died disgraced.

And, he was a creative and successful guide along the koan way. I know and deeply respect several of his dharma successors. There’s that, as well.

For me a very important lesson in this is that koan introspection is not everything. It genuinely helps us to see into the fundamental matter of our wild openness as well as the preciousness of everything thing as it arises and falls within that openness. Or, perhaps more correctly everything as that openness. The dynamic mystery constantly unfolding. I can testify to this out of my own life. But, a complete spiritual life requires other things, as well. Truthfully, I can testify to this out of my own life, as well.

All that said, there’s this wonderful collection in draft form. And it included a number of koans derived from the Western traditions. In his draft document Eido Roshi mixed these in with what in many traditions are called “Miscellaneous Koans.” These are in-house collections used in specific lineages and follow the breakthrough koan, in our Japanese derived traditions flowing from the great Eighteenth century Hakuin Ekaku, that breakthrough koan is almost always Mu. They’re usually short and give us the sense of how to engage koans, the language of koans if you will. Or, as I suggested in my study of koans, the grammar, or language of dragons.

What follows are eighteen cases from Western sources Shimano dropped into that Miscellaneous collection part of his proposed curriculum. He presented a bunch of these in a row, then began to intersperse them with more traditional koans. Upon a first read there appear to be some errors in biblical attributions. But, for the moment I’m simply presenting them as the occur in the anthology, separated out from the Chinese and Japanese cases.

Eighteen Western Koans from the
Dai Bosatsu Roku

1. Little flower–but if I c~~ld understand what you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is. Who is he?

–ALFRED LORD TENNYSON

2. I know that without me God cannot live for an instant: if I perish he must needs give up the ·ghost. How does he do it? –JOHANNES SCHEFFLER

3. The eye with which I see God is the very eye with which God sees me. What is the size of the eye?
–MEISTER ECKHART

4. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. How has it been done?
–THE LORD’S PRAYER

5. When God created the heavens, the earth, and creatures, he did not work; he had nothing to do; he made no effort. Why then do we say that God created the heaven and the earth? –MEISTER ECKHART

6. Everywhere (in the Psalms) is the exhortation to praise the Lord, and God demands praise from men. ~ are we to praise the Lord?
–C.S. LEWIS

7. He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. Find your life!

–NEW TESTAMENT

8. Some Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come. His answer was, “The Kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen. No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ because the Kingdom of God is within you. 11

–LUKE 17

9. A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees. –WILLIAM BLAKE

10. If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear as it is, infinite.
–WILLIAM BLAKE

11. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit theearth.
–NEW TESTAMENT

12. Blessed be he who will snatch up a Babylonian baby and beat its brains out against the pavement.
–PSALMS

13. Great things are done when men and mountains meet; This is not done by jostling in the street. –WILLIAM BLAKE

14. Then Pilate said to Jesus, “Do you not hear how many things they witness against you?” And Jesus gave him no answer, not even one word.
–NEW TESTAMENT

15. Therefore I say unto you, be not anxious for your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor yet for your body, what you shall put on. Is not the life more than the food, and the body more than the raiment? … Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

–NEW TESTAMENT

16. And the fire and the rose are one. –T.S. ELIOT

17. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? –PSALMS

18. ESTRAGON: Let’s go.
VLADIMIR: We can’t.
ESTRAGON: Why n o t ?
VLADIMIR: We’re waiting for Godot. –SAMUEL BECKETT

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