22. Thursday, July 19, 1973
Shikan Taza, Koan

STUDENT: In Kapleau's book there are three different descriptions of what shikan taza is. One is that shikan taza is just sitting. Another is that you should be steady as a mountain but as taut as a bow string. Then there's one other description: In shikan taza you should be like someone facing death.

KOBUN: That's fine. I feel that the third one is especially good description. This character, shikan taza doesn't have traditional word, samadi . But shikan in Chinese is another word for samadi, a more ordinary explanation. When you sleep it is shikan sleeping. In English, maybe, it is “just to do it.” Hakuin Roshi spoke of shikan taza, a Chinese word. There is a difference between zazen and zen life. You do not say, “just zen.” If you say “shikan taza,” it refers to a particular activity. How, exactly, was the third description of shikan taza?

STUDENT: I can't remember the exact words but it was pretty much like this: When you do shikan taza you should be like a man facing death. As in the sword fights that used to take place in ancient Japan, you only pay attention to that encounter.

KOBUN: Last night, I didn't speak of death as such, but I was feeling that feeling. Not just facing death but to go. When you pass away no one brings wife with you, or wallet or bankbook or something. Somehow alone, you go. Even clothes you don't bring. Like you jump into a hot bath or shower you don't bring some idea where you are going.

STUDENT: All the different parts of the correct attitude toward sitting are sort of captured in the idea of facing your death, because you can't take anything with you. In the face of that thought there's no difference between you and anybody else. That thought rather makes you indifferent to all sorts of things. And it also makes you feel very clear.

KOBUN: Very important thing is we know very much about death. There are great opportunities to see it's shadow. It's someone else's experience and you get an impression how it feels. But we have never felt it. That is a problem. This year my feeling slightly changed when I became thirty-five years old. It's a kind of funny age. Still that very familiar feeling of younger age, twenty or twenty-five. I have to make effort to get familiar with older age, like fifty or seventy. My feeling is slightly different now, physically I realize this as walking down from the peak. This gives me a very strong feeling of what actual life is and how to face to it. Whenever I hear from Japan, people's marriage and death, I feel, “What is happening in that family?”

Listening to news of another's death, I feel more familiar with them than before. It's a strange feeling. Not just a sad feeling. More like, “I know him very well.” If I continue to live one thousand years, two thousand years, I do not have a chance to meet them. When I die there is possibility to come to see them. For living people one big element about death is just an idea, a conception. Fear comes from it. If the real thing comes there is no time to put fear in it. Zazen has that kind of very existential feeling, awareness. Unless your physical body is very much exhausted you cannot sleep when you are in shikan taza. Shikan taza has no sleep, no dizziness. It's a very strong thing.

STUDENT: It seems to me that I've done shikan taza better when I've been close to an automobile accident than when I've been sitting in the zendo. Often times when I'm driving a car something will happen. Sometimes I've been gone just enough time to say, “Okay I'm going to have an accident.” Suddenly everything is very clear. I love that feeling more than anything else in the world.

STUDENT: I had the understanding that shikan taza was zazen done without a koan.

KOBUN: Shikan taza is great. Only one koan for us, for me, when you do zazen. Koan is truth. Whether I can try it or not is problem. If I do not do it, it never happens to me. Like dreaming of eating is not eating. It's dreaming. Using koan is like someone speak to you and you dream this kind of thing will happen. The meaning of the koan becomes very ordinary, very technical way to guide, as a teaching process. I should say I never use koan. There is no such koan which can be used by me. Life itself, whole life, is one koan. If I can fully live it my koan is solved.

The koan has a traditional sense in Chinese and Japanese useage. It is some kind of choice. If you don't have a teacher you never have a koan. You cannot pick koan by yourself. It doesn't work. Especially in Rinzai school, a living master and living disciple really worked on their koan. Not a historical one. What was important was whether this teacher and this disciple could really realize it, this koan. The teacher is not like he knows everything and just sleeps and lets the student work on the koan and the student practices hard and gets the answer and comes to wake the master up, “I got answer!” It's not like this. It's living, as a living thing they work each koan.

The koan method is a very serious thing, actually, in terms of individuality. It has to be worked out in real life, not some idea. It is similar to a doctor who wants to drop the problem from the patient. To solve the problem both are concerned, the patient and the doctor's skill. To talk about it or think about it doesn't make any sense with real problems. Therapy has a very strong relation to koan practice. Koan practice tightly relates to zazen but it is a matter of communication.

STUDENT: Kobun, you used the term “zen life” last week. I wonder what that means.

KOBUN: Just life is fine. Is zen life different from ordinary life?

STUDENT: Can you live it without doing zazen? It seems to me that some people can. There is some kind of approach to life which many of us seem to grow into through zazen but perhaps for some people they grow into that same approach, not necessarily through zazen.

KOBUN: Washington, D. C. is the capitol but you do not need to go, if you know where you are. That means you know zazen. Probably we cannot say that someone who never sat... some people may have very excellent karma in past lives and don't need to sit properly. Some one may say, “I have to sit 40 minutes,” and someone will say, “I just have to sit ten minutes.” That is okay. And then he says, after ten minutes, “Oh, you are still sitting!” In many senses our life has a very natural cycle of thirty or seventy years. But in a spiritual sense it is not always like that. Some awaken very fast. Some need the last day of their life to wake up from the dream.

When people awake, they awake like coming out of a dream. It is not just work of the intellect. With whole body you awaken, whole world is awakening too. And when you awake you find, “Oh, this is it. That was not it.” Even after awakening you do not say, “I don't need to sit any more.” In a very strong sense awakening becomes sleep. When you say, “This is it,” and when you abide in it, it becomes again deepest dream. So constant effort is the essential of our life. That means life is the conquering of death. So constant effort is the conquering of death.

In the last part of the Genjo Koan there is a meeting of zen master and monk. There is discussion about the nature of wind which is everywhere. Masters use a fan: “This world is Buddha's world, even if you do not recognize it. You are within it, but actually out of it.” The young monk was told, “You know the nature of wind which is everywhere, but you know it just as an idea. You do not actually know what ‘wind' is, what ‘everywhere' is.” We say, “life,” but if we really experience it, it is miraculous. We really feel it is a miraculous thing to live in this way.

On the last day of this life everyone will really know it. It will not be too late. It's too late to return to babyhood but we feel, “I'm glad that I wasn't too late to know this.” In idea, and faith, and feeling, you can speak of “eternal life” and you can really feel it, but what we have to know is when we feel it we close our eyes of death. [Ed. note: I don't know whether this should be “in death” or “to death” or simply “of death.”] That means the idea carries you your whole life, and the last day when you awake, “Oh, that was just an idea.”

Shikan taza is only one way to awaken to reality. Every day, every moment we can be aware of it and carry this life into it. In the very beginning of the Bible there is darkness and nothingness. God's work is to make something happen in that. What it is, is what is the next moment for each of us. My feeling is God is not like an old man with pure shine around him, with white hair and white robe! But what He does is very important thing. What a human does is actually the same. The human expresses what is God, and in 20 th Century I think God is dead. He was not the real God.

All misunderstanding of God is fallen apart like an old skin. And that doesn't mean that God continues to exist or doesn't exist, or never gets old. The very important thing is when the real God dies there is no humankind, no living being. I feel that is why humankind has expressed God by their word. A young man, Jehovah's Witness, came again and I spoke with him. Very powerful fellow. He doesn't know what I do so I have to become a “sinner” in front of him. I am the very one who make previous wicked, wicked world! ....The one who knows Yaweh doesn't speak of Yaweh. This is a very important point. The one who knows himself doesn't appear in the “I am.” This is a very important thing.

STUDENT: There's a new kind of sinner developing. The new kind of sinner is someone who doesn't practice something. I heard an illustration of that kind of thing at Tarthang Tulku's group in Berkeley. There is right now a very famous scholar. Everybody liked the teacher but not so much the scholar. It's like the scholar doesn't practice. He doesn't sit. It evidently reached the stage where they were going to sing to the scholar, “How long have you been sitting?” At which point Tarthang Tulku came up and gave a student a karate chop in the kidney. The student doubled over. I was really pleased!

KOBUN: You cannot blame people who don't practice. That feeling toward them is like poison-maker. Whatever they do, not only not practicing, but whatever they do is poisonous. So anger is mixing with pity. I know that feeling. There are lots of Buddhist scholars in Japan who don't sit but speak of Buddhism and zazen. They are fantastic when you listen to them. They speak in a perfect way. I think it is a very delicate point, how the practicer has to face to them. Do you wait for their real awakening? The more people become sincere, in one way or another they come to the place....

Yesterday I was talking about interest, everyone's innermost interest in something. When you go on, it comes to that place that has to be pierced through. Like when you are a hunter, if you do not meet with the wall, you cannot be a real hunter. It can be said of our practice, too. If one doesn't meet with this wall probably one cannot be good father or good child of someone. Problem is not deeper place, but what people can offer to whole world. Problem of the practice is deeper place for everyone.

Like someone is very sick and understands, “I have only thirty days left.” That recognition makes very certain practice. And yet the days fly like very speedy thing. You can feel very intense feeling he feels. Thirty days will be compared with thirty years or sixty years. The more we know what kind of life we have, practice naturally comes to you. It's not blaming other, “You don't practice. I sit, but you don't sit.” That's wrong. You don't speak that way. He did karate chop?

STUDENT: ... kidney. I guess he doubled up and left the room.

KOBUN: Very good. My feeling of how this Tulku felt is that by student saying, “How long have you been practicing?” he doesn't have the sense of practice. How long doesn't matter, for real practice.

Let's stop today. Thank you.

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