Zen Anarchy Pt.3

by Max Cafard

III. The Koan: Entering the Jetstream

Let’s enter the weird world of Mondo Zendo. OK, so what is the sound of one hand clapping ? Struggling with such a koan (Japanese), kungan (Chinese), or kongan (Korean) is central to Zen practice, particularly in the Lin-Chi or Rinzai tradition, the lightening-mind school. It’s a daunting task for the beginning student of Zen : hand to hand combat with King Kong-an, the million pound gorilla.

The Death of Dog

“A monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have a Buddha Nature ?” Joshu said, “Mu !” This great Zen master didn’t seem to know that the correct Buddhist answer is “yes,” since all sentient beings have a Buddha Nature. Shibayama Roshi says that “although literally ‘Mu’ means No, in this case it points to the incomparable satori which transcends both yes and no, to the religious experience of the Truth one can attain when he casts away his discriminating mind.” But even as he betrays the secret of Mu, Shibayama Roshi tricks the reader. For if “Mu” transcends both yes and no, it will also transcend “any religious experience of the Truth,” which it will brutally murder along with the various Buddhas and Patriarchs that Shibayama says we slay with the Great Sword of Mu. And when we cast away the discriminating mind, don’t we cast a discriminating eye on everything we see, including the works of Mumon and Shibayama Roshi ?

Shibayama himself later says that while we are conceptualizing “transcending both yes and no,” the “real ‘Mu’ is lost forever.” Another monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have a Buddha Nature ?” Joshu said, “U !” Yes ! Had Joshiu then decided to come down on the side of spiritual correctness ? Not while the sound of “Mu” is still echoing in the background.

Does a dog ever appear in this koan ? Give it a bone !

The Resurrection of the Cat

At Nansen’s temple the monks of the East Hall and the monks of the West Hall were arguing about a cat. The nature of their dispute has not been passed down. But who knows ? Maybe it was “Does a cat have a Buddha nature ?” Or perhaps even more pertinently, “Do mice have a Buddha nature ?” Anyhow, Nansen came in, held up the cat, and said “Say something and I won’t kill the cat ! If you can’t say anything, I’ll kill it !” None of them could figure out what Nansen wanted them to say, so he killed the cat. Apparently these monks were better at disputing how many fleas can dance on the back of a cat than they were at acting. The next evening, Joshu returned to the temple. Nansen greeted Joshu, telling him what happened with to the poor cat (and to the really poor monks). Nansen asked Joshu if he could have saved the cat. Joshu took off one of his sandals, put it on his head, turned around and walked out. Nansen said, “If you had been there, you would have saved the cat !”
Joshu’s action was a totally spontaneous, right ? His lightening Zen mind was not disturbed by
mere logical reasoning. How Zen it is ! Or was there actually an underlying logic ? The logic of reversal. To act by not acting. To say something by saying nothing. The sandal’s place is reversed, from the toe to the head. Things are turned heals over head. Joshu puts Nansen in the place of the cat. Where was Nansen’s compassion ? Joshu puts himself in the place of Nansen, who has been placed in the place of the cat. Mumon alludes to all these reversals : “Had Joshu only been there,/He would have taken action,/ Had he snatched the sword away,/ Nansen would have begged for his life.” Shibayama suggests that the monks were engaging in “speculative religious arguments.” Something similar to the speculative political arguments of today, though with the internet, political monks from east, west and every other direction can now join together to dissect cats in a million different ways. Albert Low notes that it is said that “the sword of prajna” that Nansen used to kill the cat is “a sword that cuts not in two but in one.” Maybe it should be said that it cuts into none ! It’s the magical sword that uncuts !

The blade that uncuts us from the cat, and from everything else.

Yo Mama A Shit Stick

“The Buddha is a Shit Stick.” “Yo Mama a Shit Stick.” The one koan with a clear solution. But Zen never lets us take the easy way out. Let us investigate further.

“A monk asked Unmon, ‘What is Buddha ?’ Unmon said, ‘A shit-stick !’ (Kan-shiketsu)” There have been a lot of theories about the intriguing question of the exact nature if this famous shit stick. Shibayama says it may have been “a bamboo tool used in ancient China to pick up and take away feces from the road.” Apparently if you meet the feces on the road you don’t kill it, you carry it away. Get the picture ? Catch bullshit at four. Serious Zen practice. Somebody has to do it and very few are interested.

Shibayama says that “”for Master Unmon, here, the whole universe was a shit-stick.” Right, we’ve all had days like that. But no, he means that there is “no room for such an idle distinction as dirty and clean.” However, as true as this might be it’s also a bit too obvious. Shibayama warns that the koan’s aim of awakening should never be subordinated to the quest for a reasonable or ingenious response. On the other hand, he adds that the shit-stick has “another role to play” that can’t be overlooked : it “roots out any possible preoccupation in the student’s mind such as ‘virtuous Buddha, inviolable holiness’ and the like.”

Whatever else it might be, the shit-stick is a cure for all kinds of Holy Shit.

If It Ain’t Fixed, Break It

And nothing is fixed ! The famous master Hyakujo wanted to find an abbot for a monastery. He put a pitcher on the floor and asked what it was, adding, “Don’t say it’s a pitcher.” Some of the smarter monks came up with smart things to say. Then Isan the cook came up and kicked it over, breaking it. Bingo ! Isan got to be abbot. The moral of this story : The urge to destroy a pitcher is a creative urge also. Which doesn’t mean that we can achieve an awakened mind if we kick over a pitcher every time we see one. It’s been done !

Commenting on this famous koan, Shibayama says that the “natural and free working flowing out of true Zen spirituality” should never be confused with “unusual or eccentric behavior with a stink of Zen.” Isn’t this true of all behavior that “reeks of anarchy.” How free from arche is it really ? Is it free from the arche of reactive rebellion ? Is it free from the arche of egoistic accumulation ? Is it free from the arche of self-righteousness ?

The real problem is not how to kick over a pitcher, but how to tear down that deceptive pitcher of the ego.

The Wisdom of Absurdity

So is it perfectly clear now ? Do I have to draw a pitcher ? If it’s not, here are two more strong hints from some of our compassionate teachers.

Hui-neng, very early in the history of Zen, generously gives away much of the secret of the “inscrutable” responses of Zen. Zen mind is basically dialectic in action, training the mind to practice spontaneously in ones everyday life what some philosophers have merely written about. Notice that Hui-neng recommends an explicitly anarchic method, that is, one that subverts principles : “If people question you about principles, if they ask about being, reply with nonbeing ; if they ask about nonbeing, reply with being. If they ask about the ordinary, reply with the holy ; if they ask about the holy, reply with the ordinary ; the two paths are relative to each other, producing the principle of the middle way.”

The first Western Zen master, Heraclitus, said much the same thing : “The path up and the path down are one and the same.” So if they ask about either path, the “opposite-way” response will show their identity. Hui-neng might have added that if they ask about the middle way, reply with the most radical extremes ! So this is part of the sense behind the nonsense. However as truly generous and compassionate as Hui-neng was, he didn’t really give all that much away. He gave away free menus, but he didn’t give away free food. For describing how it works is not the same as releasing the spontaneity of consciousness that allows it to work. It’s still up to us to work out our own spontaneity with diligence.

Another helpful hint comes from contemporary Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. He says that “the response to the koan lies in the life of the practitioner.” The koan is not a puzzle or riddle with one correct answer that the student has to guess. The koan is aimed at evoking, or provoking a certain state (or perhaps anti-state or statelessness !) of consciousness. Thus of two responses that seem formally identical one may be judged perfectly apt, another abysmally wrong, the pretext for a compassionate whack on the head. The koan isn’t a test question (fill in the blank mind ?) ; it’s an opportunity to wake up. Sometimes the sleeper doesn’t respond and needs a good dousing with cold water.

The koan is this wakeup call. Wake up and live !


In many of the classic Buddhist and Zen texts it’s important to look at the opening and closing words. Often the parts that seem at first to be peripheral (dedications, salutations, etc.) convey some of the most crucial messages in the entire work. Hakuin concludes his Zen 101 course with two injunctions. First, he humbly begs his students to “overlook once more an old man’s foolish grumblings.” And then he implores them to “please take good care of yourselves.” Thus with his always focused, ever-attentive mindfulness, Hakuin concludes with the essential non-essence of Buddhism and Zen : non-attachment and compassion.

So go out and kill some Buddhas, and a have a really, really nice day !

Zen Anarchy Pt. 1
Zen Anarchy Pt. 2


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