What is Zen?

ZennistI begin with two stories, the first of which has been stored in my computer for many years. But I forgot to identify the source. However, given what is written at the end of it, my mind thinks it comes from Osho, who must have used it to make a point.

But after I had re-read it, curiousity had me do a Google search on “Zen Master Mu-Nan”. And, once again, I marvel at the awesomeness of the Internet: First, I discovered that the master whose name in the story had been written that way ~ which I have now corrected ~ was actually a real person named Shido Munan (1603-1676) and that his disciple’s full name, and actual successor, was Shoju Etan.


Second, I next found myself at www.ashidakim.com and a page listing 101 Zen Koans, or parables. Seems that most of those Koans were translated into English from a book called the Shaseki-shu (Collection of Stone and Sand) written late in the 13th century by the Japanese Zen Master Muju (the non-dweller). The remainder comes from various Zen books published in Japan in the last Century.

So, for example, you want to know what the sound of one hand clapping is? Well, you’ll find an answer there, as well as the tea story that I have read a number of times in different books. But here now is my story which is numbered sixty-seven on that list:

The Zen Master Munan believed that he had only one successor whose name was Shoju. After Shoju had completed his study of Zen, Munan called him into his room and said, “I am getting old, and as far as I know you are the only one who will carry on the teaching. Here is a book. It has been passed down from Master to Master for seven generations. And I have also added many points according to my understanding. This book is very precious so I am giving it to you to represent your successorship.”

Shoju replied, “Thank you but please keep your book. I received your Zen without writing, and I was very happy with that. So why add this burden to me, why give me an unnecessary responsibility? I have already experienced the truth and the book was not needed.

Munan replied, “I know that but this great work has been carried from master to Master for seven generations. It is the book. By giving it to you I certify that you are my chosen successor.”

Munan gave the book to Shoju. It must have been a cold night because the brazier was burning. In one hand Shoju received the book, and in the same instant, with the other, he thrust it into the fire.

Munan who had never before in his life been angry, shouted, “What are you doing?”

And Shoju shouted back even louder, “And what are you saying?”

This is beautiful; the master must have died peacefully. This was the right man. He didn’t even need to look in the book to see what was there, so it had to be thrust into the fire. If he had kept the book he would have missed, and then he would not have been the successor.

You keep a book only when the thing has not happened to you. Who is bothered about words when the truth is with you? Who is bothered about a book when the real thing has happened within you? Who is bothered about explanations when the experience is there?

And here is another Zen story ~ which I first shared in a newsletter on my birthday back in 2003 ~ with the same theme:

Every month the disciple faithfully sent his Master an account of his progress. In the first month he wrote: “I feel an expansion of consciousness and experience my oneness with the universe.”

The Master glanced at the note and threw it away.

The next month it was, “I have finally discovered that the divine is in all things.”

And then, “The mystery of the One and the many has been revealed to my wondering gaze.”

The next one said, “No one is born, no one lives, and no one dies, for the eg0-self is not.”

At which point the Master threw up his hands in utter despair.

A whole year then passed by in silence and the Master decided that it was time to remind his disciple of his duty to keep him informed of his spiritual progress.

Then the disciple wrote back, Who cares?”

When the Master read those words a look of great satisfaction spread over his face.

That story reminded me that on the stone where Osho’s ashes rest in Pune is the epitaph which he most likely chose himself:

Never born. Never died. Only visited this planet earth from December 11, 1931 to January 19, 1990.

Next, useful to remember that the essence of Zen is that there is nothing beyond “What Is.” So, as Osho teaches (Zen, Its History and Teachings, Bridgewater Books , Lewes, UK, 2004):

There is nothing to be said; nothing to explain because nothing is hidden. The whole situation is simple and transparent…. There is no need to search because all that is, here and now, is within you. It is the cosmic joke because you have the source of all the knowledge and you are asking questions!

Silence and laughter are the keys — silence within and laughter without. And when laughter comes out of silence, it is not of this world; it is divine.

Zen is a crossbreed between Buddha’s thought and Lao Tsu’s thought. It is a great meeting, the greatest that ever took place… [it] … is neither Buddhist not Taoist and yet it is both.

Bodhidharma, the second of the Zen patriarchs, taught “Unless you start hearing your own voice, no one can save you.”

His successor, Sosan, taught that “The great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against…. The struggle of what one likes and dislikes is the disease of the mind.”

And this is really profound: “When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised.”

Incidentally, the first of the Zen patriarchs, seems to be Mahakashayap, the disciple to whom Buddha gave the flower.

And, lastly, Osho makes this interesting observation: “History records only violence. History does not record silence — it cannot record it. All records are of disturbance. So Sosan simply disappeared.”