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Youngstown OhioThe Zen Koan: Its History and Use in Rinzai Zen
Published: 19 October, 1966
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As of: November 07th, 2006 07:01:06 AM

Author: Isshu Miura
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Youngstown Ohio A classic, in its own way

This was a ground-breaking work when it first appeared in 1966 - and, it deserved the good reviews received. It is a matter for regret that the larger work this material was extracted from (Zen Dust: The History of the Koan and Koan Study in Rinzai Zen, First Zen Institute, Kyoto, 1966) is out of print. Still, this portion, selected for reprint, has relevance for the general reader. The foreword and Part 1 was contributed by Ruther Fuller(Sasaki), Parts 2 & 3 by Isshu Miura Roshi. Ruth Fuller's introductory remarks provide a useful summary of the background to Rinzai Zen - including its roots in China. Parts 2 & 3 provides a fascinating account of the koan in the context of Rinzai practice - the focus mainly upon Hakuin's teachings. The material from Hakuin's Keiso dokuzui' dealing with the 'Five Ranks'(or Go-I)is particularly relevant, for it has been - and still is, neglected by other translators. This material comprises Hakuin's account of the Go-I teachings, devised by the Chinese Soto (Ts'ao-tung) masters. It is worth noting that Hakuin used to it to 'cap' his own training system. Anyone who feels inclined to make black and white distinctions between Rinzai and Soto Zen - should take a hint from this.

The extracts from the Zenrinkushu were translated beautifully, and these are accompanied by some delightful reproductions of Hakuin's art-work. All in all, this is an engaging and highly useful book. It is packed with fascinating remarks and notes.

I've had copies of this book around for more than thirty years, to show/loan to friends. The first copy was a gift from a friend who moored his boat on the river at the back of my house. Its pages were permeated with the fragrance of aged timber, life on the river, damp ropes, flowing tides, a hint of wood-smoke, kerosene. The atmosphere of the river permeated the book, and the intuitions in the book permeated life on the river. In that sense, it is an old friend.

However, one thing has always made me feel uncomfortable about the book - namely, the approving references - brief though they may be - to the Zen establishment's support of the Japanese militarists in the 20thc. This ought not to have been the case in the 1960's, under Japan's pro-peace constitution. After the war, people like Yanagida Seizan went through agonizing soul searching over this matter, deeply regretting the complicity between the Rinzai Shu and the militarists. The world has moved on, Japan has moved on. The Soto Shu has officially denounced its previous complicity in such matters, and it is high time for the Rinzai Shu to follow suit. How much longer must the names of Rinzai, Hakuin etc., be tied to this sorry matter? Humanity strives - as never before, to build a peaceful world, yet there are still those who would throw the world back into futile conflict. Buddhism is about compassion, and it behooves us to remember that. What's the point in all the precepts, bodhisattva vows - or even satori, if we can't bring peace to the world. Poor Buddha!

Youngstown Ohio One of my Favorites

Very simple and clear. This book has both some great history on Zen and a clear presentation of the Rinzai Koan system. It shows also the stages in the traditional Rinzai tradition, and includes a good history of Koans in both Japan and China.

I found this book when I was studying the relationship of the Goi Koans and the Five Buddha families presented in the Tibetan and Esoteric Mandalas. The discourse on the Goi (Five Ranks) by Hakuin was incredible!

Youngstown Ohio A highly successful collaborative effort.

THE ZEN KOAN : Its History and Use in Rinzai Zen. By Isshu Miura and Ruth Fuller Sasaki. With Reproductions of Ten Drawings by Hakuin Ekaku. 156 pp. New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1965 and Reprinted.

Although the word 'koan' has now entered the English language, there are still many who don't have a clear and accurate idea of just what a koan is, and how it fits into traditional Zen Practice. The present book, as its subtitle indicates, has two aims : 1. To offer us "an essay on the history of the origin and use of the koan by Chinese Ch'an masters and its further development by their heirs, the Rinzai Japan"; 2. To also offer us, in Ruth Fuller Sasaki's English translations, a series of eight talks given in New York by Miura Isshu Roshi on "the system of koan study at present in use in all the Rinzai monasteries in Japan" (page x).

This book therefore, although of course it contains a number of koans, should not be mistaken for a collection of koans, but is rather a very well-written and informative introduction to all such collections, and one that clears away whatever misconceptions we may have. Sasaki emphasizes that :

"The koan is not a conundrum to be solved by nimble wit. It is not a verbal psychiatric device for shocking the disintegrated ego of a student into some kind of stability. Nor ... is it ever a paradoxical statement except to those who view it from outside. When the koan is resolved it is realized to be a simple and clear statement made from the state of consciousness which it has helped to awaken" (pages xi-xii).

In addition to Ruth Fuller Sasaki's 30-page 'History of the Koan in Rinzai,' and Miura Isshu Roshi's eight lectures on koan study, the book also contains two surprising bonuses. The first of these, 'Selections from A Zen Phrase Anthology,' gives us 210 'jakugo' or 'capping phrases' from the 'Zenrin Kushu,' an anthology of famous and beautiful lines "from Buddhist sutras, the records of the Chinese Zen patriarchs, Confucian texts, Taoist writings, and the works of Chinese poets" (page 79).

The Japanese student often memorizes abridged versions of the 'Zenrin Kushu' "for within its thousands of phrases he must find the particular traditional ... "capping phrase" ... for the koan he is studying, and present it to his teacher as the final step in his study of the koan" (page 80). For each of the capping phrases we are given the original Chinese text in Chinese characters (which cannot of course be reproduced here), the romanized Japanese reading, Sasaki's English translation, and sometimes a brief note. Here is an example, with my slash marks to indicate line breaks:

"142. [Chinese characters] / Enzan kagiri naku hekisoso / Endlessly rise the distant mountains, / Blue heaped upon blue" (page 105).

One easily available Japanese edition of the 'Zenrin Kushu' is the abridged version edited by SHIBAYAMA Zenkei (Kyoto : Kichudo, 1952).

Since, as Sasaki explains in her Foreword, the subject of 'The Zen Koan' is Hakuin Ekaku's (1686-1769) system of koan study, and long quotations from him are given in Miura Isshu Roshi's lectures, the work would not be complete without some examples of his brilliant paintings and calligraphy, which he used in teaching Zen, particularly to his lay followers (page xiii).

Hakuin was a sort of Picasso of Zen, and these paintings, all of which have explanatory inscriptions, are for me one of the high points of the book. Once again, besides halftone reproductions of the ink paintings, we have been given printed versions of Hakuin's inscribed texts in the original Sino-Japanese characters, romanized Japanese readings, and very readable English translations by Ruth Fuller Sasaki.

One of my favorites is THE MONKEY, which gives a delightfully comic painting of a young monkey hanging by one arm from a branch, and reaching down with the other towards the water. Sasaki's translation of the inscription reads:

"The monkey is reaching for the moon in the water / Until death overtakes him he'll never give up. / If he'd let go the branch and disappear in the deep pool / The whole world would shine in dazzling pureness" (page 132).

Another of my favorites is the masterpiece, KANNON, for which I'll just have to refer you to the book. 'The Zen Koan' is a highly successful collaborative effort, and should prove of interest to anyone who has the slightest interest at all in the Zen koan.

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