THE KOAN OF ONE HAND15 min read

THE Zen sect of Buddhism developed in China and still flourishes in Japan. It is a path of knowledge (prajna) rather than devotion, and the goal is realization (Satori in Japanese). Before Satori can be attained, the deep-seated convictions of the absolute reality of the world ordinarily experienced, and consequent doubts as to practicability of realization, have to be dissolved. During training, they come to the surface in spiritual crises of great intensity. In the 13th century in China, certain schools of Zen developed a system of confronting the disciple with the core of a spiritual crisis experienced by a master of the past. It is presented as a sort of riddle. All elements of the personality have to be brought into play and focused on it; when the concentration finally attains Samadhi, the meditator and the riddle are no longer two.

The Samadhi must be repeated till it becomes strong enough to continue without relapsing into other thoughts or speech. As the karma ripens, there is a flash, and the disciple enters into the realization attained by that ancient master; he is able to give the classical answer, and give it from the standpoint of realization. (The classical answers can be justified by reason, but teachers never do so justify them, because the point is to answer out of realization and not simply produce a quotation.)

Classically, to “pass” through one riddle, or Koan as it is called in Japan, was sufficient. But in 17th century Japan, Hakuin introduced a number of stages, each of them represented by one class of Koan. Nowadays in some lines of Zen hundreds of Koans have to be passed before disciples are finally approved by their teacher. There are big collections; the Hekigan book contains one hundred of them. There are said to be 1,700 in all.

Each main Koan has a number of sassho or tests, which are like supplementary Koans on the same line.

As will be seen in the article translated below, some masters believe that the system has become too elaborate, and that teachers allow passes too easily, so that pupils have not really plumbed the Koan to the depths. This necessitates further crises round new Koans. The above-mentioned masters favour a complete penetration into one Koan and its attendant sassho; if one Koan is properly passed, any other can be solved on the spot.

One of the most famous Koans is the Sound of One Hand, devised by Hakuin himself. “The sound of two hands is a clap. Of the one hand, what sound would there be?” Hear the sound of the one hand.

Another was the answer to a question about Buddhism: “The tree in the fore-court.” About this answer, the Japanese Master Kanzan said: “In the tree in the fore-court Koan, there is a chance for the robber.” This saying itself became a Koan, reputed to be difficult. Other difficult Koans are, the Five Ranks (relative and absolute, alone and in conjunction) and the Ten Prohibitions (rules of early Buddhism).

Westerners who read a number of Koans, especially the question-and-answer ones, sometimes get the impression that the answer can be anything so long as it is inconsequent-the master asks “What is Zen?” and the respondent shouts, or drinks a cup of tea in pantomime, or perhaps stands on his head.

This is a mistake. Like a good chess problem, the Koan does seem to be impossible of solution. But there is one. Thinking and thinking, the student finds his thoughts trying one avenue after another, and he presents his answers in the regular interviews with the master twice a day. The master refuses them, but not all are equally wrong. As he goes deeper, the master may hint, “getting nearer.” Following this indication, the pupil presses on until his thought of the Koan continues for long periods. He has no more answers; he seems to have tried them all. In monastery slang this stage is called “wringing out.”

Suddenly he gets a tiny glimpse of something, which vanishes almost at once. He has to press very hard now, and the master gets him on by encouragement or, if he sticks and there is no other way, by force. Finally he comes upon the classical answer, or somewhere near it. When he presents it, question and answer follow like lightning, and if he wavers in his realization the master sends him out at once. He may be stuck for a long time at one of the sassho tests, even after grasping the main line of the Koan, because he cannot give it from the right spiritual state-he cannot show the proof, as it is said.

No direct help is ever given with the answer, either by the teacher or another disciple. In fact so-called help is a hindrance. For instance, the One Hand Koan is said to refer to the universal Dharma-body or Truth. If a disciple is told this when he enters on the Koan, it distracts him. When he is beginning to move towards an answer, he will say to himself, “And is this answer related to the Dharma-body?”-which hinders him, because he thinks it has to fit in to some concept which he has of the Dharma-body. And it does not. When he finally gets the true answer, he will find that his notion of the Dharma-body was wide of the mark, so that trying to conform to it held him up. Only when he thinks, “This is it!” and does not care whether it is the Dharma-body or not, will he have a firm hold of his solution.

Pupils normally see the master twice a day, but during the Zen training week, there are four interviews each day. A Zen training week is severe; there are seven of them in a year. Very little sleep is allowed-none at all in the first week in December which ends on the anniversary of Buddha’s illumination. The pupils cannot make their replies casually; in a traditional training hall there is quite a bit of beating of those who are slack in their efforts. A real master brings his students to a state where they feel that their very life depends on making the right answer. This is a duplication of the Buddha’s resolve: “Either I will solve the problem, or I will drop dead on this meditation seat.” What follows is a discourse on the One Hand Koan, meant for Zen students engaged in practice, by a famous teacher, the late Master Iida.

The Koan of the One Hand was Hakuin’s spiritual sword, and many were those who were driven by it to give up the body and lose their life. Students today suppose it is easy to solve compared with the Koans of the Hekigan and other collections, but it is a great mistake. Those Hekigan Koans and the others are all nothing but transformations of the One Hand. If you have the One Hand really in your grasp, the others are child’s play-all 1,700 of them solved in a flash. People make their mistake because they haven’t really grasped the One Hand. Take for instance Abbot Gasan, who overcame thirty Zen masters and more, one after another, until he came to believe that he was invincible. Then he came to Hakuin, and under the fire of the One Hand he was stripped of all his former conviction.

It is best not to take it lightly. In our school the One Hand has forty-eight frontier-gates, hard to pass. Not that there are that number of Satori-realizations. It is just that imitations are so frequent that tests are needed: these things are instruments to distinguish true from false. When one has passed those forty-eight, the “eight hard Koans” are child’s play, the Five Ranks and the Ten Prohibitions, the final Koans set by the teacher, all can be passed through at one stroke.

That is, by those who have really done it properly. But now the Zen world is cumbered with people who don’t really understand, who after getting some distance have put a pot over their heads so they can’t see anything. They just know the outward form of the answers, but it’s all parrot Zen and no more.

The first time the student comes out with the classical answer, he has not got through to the truth. He doesn’t yet really believe in it himself, but simply goes to the interview and there in front of the teacher he tries it out. His whole idea is to get the teacher to approve something, and he goes on coming to interviews in this spirit again and again. “That one was no good, then let me try this way. . .” and so he twists and turns. This constant going for interviews can be good or bad. If the time of meditation is too much taken up with it, he can easily dissipate his spiritual energies. But if he feels, “This is it!” then he should at once go for an interview. Apart from that, it is better not to keep going in meaninglessly, taking up the time from others. A priest of the Pure Land sect made a poem:

The hue of the purple robe by the ear, And the sound of one hand by the eye To be perceived.

And Hakuin allowed that this was the poem of a real follower of the

Pure Land discipline. Again the stanza of Zen master Tozan runs: Wonder, wonder!

How marvellous is the teaching of no words: It cannot be grasped by hearing with the ear, For that voice is to be heard with the eye.

Tozan had his own great Satori through the sermon of no words. It is the sound of one hand, nothing else. Well, do you hear it at this very moment? Do you hear it with the eye, do you hear it with the ear? When you are told to listen with the eye, there’s a reason for it. But that great joy must be found for oneself; others cannot take it and give it to you.

Well, when you have seen the One Hand, now show the proof! Some take three years to do it. Because they did not grasp the One Hand right to the end. And even when they have brought the proof, it is not the real thing often enough; but after another year at it they get right through the One Hand…. No, not all, it’s not so easy as that! The ancients spent ten years, twenty years breaking their bones against it, like Chokei who wore out seven meditation cushions in twenty years on it, and then when rolling up a blind suddenly had the great Satori. Kyogen and Reiun took twenty years. Still there is no need to despair, Shakkyo did it in barely an hour under Baso, and in Japan one man diditinthree days. All it needs is tremendous courage.

But if you don’t strike right through to the truth, your realization won’t stand up to anything. Everywhere there are fellows who say they have seen the One Hand; they spring up all over the place like mushrooms. But there is no need to envy them; rather they are unfortunate to have been passed through prematurely by their teachers.

There was a man who came to us after passing through thirtynine Koans without much trouble. But we tore them all away from him and made him begin again. He said then: “When once one answer has been allowed as correct, one knows what it’s supposed to be, then it’s really hard to throw oneself fully into the inquiry again!” The one who hasn’t been let through a Koan is full of unbounded hope. He’s the fortunate one. But because the Bodhi-heart is not there yet, he may not grasp the notion of season and ripening. He may tire of it quickly, and run away. And because teachers are not supposed to let the pupils run away, they sometimes allow something to pass as a Satori too easily, on the ground that otherwise the pupil will be discouraged. This is why Zen decays.

The ancients went to the depths of the mountain valleys to grasp it or even half of it. People today could not even dream of those spiritual feats. “Even half of it”-the words have deep meaning. Today there are scores claiming to inherit the Dharma-isn’t it pathetic? Well, let it be-now the thing is: what’s the proof of the One Hand? Don’t think you can just make the classical answer. In the Koan of the Tree in the Forecourt, Kanzan said, “There is a chance for the robber.” If you haven’t grasped the meaning of what he said, you can’t display the proof of the One Hand. If you don’t know it, ask of Kanzan, in the depths of the Ibuka mountains. How is it, how is it?

Then there is the One Hand Cut Off. This is one of the sassho Koans or tests, like the tests of the MU Koan-“when the MU is burnt it turns to ashes, when buried it turns to earth.” The Severed Hand runs through all those, but few there are who understand it. The path out of oneself is yet far away, far. The Royal Diamond Sword Koan of Rinzai, the Sword Koan of Joshu, the time when Obaku met the shout of Baso which left the ear deaf for three days, and without thinking stuck his tongue right out-if you haven’t these in your grasp, your Severed Hand is no good. Then come to the interview with the teacher and be pricked into a blaze by the thornsface it a thousand, ten thousand times. It’s the envenomed drum which is death to handle, it’s the feather of the fabled poison-bird. Don’t take it lightly-it is terror, terror. Cutting off, cutting off! A hint of hesitation about it and you are cut in two. Daito says: “Space is broken up into two, into three, into four.”

Then a most difficult passage: “Gobble the One Hand up like a little dumpling!” Perhaps that’s alright, is it? But then. . . “That dumpling you’ve gobbled up-now spit it out again!” Of all the tests that plague the students, this is the worst. Spit it out, spit it out now! It means swallowing the whole heaven and earth, and spitting them out again, and it has to be taken right to that extent. Oh, there are many who have been passed through it, but because it was not taken up to the universal Dharma-principle they never knew the sweetness of it. The great bliss does not arise; they do not attain the great peace. Unless the One Hand is penetrated to its very roots it won’t do. To pass this sassho test, you must have in your hands the Eight Difficult Koans, and particularly the one about the Ox which passed through the window but then the tail stuck. Or you will never understand. And if you do understand, those Eight Koans will be as clear to you as a little Amalaka fruit on the palm of your hand, as the Indian classics say.

Or again if you can understand the Hekigan Koan: “All things go back to one; what does the one go back to?” you have this also. All Koans have related ones. In a broad sense, they are all themselves merely variations. But they have been analysed into subvariations. In the Hyosho comments to the Hekigan, there are many variations. This Sassho test Koan of spitting out the dumpling has many too. But if you haven’t the eye, you can’t find them. The ability to adapt to different Koans is lacking. How do you demonstrate it? “The thousand fruits are all from the single vine of the heart.”

There are many more tests of the One Hand, but it’s wrong to stuff up with Koans too much-shall we leave it here? Well-it’s said that if you eat poison then you may as well eat the dish as well, so one more.

“What’s the form of the One Hand?” To clasp the hands across the breast in the formal Zen way is no answer. You won’t get it unless you have really comprehended the Second Patriarch’s “I seek the mind but cannot get hold of it.” It’s a bird singing that can’t be heard; it’s a light shining that can’t be seen by the eye. Says Manjushri: “The water is water and the mountain is mountain.”

When you have it, there’s a further one: “What is the Satori expression of the One Hand Transcendent?” It’s an agony in the heart and the belly for the monks. No good just showing your palm, or saying something at random to imitate free illumination, or to say “Transcendent!” When the solution comes to you, you’ll say, “Why of course!” But the inspiration of heaven mustn’t be divulged-the cloud-ranging sage lost his power to fly through doing that. For ages I wandered blindly under an error, but today I have come to see the ice within the fire. Said Daito: “Over thirty years I lived in the foxhole; now I have changed to the human estate.” If you have a grip of the Koan “Not yearning after the sages; not making much of self spirit,” then you get the expression of Transcendence at once. But though you have done the most advanced Koans, of the Five Ranks or the Ten Prohibitions, you may still not pass this Transcendence Koan.

By travelling, at last you come to the source of the river;

By sitting still, in the end you see the formation of the clouds.

© Trevor Leggett