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The Zen Koan: Its History and Use in Rinzai Zen

by Isshu Miura, Ruth Fuller Sasaki

Buy the book: Isshu Miura. The Zen Koan: Its History and Use in Rinzai Zen

Release Date: September, 1984

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: Isshu Miura. The Zen Koan: Its History and Use in Rinzai Zen


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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