Zen Koans

Zen Koans

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 206
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  • Book Info
    Zen Koans
    Book Description:

    “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” These cryptic expressions are among the best-known examples of koans, the confusing, often contradictory sayings that form the centerpiece of Zen Buddhist learning and training. Viewed as an ideal method for attaining and transmitting an unimpeded experience of enlightenment, they became the main object of study in Zen meditation, where their contemplation was meant to exhaust the capacity of the rational mind and the expressiveness of speech. Koan compilations, which include elegant poetic and eloquent prose commentaries on cryptic dialogues, are part of a great literary tradition in China, Japan, and Korea that appealed to intellectuals who sought spiritual fulfillment through interpreting elaborate rhetoric related to mysterious metaphysical exchanges. In this compact volume, Steven Heine, who has written extensively on Zen Buddhism and koans, introduces and analyzes the classic background of texts and rites and explores the contemporary significance of koans to illuminate the full implications of this ongoing tradition. He delves deeply into the inner structure of koan literature to uncover and interpret profound levels of metaphorical significance. At the same time, he takes the reader beyond the veil of vagueness and inscrutability to an understanding of how koan writings have been used in pre-modern East Asia and are coming to be evoked and implemented in modern American practice of Zen. By focusing on two main facets of the religious themes expressed in koan records—individual religious attainment and the role dialogues play in maintaining order in the monastic system—Zen Koans reveals the distinct yet interlocking levels of meaning reflected in different koan case records and helps make sense of the seemingly nonsensical. It is a book for anyone interested in untangling the web of words used in Zen exchanges and exploring their important place in the vast creative wellspring of East Asian religion and culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-4790-6
    Subjects: Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Editor’s Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction: The Koan Is My Koan
    (pp. 1-6)

    Koans are pithy, perplexing, and often paradoxical expressions used in various schools of Zen Buddhism to bring a practitioner to the experience of enlightenment. Typically, a koan case involves a spiritual contest between an enlightened master who tests and bests an unenlightened disciple with a clever and insightful saying or probing question, but sometimes the hierarchical roles are reversed so that the disciple is the winner of the contest. In any event, the interplay enables the exchange partner to immediately discern and uproot the causes of his ignorance and to spontaneously gain insight into the true nature of reality beyond...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Origins, Functions, and Modern Receptions of Koans: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives
    (pp. 7-35)

    Koans as concise, confusing, and often contradictory sayings expressed by ancient masters serve as the centerpiece of Zen Buddhist learning and training on several levels. First, koans form the central component of a remarkable body of literature contained in voluminous collections produced in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These works include various styles of elegant poetic and eloquent prose commentaries on cryptic dialogues like the one involving master Zhaozhou cited at the beginning of this chapter. The koan compilations were very much influenced by, and also greatly contributed to, one of the high points in the distinguished history of the...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Developmental Stages and Rhetorical Strategies: A Historical Overview
    (pp. 36-69)

    The primary aim of this book is to show, through an objective analysis integrating historical and textual studies, that there is a rather clear-cut and consistent set of discernible meanings underlying the aura of mystery surrounding koan literature. This study builds on some of the methodological tools offered by current scholarly resources on East Asian thought and culture, which include a vast store house of classic writings available in print and digital versions, as well as new methodologies for interpreting traditional materials. A great number of recent scholarly translations and interpretations published on both sides of the Pacific have done...

  8. CHAPTER 3 On Methods to the Madness of Koans: A New Theory of Interpretation
    (pp. 70-96)

    Despite an appearance of disarming simplicity owing to their brevity and wit, koan cases are anything but straightforward and thus are not easily defined or classified. In fact, they are deliberately mystifying and reason defying, if not necessarily irrational, and this inherently puzzling and paradoxical quality undermines and defeats superficial interpretations. Nevertheless, to formulate a theoretical framework for exploring multiple levels of significance uncovered in the rhetoric of case records, it is crucial to resist relegating Zen dialogues to the realm of the absurd. Instead, it is important to recognize that koans tell stories about enlightenment that make sense once...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Personal Transformation: Cases Reflecting Doubt, Experience, and Expression
    (pp. 97-128)

    Buddhism as a major world religious tradition and the Zen school in particular are often characterized as representing a middle path that navigates between extreme ideological stances. These standpoints cover philosophical principles, such as absolutism versus relativism and theism versus atheism, as well as psychological outlooks, including optimism as opposed to pessimism or passionate attachment as opposed to indifference. According to the basic Buddhist approach, any and all theoretical or emotional views, however reasonable they may seem, when taken to their logical conclusion, will invariably lead to a problematic position reflecting an underlying fixation or obsession. Stubborn adherence to an...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Monastic Transmission: Cases Reflecting Mythology, Monasticism, and Succession
    (pp. 129-159)

    In a bygone era when the forming and recording of dialogues about the exploits of Zen’s extraordinary masters was being developed, koan literature and practice played a special role in the noteworthy transitions and remarkable growth of the Zen tradition in Chinese society. Zen emerged during the Tang dynasty as a renegade spiritual movement located in the southern area, far from the halls of power. It used shocking teaching methods and found itself positioned on the fringes of society, although its leaders occasionally gained the support of powerful secular officials, such as the scholar-diplomat who commented on Zen writings, Pei...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Whither Koans, or Wither? Current Trends and Possible New Directions
    (pp. 160-188)

    Since the onset of modernization and globalization more than a century ago, the tradition of Zen Buddhist koan literature and practice has undergone several important kinds of transition and transmutation. These shifts and modifications have generally resulted in a renewed sense of worldwide appreciation of koans as well as the growth in appeal of what could otherwise be considered an archaic, nichebased religious-literary product. But the newfound popularity of koans is probably a mixed blessing. As has been the case for many centuries, the koan tradition today still faces challenges that at once foster and threaten its survival in regard...

  12. Appendix: Koan Case Catalog
    (pp. 189-192)
  13. Suggested Readings
    (pp. 193-196)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 197-199)