August 2, 2016

If your own heart asks

Some students recently expressed frustration that they have not yet been able to attain some insight using the first koan. They have been practicing with it for a few months.

Regarding advanced training in Zen (i.e. the all-important training of integration for many years AFTER the completion of koan practice), Hosokawa Roshi once said that if a person cannot accomplish this, it is basically because their motivation/aspiration is too weak. How much more so this is the case, I think, when discussing the beginning gate of practice which is that first hosshin (dharmakaya) koan.

To contrast, Reigen Eto (1721-1785), one of Hakuin's students, described his own experience of koan practice this way (from
A long time ago, when I was in the middle of training at the Shoin Temple in the Suruga district, under the supervision of Master Hakuin, I began concentrating on a difficult koan on New Year's Day in 1740. In the Fall, four years later, was able to pass through it for the first time. 

In those four years, I did not have one word of useless conversation with other people, and as there were no funny or interesting things, I didn't smile at all. When I saw other people laughing, I didn't understand. Once I entered a twilight period, with only tears, I fasted both summer and winter, ate soybean powder, drank water, and every five to seven days hid myself from people and went on retreat in places like Shinto shrines in the mountains.

In winter of that year, I was given another difficult koan by Master Hakuin. Because my doubts had not cleared up, from the beginning of December I locked myself in an inn. I cured my empty stomach by asking for food from a neighboring house once every three days, and by the end of February the following year, I still had not left the inn. I didn't go to the Master's temple for the New Year's celebration or the autumn Festival of the Dead.

So at the end of February that year, I experienced the great joy of passing through that difficult koan. This was so wonderful that it is impossible to describe. In the beginning of March, when I humbly went to the Master's temple, he was extremely happy for me.
It seems more common lately than I recall from 10-20 years ago for Zen students with many obscurations to blame the practice methods, rather than themselves, if there is not much progress. If we examine whether or not our individual daily practice and effort is sufficient, though, a line from a poem quoted in Hagakure is useful:

‘How will you reply when your own heart asks?’