The Fundamental Koan and Mutual Inquiry: My Own Experience and Views

Michio Ochi

FAS Society Journal 96: The Fundamental Koan and Mutual Inquiry

It is a great pleasure to join this first FAS retreat in Europe. In this retreat, as in the retreats and other activities of the FAS Society in Japan, we will have no leader to guide us. Instead of traditional Zen interviews, we will have mutual interviews with one another as equals. Such mutual inquiry is our method for mutually studying the actual problems that each of us are suffering from -- problems that, at their root, are reduced to the fundamental problem shared by all humankind, expressed as the fundamental koan: "Right now, if nothing whatsoever will do, what will you do?" Here I wish to summarize my personal struggle with the fundamental koan, as part of a mutual inquiry with all of you. I would appreciate any comments.

We cannot really work on the fundamental koan if we consider it as a question or problem given from outside. For we cannot then ask the question as our own question. The same is true with going through old-case koan that have been, so to speak, "assigned" or "given" to us. The problem may remain an external matter. In my experience, it took many years to be able to ask myself in all seriousness: "If nothing whatsoever will do, what will I do?" If one can ask oneself right here and now, "If nothing whatsoever will do, what will I do?" one can immediately open up the way to solve it. The answer lies in the question.

News reports on the March 20, 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system greatly shocked the world. It has made us realize that such indiscriminate killing may happen any time in our everyday life, and that we have no effective means whatever to eliminate the risk. It made me ask myself where and how in the world we can possibly live safely. I felt crushed by the fact that human beings can terrorize each other in that way. Indeed, "nothing whatsoever will do" for us. It struck me as all the more true, since I had hardly gotten over the shock from the great quake in January, which killed more than 6,000 people.

These are only a few examples of the disasters that occurred recently in Japan, but I think humankind now lives in a world where similar things can happen anywhere, anytime. The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant demonstrated that most countries are in danger of radioactive pollution. We have many other problems: global environmental problems, air pollution, climate changes, the population explosion, food shortages, problems that are increasing day by day. Like it or not, every one of us is forced to struggle with the fundamental koan.

But we seem to be both optimistic and forgetful by nature. We fail to realize or struggle with problems until we face a real crisis. The fundamental koan must be taken as a real challenge, at any place, any time, and concerning anything that may happen to us. To realize this, I always ask myself: "Am I really OK as I am?" Previously I tended to neglect this self-criticism, but now I realize that the starting point of religious practice is to carry out this self-criticism thoroughly.

Even without facing an emergency or a crisis, we can lose what we live for while leading our daily lives. But if we do not forget to ask ourselves if we are really OK as we are, we will finally realize that we are at the very top of a hundred-foot pole where "nothing whatsoever will do." And there we are forced to take a step further. At the same time, there we truly meet the people we live and work with, and, together, work on our problems.

After all, the reality of our life-and-death is that we are in the last extremity anywhere, anytime, and that we are constantly dealing with the desperate situation in which nothing whatsoever will do. To properly cope, we must renounce ourselves and take a step further from there. That is exactly what FAS is: the activity of the Formless Self of All humankind, creating history Supra-historically. Once we awaken to this fact, FAS Awakening will continue for itself. An old FAS member in the United States said that the fundamental koan should end with an exclamation point, not a question mark: "If nothing whatsoever will do, what will you do!"

In my forty-four years of practice as an FAS member, I first started to consciously confront the fundamental koan only in the past fifteen years, after Dr. Hisamatsu passed away in 1980. Previously I had been unaware that I was desperately struggling with the very question of my life: "If nothing whatsoever will do, what will I do?" (Actually, I took the advice of a senior member and worked on the "Mu" koan under the guidance of a traditional rôshi, or Zen master, for seven or eight years. Eventually I stopped the practice because I could not relate the koan to my own problems.)

My "unconscious" struggle with the fundamental koan began after Japan was defeated in the Second World War. It was then that I lost my faith in State Shintoism, in which I had been raised for twenty-five years, and which I had believed to be my mission. I could no longer believe in gods, Buddha, saints, or their teachings -- anything that lay outside myself. But having lost faith, I no longer had confidence in myself, either. I just wandered in the darkness of distrust for five or six years. I had been taken captive in the Soviet Union and detained in a prison camp in poor health. After returning home and recovering, I was active again, but soon found I could not live on my meager income. I could not teach because I had been purged from the teaching profession for having studied in Manchukuo. Thus I had no choice but to become a salesman.

As I reluctantly worked, my chronic abdominal illness recurred with acute pain, driving me into serious depression. As I reflected upon my miserable state, I realized that I had lost the self-renouncing attitude I had as a student, when I would loudly chant, "Do not spare your life for the sake of your country." I realized I was depressed because I had lost that attitude. Since I had learned that the expression "do not spare your life" had been taken from Dôgen, I looked it up in his Shôbôgenzô Zuimonki. I found that the Zen master had said: "For the sake of Buddha Dharma, you must not spare your life . . . you mustn't not spare your life, either." So, the phrase I used to chant had been perverted to suit the purposes of the state!

This led me to visit Dr. Hisamatsu, on the advice of an old school friend who was a member of the FAS Society. I joined the group and experienced for the first time the pain and pleasure of sitting zazen in the full-lotus posture. At that time, the group was carefully discussing the draft of the Vow of Humankind to create a concise, contemporary expression of Buddha Dharma. This discussion helped me recover my faith in religious teaching, motivated me to practice, and oriented me toward Awakening. The core of the teaching was Awakening to the formless Self, and the method was defined as "study and practice as one."

I started going to FAS meetings and soon began taking time off from work to participate in the retreats, although not without some problems. Once during a retreat, my company sent me an unexpected telegram, ordering me back to work immediately. I read books on Zen and began to sit at home. From time to time, symptoms of my earlier illness would return, but I gradually got better.

A few years after starting zazen, a routine checkup showed tuberculosis, and I was forced to spend the next three years in hospital. It seemed as though all the evils lurking in my body and mind had come to the fore through the practice of zazen. I had developed an inferiority complex due to my mother's mental disability and my own maladjustment to my job as a salesman. These things prevented me from making a decision to marry and have a family. I felt so alienated that I refused to take my illness seriously and be a good patient. In the hospital I wrote to Dr. Hisamatsu, "Despair is the sickness unto death." He scolded me severely for my attitude, and wrote: "I sincerely hope you receive thorough treatment."

As my tuberculosis worsened, I finally wrote him of my determination to carry out a "sickbed retreat." He encouraged me: "I will do retreat on the sickbed with you." For over a month I practiced quietly lying on my back. During a critical period of this strange retreat, I was suddenly unable to eat or sleep for over a week. But after overcoming this crisis, I was finally on the road to recovery. During that critical period, I had a kind of vision of my mother -- whom I had a grudge against -- dying for my sake. As I came to, I felt gratitude for her for the first time. I was thankful from the bottom of my soul, and now had confidence in my own mental health.

Three years after leaving the hospital I married at the age of forty, and, after a long job search and much hesitation, chose industrial training as my lifework. At the age of forty-three I was finally free from care about finding my role in society. To put the Vow of Humankind into practice, I tried to combine my study and practice of Zen with the ideas and techniques of industrial management, for example, management based on the problem-solving approach of behavioral science.

During this period I had been trying to stabilize my life and establish a firm attitude that would enable me to be indifferent to the Buddhist "eight winds" of praise and blame, pleasure and pain, and so on. To accomplish this, I gave myself a kind of koan: to sit through to the very end in the full-lotus posture. I thought body-mind dropped off, or the formless Self, would be ridiculous if it could not sit through because of the pain. How many years did I begin retreats with a great resolution, failed to sit through because of the pain in my left leg, and went home in disgust! Yet I managed to overcome problems on the job and at home, thanks to the power gained from my inadequate zazen. At one time I thought that I should be satisfied with my zazen if only it granted me mental and physical health, and the ability to perform my social roles. That was the zazen I was doing when Dr. Hisamatsu passed away, leaving the message, "After I'm physically dead, continue our dialogue within yourself." Soon after this, I retired and became a part-time instructor.

While Dr. Hisamatsu was alive, I would often write or visit him to ask for a keisaku-stick when I felt I couldn't bear my helplessness. I could not really be satisfied as I was, having abandoned the hope of Awakening myself. Eventually I would regret the life I had lived, knowing it would not come again. The only way was to break through the fundamental koan left by Hisamatsu. And the correct approach was in sitting. For me, the question came down to this: I could not bear the pain despite my strongest efforts, but neither could I bear the sense of failure at giving up the lotus posture halfway; then what do I do? Indeed, I had been struggling with this desperate situation ever since starting zazen. Finally, after nearly forty years, I came to the point where I could allow myself to think that I had sat through to the very end. Since that time, I have never thought that I couldn't sit through. The Zen expression "Try to achieve Self-affirming Mind" (kôshin o benzeyo) was finally realized.

Over the past fifteen years, I have had much free time. My three children graduated from school, got jobs, and married. My wife and I have finished our job as parents.

The essence of koan practice is concentration, a kind of concentration without an object to concentrate upon. Finally, it becomes concentration without concentrating. It develops into a doubt block and collapses of itself.

A description of the method for working on a koan, and of the process involved, is given in the first case of the Mumonkan, or Gateless Barrier. It is difficult, however, for lay people like myself to concentrate on sitting practice in everyday life. During week-long FAS retreats held three times a year, I could barely join in half of the retreat. It was difficult in those days for Japanese office workers to take paid holidays. During the day I was occupied with my job, and at night I would often go out for a drink of saké with my fellow workers. (This notorious practice in the Japanese business world, known as tsukiai, helped me understand my colleagues better and "lubricated" our relationships.)

At the time of course, all these things seemed like obstacles in my effort to strengthen my concentration to the saturation point through Zen study and practice. Now, however, I think it was valuable to try and concentrate under such unfavorable circumstances. For example, Huang-po, a Zen master of the Tang in China, states in his Essentials of Mind-to-Mind Transmission: "Attaining the Way immediately and attaining it as the final ground of practice -- both have the same effect; they are no different in their depths." The FAS Society's Guiding Principles for Attaining Awakening states: "Under circumstances favorable or not, we will maintain an unswerving determination to Awaken, and, to make this Awakening flourish, will participate in its activities without fail." This implies that regular, continual effort in concentration greatly affects our practice and accelerates it more than we might expect. At this age I have finally come to appreciate these words.

Working on specific, old-case koan is not suitable for lay people. Dr. Hisamatsu stressed that, for lay people, the best approach to ultimate concentration is to work on the fundamental koan. Whatever we are doing now, on the job or relaxing at home, we should ask ourselves: "This will not do; that will not do, either. Then what will we do?" I have experienced the effect of this approach often. Sometimes I could not complete preparations for a training session at work. So, at the start of the session, I just hurled myself at the task at hand with the spirit of "No good, no evil!" Often this helped me assume a frank attitude and produced good results. After solving the fundamental koan in my sitting practice, it became easier to work on in everyday life. And as it became easier to work on in daily life, it also became easier to work on in zazen. There's a kind of synergy involved. Concentrated zazen is not a bit different from concentration on things in daily life.

The greatest problem in our study and practice is, I think, our having to grope in the dark. We tend to ask ourselves: "Why practice counting breaths?" "Why struggle with the 'Mu' koan?" "What's the use of shikantaza-just sitting?" The same problem occurs with the fundamental koan. But the true meaning of these methods can only be fully understood when we solve the very problem-question involved. Everyone wants to know in advance all about the meaning and process, so we struggle with the teachings and writings to gain some clue. We cannot really grasp and comprehend them, however, until we experience for ourselves what is expressed in those teachings and writings.

Encouragement in this desperate struggle comes through the bond of mutual trust with senior practicers. In traditional koan practice, absolute trust in the master is said to be essential. I had been skeptical about the effectiveness of the fundamental koan, so I was greatly encouraged to learn that during his last days, Dr. Hisamatsu recommended it and said it was enough to master the basics. This may seem to suggest that trust in senior practicers, and thus the presence of reliable leaders, is essential. But in the end, I think the questions come down to: Who selects dependable books and people, and who meets them? For whom does one practice? These are fundamental questions concerning mutual inquiry.

I have emphasized sitting practice because I have witnessed the admirable sitting practice of FAS members, elder and younger, and the imperturbable attitude they maintain in their daily lives. Deeply impressed by their serious attitude toward practice, I have always wished to follow their example. I feel ashamed to always betray my inadequate sitting practice to everyone. But the sense of pleasant tension and concentration achieved by sitting with a group are incomparable to those felt when sitting alone. This may be due to a kind of group dynamism, since the participants all share a sincere attitude and aspiration for the Way. In mutual inquiry as well, we should be aware of this kind of activity of harmoniously benefitting self and other. When we feel stuck in the pursuit for our own benefit, we can soothe our hardened hearts by turning our attention to benefiting others.

Like FAS members in Europe, the younger generation of Japanese members did not meet Hisamatsu, and thus regret the lack of dependable leaders. It is virtually impossible to replace Hisamatsu, and this is the biggest problem with the FAS Society after his death. Japanese members accept this difficulty, and work on it as a question of their own existential choice. It is not necessary, of course, to attach to the activities of the FAS Society. The fundamental questions of which leader to select and how to encounter that leader depend entirely on us. Isn't this true of everything in our social life, though? Are Zen and FAS exceptions?

I would say that, ultimately, one's teacher is that very self which drives one to study and practice. One purpose of mutual inquiry is to guard against falling into self-righteousness in the course of our self-guided struggle. I would suggest that the depth of each member and the depth of the group as a whole have a mutually positive effect. It seems to me that the interrelation between practice and authentication, expressed in the words "Practice and authentication are one," guides not only individual practice, but mutual inquiry and group practice as well.

Psychological counseling deals with similar problems. Effective treatment can be achieved when counselor and client, who have different positions and roles, influence each other. This is true in group counseling, even though the facilitator has a catalytic role and is expected to exercise some leadership.

Transactional analysis has been called an American mass version of psychoanalysis. This method, designed to analyze human interactions, places importance on the basic question: "Am I good to myself?" From this it develops these four propositions: "I'm OK, you're not OK," "You're OK, I'm not OK," "I'm not OK, you're not OK," "I'm OK, you're OK."

Does this have nothing to do with human relations in FAS mutual inquiry? I have seen something in common, and I'm convinced that I have received positive stimuli from both. In retrospect, sometimes I was swayed by the idea that Zen and FAS were of a whole other order, and at other times I confused these two areas of human encounter. Now I would like to reconsider these problems to develop a more clear-cut, freer method of study and practice.

Before I had even begun struggling with the fundamental koan, I was deeply impressed with the following words of Hisamatsu, found in his study on the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana: "Truth lies before the occurrence [of sentient beings]." He states that "before the occurrence" is the origin, the source, of time and space.

Think about the pain of sitting. We cannot possibly bear this pain to the end. Why, then, is it said that bearing it to the very end is important in practice? As I pondered this, the expression "enduring without enduring" occurred to me. By this I mean self-renouncing in the sense that one forgets one's body-and-mind, throws them away. "Before the occurrence" refers to what is actualized when one renounces. With this, I finally understood the words in the Diamond Sutra, "One has no place of dwelling, and thus gives rise to the true Mind." (Over thirty years ago, when I practiced with the "Mu" koan under a rôshi, or Zen master, I had stopped struggling with these words from the Diamond Sutra.)

There is no distinction between renouncing in sitting and in our daily life. As I mentioned, after I managed to sit through to the very end, I could work on the fundamental koan in my daily life. Whatever I'm doing, I make a conscious effort to renounce myself. On the other hand, this renouncing allows me to do my best in whatever I do. Again, there is a kind of synergy. I feel my concentration has finally matured, and become constant. It has also helped me to cultivate leadership.

The scope of the fundamental koan is not limited to the problem of self. It extends to the problems of family and friends, community -- the whole world. The fundamental koan includes both a Way toward, and a Way from, Awakening. The letters "A" and "S" in the FAS acronym refer to "(standing on the standpoint of) All humankind," and "(creating) Supra-historical history." This is part of our earnest Vow of Humankind, to "construct a world in which everyone can live truly and fully." Based on the recognition of absolute negativity, i.e., the fundamental contradiction of humanity, this vow is different from the idealistic desire to improve the world within the straight-line development of historical progress.

The modern world is characterized by its over-emphasis on technology and the economy. Nations have used their economic and military capabilities to vie against each other for power. But modern history has now reached a deadlock over the entire globe, increasing the risk of humankind's collapse. In this connection, I would like to stress that we do not ask the question posed in the fundamental koan from where we are so that we may reach the other side; rather, the problem-question itself presses us for an answer from where it is to where we are. An old-case koan asks: "The flower in the garden, is it living or dead?" The fundamental koan asks us: "FAS on the earth, is it living or dead?"

In my youth, I studied at a university in Manchukuo, the multi-ethnic nation regarded as Japan's puppet-state. Students from different cultural backgrounds, from Manchuria, China, Mongolia, Korea, Taiwan, Russia, and Japan, lived and worked together to try and construct a world of peace and prosperity based on the harmony of different ethnic groups. We worked hard, and we struggled, with the contradictions between our lofty ideals and the actual state of the world, and with the conflicts caused by our individual and ethnic egoism. Like many youngsters in those days, we were destined to "not spare your life for the sake of your country." Some Chinese students were disappointed with Manchukuo and turned to the Kuomintang Nationalist Party, or to the Communist Party. Some were arrested and imprisoned, and some died in prison.

The mutual love and trust that we built during the five years we studied together at the university have survived several historical changes and remain today, beyond differences in ideology and economic and political systems. I believe this has been possible because we understand each other at the deepest root of humanity. The harmonization policy and actual conditions of that short-lived, multi-ethnic nation have become important subjects for academic study.

The FAS Society, too, is formed by people with various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The fact that they go beyond their differences and join together for the sake of the Way, arouses in me a sense of trust and affection. That is one major reason why I decided to join this retreat in Europe. By joining you, I wish to "stand on the standpoint of all humankind" at an even deeper level.

23 June, 1997