The Fundamental Koan of Humankind: Making It Our Own

by Jeff Shore

FAS Society Journal 1997, pp.97-105.

I hesitate to break the silence of this retreat, but having been asked to speak, I will do so. First, I have been asked to summarize some of the insights of the seminar, then provide a transition from seminar to retreat by speaking on how the fundamental koan can be transformed in a European context.

On the first day of the seminar, Gishin Tokiwa spoke on the connection between personal transformation and the transformation of society according to the thought of Shin'ichi Hisamatsu, who was the inspiration behind the F. A. S. Society. Tokiwa tried to show how the apparently personal or individual struggle with the fundamental koan actually comes to include all things, society as well. Tokiwa will speak tomorrow on sôgo sankyû(相互参究) or "mutual inquiry," which he renders as "mutually sharing direct self-investigation."

Ilse Bulhof, a Dutch religious philosopher, spoke on the possible Westernization of Zen. Many participants were interested in what she had to say about "invisible community." She also introduced the two truths theory of Buddhism: relative truth and so-called absolute, inexpressible truth.

Father Bernard Durel from France spoke on "Between the Cushion and the Altar." A very personal testimony of a Dominican deeply committed to and nourished by the Zen tradition, who found the fundamental koan was, in a sense, what he had been struggling with all his life.

On the second day of the seminar, Henrik Karlsson from Sweden spoke on "Listen to the Unborn." Combining his long years of Zen practice with his profession as a musicologist, he described what an awesome instrument is this thing called the ear, and explained a little how it works. He also tried to show its possible spiritual, transformative power, while being careful not to confuse this with Zen practice.

Finally, Geert Mortier from Belgium spoke, through the inspiration of Ton Lathouwers, on "impossible questions" and the helping role of literature. Geert persuasively showed that something approaching the fundamental koan has always been with us in our own literary traditions.

Before going into my theme for today, I would like to offer a personal thanks. I all to rarely express my appreciation, and, as you know, sometimes a whole lifetime goes by and we realize we forgot to thank those who made it all possible and worthwhile. Because of the people assembled here today, I probably will never have a chance like this.

Let me first say thank you to my wife Fusako, and my son Evan. Through the years they have made it possible for me to do what little I could. Fusako has always been by my side, never pulling, never pushing, but constantly supporting. Thank you. And Evan -- these are tears of joy, so don't worry. Thanks.

I also want to thank two teachers here from Japan, Gishin Tokiwa and Michiyo Ochi. They have offered incalculable guidance through the years, although they would probably deny it. People have even said that I brought Tokiwa and Ochi here; really, it is they who brought me here. Thank you.

Finally I want to thank so many of my friends, old and new, who are now in the audience and have supported me in so many ways. If what I say today is of any value whatever, consider it a small token of thanks for the enormous debt I owe.

I would like now to speak about "The Fundamental Koan of Humankind: Making it Our Own." Consider this an appetizer to the main course tomorrow, when Gishin Tokiwa will talk about mutual inquiry, or, as he more clearly renders it, true self-inquiry. Then we await an exquisite Austrian dessert presented on the final day by Wolfgang Waas.

One of the things I've been asked to do is provide a kind of transition from seminar to retreat. I will do this by speaking about the fundamental koan and how to make it our own, or, in more concrete terms, finding rest in life-death and working from there, which comes down to the same thing.

Buddhism speaks of aging, sickness, and death, or more precisely of birth, aging, sickness, and death -- the entire process of life-death, samsara, the endless round of suffering or dis-ease that humankind goes through. Other religions address this "struggle of humankind," if I may call it that, in other ways. But it is, after all, our story.

Is it not a central theme of the world's great literature, read deeply? Geert Mortier, in his talk the other day, showed this. I think it is also a central theme of the world's great art, created and experienced deeply. It is also, I think, a central concern of the great philosophies, thought and lived deeply. It is, of course, the raison d'être of the world's religions. And it is why we are here today.

It can also be expressed in terms of the fundamental koan, which is no different. I will put it this way: As we are, neither living nor dying will do; what do we do? This is not just a problem of our own living-dying, but of all beings. And it is not just a problem or question that ends in some Awakening or enlightenment experience. I will return to this point at the end.

Being asked to speak about the fundamental koan in a European context, it should first be made clear that it was formulated precisely to minimize such "cultural baggage." You don't need to be familiar with T'ang Dynasty China or Medieval Japanese Buddhism to see that right now, as we are, living and dying will not do. I won't say that the so-called fundamental koan completely eliminates all such cultural baggage because I don't know if that is possible in so far as it is formulated in language. But it certainly minimizes such things. In other words, it is meant to be applicable anytime, anywhere.

But don't mistake the fundamental koan for expressions of it, such as, "When whatever you do will not do, what do you do?" That is not the fundamental koan; that is a verbal formulation of it. The fundamental koan is our own, as Ton Lathouwers speaks of it, impossible question. It is the unsolvable problem that must be solved; our own most urgent demand and pressing task. And it is ours. It is the call and cry of our deepest self. It is the gift we are given at birth which we have to unravel.

At any rate, it is not just mine; it is yours. And it is not just yours; as Henrik Karlsson made clear, if we truly listen, it is humankind's. Facing this, the person who went on to become the second patriarch of Chinese Zen is said to have pleaded with Bodhidharma something like this: "I am not at rest. Please, master, give me peace!"

But we are now in the chapel of the Tiltenberg, an ecumenical Christian center in Europe, so let's drop the Zen stories for awhile. [pause ] "Our heart is restless until it rests in you." We don't need to go to the existentialists either, or even to the Christian mystics. That was Saint Augustine, 1,600 years ago. In context he says, in the opening of his Confessions, " have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."1

Augustine is speaking to, and of, God. Indeed, the expression "for yourself" is, in Latin ad te, literally "towards Yourself." This is a cosmology and teleology in which all comes from and returns to God. This is different from Buddhism. Let's accept that difference. "You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." As is clear from his Confessions, in his own way Augustine struggled with the question of who that God is, and he came to a resolution. We, in a very different social-historical context, have to come to our own question, and answer, concerning who, what, where, when, and why is this God that Augustine speaks to, and of.

But for now I would like to take Augustine's statement just as it is : it approaches the fundamental koan, and also shows Augustine's answer. Augustine is in effect saying no place, no thing will do. Bernard Durel spoke of it in terms of being "homeless," of having no place to rest one's head. Geert Mortier also spoke eloquently of this religious fact. Augustine also says, "I was intent on the things that are contained in places, but among them I found no place of rest, nor did they receive me, so that I might say, 'it is enough, and it is well.'"2

We all know from reading Zen literature that we can't seek rest in some place, in some form, we can't find peace there. Seng-ts'an's (d. 606) On Believing in Mind (信心銘) is often quoted: "When you strive to gain quiescence by stopping motion, The quiescence thus gained is ever in motion; As long as you tarry in dualism, How can you realize oneness?"3 True rest is no t found in dead stillness; it must be the source of genuine creativity. The FAS Society's Vow of Humankind opens with "Calm and composed...." -- two words used to translate the Japanese term yoku ochitsuite (よくおちついて). I feel the English term "calm" tends toward dead stillness, while "composure" can give the sense of a calmness not tending toward mere inaction but with a certain tautness and readiness which can act and respond.

"Our heart is restless until it rests in you." Through his religious experience, Augustine was able to come to rest in God. But his life after that was clearly not one of dead stillness. Accounts of his life after his conversion in a Milan garden in the summer of 386 clearly show his great activity and creativity. It was not mere rest or passive inactivity any more than Zen is, or at least should be.

Being asked to speak on a European approach to the core, or fundamental, koan, perhaps I should end here and let you mull over St. Augustine. But let me throw a few more coins into the pot.

In a more contemporary vein, the Japanese philosopher and Zen layman Kitarô Nishida, who was the teacher of Shin'ichi Hisamatsu, spoke in his final essay about physics and biological life as a kind of "implicit" contradiction. In other words, endless movement or activity in the physical or biological world can destroy or tear apart the organism; at the same time, extended inactivity can cause that same organism to de-compose or decay. But the contradiction becomes "explicit" in human life, in life aware of itself. Nishida says that self-consciousness itself, individual self-consciousness, is already a self-contradiction. I am aware of myself as being something, and yet that something is always other than myself. I am aware of myself only as I am reflected in the world, and I am aware of the world only as it is reflected in myself.4

The point here is, in terms of action-inaction, that we cannot attain some object outside of ourselves even through ceaseless activity, nor can we come completely to rest in ourselves. We cannot do either. Augustine also knew this. It is not possible to attain full rest within our ever-floundering selves; nor is it possible to totally transcend oneself either. This is the fundamental koan in terms of action-inaction or movement-rest, which is one form of living-dying. In terms of our practice right here and now, only on the surface is true seated zazen a form of mere rest or passive inactivity.

Let me be more concrete: Let's look at action-inaction or movement-rest in a particular situation. Here in Europe I have often been riding trains. A little child is waiting for the train. As the train approaches, the child somehow falls onto the tracks. What will you do? What do you do? -- you don't have time to think. Of course this is a hypothetical situation, and it is difficult to know how we would respond. Still, I ask, What will we do?

Someone may say, "I know. We can chant the Heart Sutra: 'Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is form....'" That will certainly not do!

How does true composure function here? What will we do? One possibility is [the speaker throws himself down as if holding the child and rolling away from the tracks].

Are we sure to survive? Are we sure to save the child? No. The point is that the ego in that situation can be frozen into inaction. We all know what that means. You are in a situation where you must act, and yet you cannot act: You are frozen by the fear of death, or life-death.

But it is possible to act at that moment free from life-death. This is different from mere bravery in spite of danger. Of course such action is only one possibility, and the same person may not always do the same thing. There are all kinds of factors involved. But it is possible to act in life and death, free from life-death. That is what I am trying to show in this situation. It is a very dramatic example, so let's forget about it now.

For the same thing holds true in our daily lives, and that's where it really matters. In our daily lives, though, it's rarely so black-and-white . It's often more a matter of having to choose the lesser of two evils, of having to compromise. The principle of selflessness is the same but there is no single formula, such as, "Always jump down on the tracks." That's just no t true always and under every circumstance. Working in a psychiatric hospital for a few years before going to Japan, I realized that sometimes what we can do is offer a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, friendly eyes to look into. Sometimes, that's what we do when nothing will do.

Let me conclude by touching on the thorny issue of "Original Awakening"(本覚) and "Acquired Awakening"(始覚 lit. "First-time Awakening"), import ant Mahayana Buddhist ideas. Sometimes one side is emphasized, sometimes the other. Original Awakening points to the essential religious fact that all beings are Awakened; we cannot acquire, achieve, or attain this. Acquired Awakening points to the fact that, through practice, one actually does Awaken in a certain time and place, although the Awakening itself is not confined spatially or temporally. If you read the Zen records, it says the master slapped the disciple, then the disciple Awakened. That is an instance of Acquired Awakening.

Now, which Awakening is ultimately true? Original Awakening? Acquired Awakening? Neither one. Masao Abe, in an article on Dôgen, argues that Original Awakening is the constant ground or basis.5 But we should not hold on even to that. Why? I think we all know why -- if we take Original Awakening as ultimate, we tend to fall into t he fallacy of thinking that we don't even have to Awaken to our utter lack o f Awakening! The misery around us, the misery that we cause through our own ignorance -- it's OK because all things are enlightened anyway, right? When Original Awakening is taken that way, it is, rather, the self-deception of original ignorance.

What is the problem with taking Acquired Awakening as the ultimate? First of all, if we don't have it, we then seek it. If we've already had it, we may become obsessed with trying to return to it, which we never can. And if we're living it right now, we may become wrapped up in it, so preoccupied with it that it enslaves and blinds us.

But Acquired Awakening is necessary -- as what Abe calls the condition or occasion. Without it, Awakening remains a concept, an ideal. Do not seek it as the goal, just give yourself up completely to your practice and Acquired Awakening is possible. It's just a matter of time.

The point is what we do with that. Acquired Awakening must be deepened and transcended until it is inseparable from unborn, undying Original Awakening -- because that is what it really is. Original Awakening is also necessary. Without it, Awakening loses its true ground, as Abe argues. Then we can see for the first time that Awakening really is nothing to acquire; indeed, it is nothing at all.

To repeat: We, through struggle and practice, must realize so-called Acquired Awakening; but this Awakening, that happens, say in Memphis on November 23, 1989, must finally be inseparable from Original Awakening, which includes all beings, all space and time. In other words, we must actualize so-called Acquired Awakening, but that Awakening must be thorough enough, penetrating enough, to go beyond itself and be one with Original Awakening which is not delimited by space or time, nor even by Awakening or non-Awakening. At this point, Awakening itself falls away. I know this may sound rather speculative and philosophical, but I can see that for some of you it is of value.

Let me end by returning to the beginning: The fundamental koan in a European context. The fundamental koan is not Hisamatsu's. We don't need Hisamatsu. And you certainly don't need me. Did you think that Tokiwa, Ochi and I were going to bring something from Japan? Well, maybe some tea and cookies, but nothing more than that. I introduced St. Augustine -- perhaps I'm trying to steer you back to your Christian roots? I did want to show something common there, but that's not my point either.

The fundamental koan in a European context; finally, what do we need? I say that when each one of you walked through that door, you already had more than enough! It's just a matter now of realizing it, actualizing it. And that is what we're here for in this retreat. Then to fully manifest it and work out of it. I look forward to working on this together in the coming days, and learning from all of you. Thank you.

From the lecture given on the first day of the August, 1996 retreat at the Tiltenberg Ecumenical Center in Vogelenzang, Holland. A revised version, along with Japanese translation, will appear in the 1997 issue of『禅学研究 』 (Studies in Zen Buddhism) Vol. 75.

1 The Confessions of St. Augustine, translated by John K. Ryan (Image Books, 1960) Book 1, Chapter 1, p. 43.

2 Ibid, Book 7, Chapter 7, p. 167.

3 D. T. Suzuki, Manual of Zen Buddhism (London: Rider and Company, 1956) p. 77.

4 See Kitarô Nishida's Last Writings: Nothingness and the Religious Worldview, translated by David A. Dilworth (University of Hawaii Press, 1987) pp. 49-54.

5 See Dôgen Studies, edited by William R. LaFleur (University of Hawaii Press, 1985) p. 101. For a critical overview of the idea of Original Awakening (本覚思想), see Paul Swanson's "'Zen is Not Buddhism': Recent Japanese Critiques of Buddha-Nature" in Numen, Volume 40 (1993) pp. 115-149.