Century-Old Book of Koan Answers Is Still Controversial
Barbara Hoetsu O'Brien MAR 17, 2017 tricycle
Why the recently reissued The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans With Answers may not give Zen students the answers they’re looking for
In 1916, a peevish Japanese Zen monk gave himself a pseudonym meaning “The Arch-Destroyer of the Existent Order” and published a book titled A Critique of Japanese Pseudo-Zen. The book consisted mostly of a blistering attack on Japan’s Rinzai Zen schools and the way they were conducting koan study at the time.
Koans are those odd questions asked by Zen masters that defy rational answers. The Rinzai school of Zen developed a practice of koan study in which a student sits in meditation with the koan and periodically presents his understanding of it to his teacher in a private interview. Although the standard koans have all been published, the way they are presented is supposed to remain private between student and teacher.
But Arch-Destroyer broke centuries of protocol and described how the 281 koans then in use by Rinzai Zen schools were answered. His aim in doing this was to expose the Rinzai Zen masters of his time as phonies who had forgotten the essence of Buddhism. Armed with this book, he said, any fool could be a Zen master.
Critique raised a scandal, and it sold well enough to justify a second printing in 1917. When monks began to present the cribbed answers in interviews, at least one teacher made changes to the traditional koans to confound his students.
The book was not reissued after the second printing. However, much later in the 20th century, there were shopkeepers in Kyoto known to keep photocopies of the “answer” section behind the counter, ready to sell to those who asked for them.
It’s said that most of those who asked were novice Zen monks.
In 1975, the New York-based publisher Basic Books released an English translation of the answer section by the distinguished Israeli author and scholar Yoel Hoffman, who added his own extensive notes. Although Hoffman’s translation wasn’t on any Zen teacher’s recommended reading list, copies quietly circulated among Zen students. Whether anyone ever tried the book’s answers on their teachers, I cannot say.
The Basic Books edition is out of print. However, in December 2016 the New York Review of Books reissued Hoffman’s translation, titled The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans With Answers, as part of its classics series. It’s possible the koan answers will soon turn up in a library near you.
Hoffman studied Zen in Japan in his youth and, in Israel, has published books on Zen that were well received. He wrote in the introduction to The Sound of the One Hand that his purpose in translating and publishing the answer book “was above all my firm conviction that it would introduce to the Western world the clearest, most detailed, and most correct picture of Zen.”
But does it? And would the answer section be of any benefit to koan students today?
Most of my experience as a Zen student has been in the Soto school, which as a rule (there are exceptions) does not approach koans the same way Rinzai does. And the answers given in the book simply don’t speak to me. For example:
Master: The original face―the face before you were brought into this world by your mother and father―What is it?
Answer: Placing both hands on the chest, the student stands up.
Hoffman’s note to this koan explains that “the student implies, ‘it’s me,’ thus avoiding the trap of an unanswerable question.” This explanation did not exactly light a candle in the darkness for me.
Jaime Heiku McLeod is a teacher in the White Plum lineage founded by Soto Zen teacher Hakuyu Taizen Maezumi of the Los Angeles Zen Center, and I asked him about the book:
Early on in my koan work, when I was working through the Miscellaneous Koans (or Simple Koans, with simple meaning short, not necessarily easy), I snuck a peek at The Sound of One Hand. I wasn’t necessarily looking for “the answers,” but just some kind of starting point. The whole process felt so incomprehensible to me. Even so, it felt like a very dirty thing to do. Like ogling your dad’s Playboys or something. I would have been mortified if my teachers ever found out.
I realize now, though, they probably wouldn’t have cared. There was nothing in there that was going to help me. The “answers” just seemed silly. Looking at them now, I can certainly understand what each of the answers are pointing to, but unless a student has experienced the gut-level understanding that led someone 100 years ago to declare that such-and-such a gesture or performance was THE one official answer —and I’m not really convinced that was ever completely the case—then the gestures or phrases or interpretive dances or whatever that the book outlines are meaningless.
Very simply, koan contemplation is a means to develop insight. The American Rinzai master Robert Aitken wrote in Taking the Path of Zen, “Fundamentally the koan is a particular expression of buddhanature, and your koan work is simply a matter of making that expression clear to yourself and your teacher.” Mimicking words and gestures one doesn’t really understand simply doesn’t function, and teachers claim they can tell when someone is faking it.
Because what is realized often is ineffable, a student may “answer” the koan by means of gestures as well as words. “We do ask students to respond to a case nonverbally first, just to get them out of the habit of intellectualizing about it,” Heiku McLeod said. However, then the student is asked to talk about it.
Even though words can never fully express the gut-level understanding that the koans are pointing to, students need to be able to articulate it in some way, anyway. It takes that encounter with the absolute and grounds it back into the relative. Always, the two are dancing with one another.
Does this mean the koan answers are completely useless? Not necessarily. I asked Barry Magid, a dharma heir of Charlotte Joko Beck, about the book:
I think it does have some cross-cultural value. So often we were taught that if your eye was truly opened all the koans would become transparent. Some do but as the book shows, what “counted” as an answer varied wildly. I found it interesting to ask myself “how was that an answer?”
In other words, while The Sound of the One Hand is of little help to a novice koan student, it does give us an intimate window into Rinzai Zen in Japan, at least as it was 100 years ago.
Buddhism in Japan was already in a period of decline by the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868–1912). Buddhism had been the dominant religion in Japan for a few centuries, and by the early 19th century was widely viewed as arrogant and corrupt. Then the Meiji Emperor chose to elevate Shinto as the favored religion. He also issued a number of imperial decrees―including one that ended monastic celibacy―that further rocked Japanese Buddhist institutions. Many temples closed, and many clergy returned to lay life.
In 1916 Rinzai Zen as an institution was still stumbling. Certainly, there were several well-respected Rinzai masters teaching in those days, but it was far from a golden age of Rinzai Zen. Arch-Destroyer may have had reason to feel frustrated.
It’s also the case that an “answer” that resonates in Japan might not work in the West. A senior koan student told me, “Being from Texas at present, here ‘one hand’ sounds like singing to cows . . . ‘I’m an ol’ cowhand, from the Rio Grande . . .’” Make of that what you will.
Several of the classic koan collections have been translated into English, and some of these have commentaries by distinguished masters such as Robert Aitken and Koun Yamada. Someone new to Zen who wants to read about koans would, I’m sure, find these works more helpful than The Sound of One Hand. And koan students looking for the magic decoder ring to Zen may be disappointed.