Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

The Book of Equanimity - Introduction

Illuminating Classic Zen Koans


In Zen training, koans are used to liberate students from their rigid, restrictive ways of viewing themselves and the world around them and to open their eye of wisdom. One literary wag facetiously said that koans are stories that Zen masters use “to blow their students’ minds!” Koan literally means “public case.” In Zen, koans are usually a record of dialogues between a Zen master and his student, a section from a sutra (Buddhist scripture) or piece of Zen liturgy, or a statement by a Zen master. In the field of law, prior legal cases and decisions set precedents for how to evaluate current cases. In a somewhat analogous way, we can use koans to test our understanding against the expressions and actions of the ancient masters. When we see eye to eye with these ancient worthies the subtle meanings of the koans become revealed to us.

Formal koan study can be traced to the tenth century in China. Over the centuries the study of koans had deteriorated as a practice, becoming essentially formulaic and heavily stylized, but was revivified by Master Hakuin in eighteenth-century Japan. By Hakuin’s time, traditional “answers” were recorded and even sold. Contrary to some views, there is no fixed response to each koan, and the idea of koans having “answers” as such is absurd. In fact, some teachers have even changed their interpretation to maintain freshness or to respond to the needs of a particular student. I express that view in some of my commentaries in this collection. Koans require a whole-body response. “Correct words” without the corresponding inner experience will cause the teacher to immediately ring the bell dismissing the student.

I spent over twenty years studying with Taizan Maezumi Roshi. Much of that time was devoted to examination and appreciation of about seven hundred koans during our face-to-face encounters in the private interview (dokusan) room. In the system of koans presented by Maezumi Roshi, we start with two hundred “miscellaneous” koans designed to bring the student to experiential realization of oneness of all things. These koans are drawn from various sources including traditional collections and more obscure sources. (For my students I have decreased the number of miscellaneous koans to one hundred.) Next we study the Gateless Gate which contains forty-eight koans. Then there are the hundred koans of the Blue Cliff Record followed by the hundred koans of the Book of Equanimity. In the present book I present these hundred koans of the Book of Equanimity with my commentaries. Next we study the fifty-three koans of The Transmission of Light, which detail the enlightenment experiences of the Zen Ancestors from Shakyamuni Buddha to Master Dogen. Next we appreciate the Five Ranks of Master Tozan with about fifty koans and testing points. The final collection is a series of one hundred koans based on detailed examination of the sixteen bodhisattva precepts which are transmitted during ceremonies for both laypeople and monks when they commit to the Way of the Buddha.

I cannot overestimate the importance of doing koan study with a qualified teacher. Some Zen students pride themselves on their understanding of koans, but unless they have been thoroughly examined by their teacher in the dokusan room, that understanding can remain superficial.

The hundred cases in the Book of Equanimity were compiled in the twelfth century by Master Wanshi Shokaku. He presented each koan and wrote a verse for each one. Wanshi was a brilliant scholar who entered a monastery at the age of eleven. Wanshi succeeded the Dharma from Tanka Shijun in the main Soto school lineage. This collection of koans is highly revered in the Soto School although they are not approached in the same way as koans are in the Rinzai School, which requires face-to-face presentation with one’s teacher. In the Soto School, the koans are approached more as liturgy to be studied and discussed. A parallel koan collection, the Blue Cliff Record, was compiled by Setcho Juken in the eleventh century. He compiled one hundred koans and presented verses for each one. A contemporary of Wanshi’s named Engo Kokugon, who is in the Rinzai lineage, wrote a preface to each of the cases in the Blue Cliff Record and also wrote commentaries on the main case and on Setcho’s verses. Since Engo is in the Rinzai lineage, the Blue Cliff Record is highly esteemed in the Rinzai School, although about one-third of the koans overlap between the two collections.

Here I’d like to quote extensively from what my grandfather in the Dharma, Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, wrote in the last century regarding the relationship of the Blue Cliff Record and the Book of Equanimity:

Master Engo, who gave the preface and commentary to each case of the Blue Cliff Record, and Master Wanshi were of approximately the same generation. Both men were close Dharma friends, but whether we speak of their views regarding Zen or of their teaching policies, each had his own distinctive characteristics, and each took a position from which he did not yield an inch. Right from them the special characteristics of Soto and Rinzai Zen oozed out. I think it is most desirable that Zen students become intimately familiar with both the Blue Cliff Record and the Book of Equanimity, and make the strong points of both Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen their own.

Rinzai and Soto Zen have their respective strong points and weak points, but since strong points are liable to change into weak points, by correctly learning each kind of Zen the strong points of both are taken in, and one is saved from the easily engendered shortcomings and ill effects of both. I believe this is important. To become attached to one-sided sectarian pride and for one sect to exclude the other are things with which I find it difficult to concur.

In stating, “I put samadhi [single-pointed meditative concentration] foremost and wisdom afterwards,” Master Wanshi promoted the cultivation of samadhi power (joriki) through energetic sitting, but of course he also stressed seeing one’s nature, attaining enlightenment, as is clear when we consider the appreciatory verses in the Book of Equanimity.

As a contrast to this, in stating, “I put wisdom foremost and samadhi afterwards,” Master Engo settles beforehand the problem of seeing one’s nature and attaining enlightenment, and follows up with the cultivation of samadhi power as his method. In such fashion the policies and emphases regarding Zen were utterly different. But it seems that their Dharma relationship was always warm-hearted. Wanshi on the eve of his death left his affairs entirely in Engo’s hands, and Engo on his part responded by discharging his trust well. It is my hope that we too, having such wise men as our mirror, in utter freedom may work at guiding others, by discarding sectarian pride and leaving one-sided views, and by learning the strong points of both Soto and Rinzai. Then, each may devise his own characteristic methods of guidance without imitating anyone, in accord with the times and adapting to the country.

Almost one hundred years after Wanshi compiled the koans and the verses for the Book of Equanimity, Master Bansho Gyoshu added a preface to each case, as well as “capping phrases” (jakugo) for each line of the koan and the verse. A capping phrase is a one-line verse that comments on the line of the koan or the verse. He also wrote longer commentaries on both the case and the verse. Since Bansho lived at Equanimity Monastery at the time, the entire collection became known as the Book of Equanimity.

In this book I present Master Wanshi’s main case (the koan) and his verse, as well as the preface by Master Bansho. These translations come primarily from Taizan Maezumi Roshi working with Dana Fraser. The commentaries in this volume are entirely mine and I take full responsibility for them. You can find Bansho’s capping phrases and commentaries in the Book of Serenity translated by Thomas Cleary.

When I studied these koans with Maezumi Roshi we used the Japanese translations of all the Zen masters’ names. There is a trend in present-day Zen books to use the proper Chinese transliterations of these names. For example Master Joshu in Japanese is called Master Zhaozhou in Chinese and Ummon (Japanese) is Yunmen (Chinese). I spent many years becoming intimately familiar with Master Joshu. Quite frankly, I do not know Zhaozhou—even though Joshu’s Chinese contemporaries probably addressed him this way. Therefore I have used the Japanese romanization in this volume. I am just too stubborn and too old to learn and integrate the Chinese names. For those who expect and prefer the Chinese names, I apologize and I have provided an appendix that cross-references the Japanese names and Chinese ones. The appendix also contains the Sanskrit names of some of the earlier Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and Ancestors from India as well as reference to modern teachers mentioned in the commentaries.

On the Study of Koans

A koan is a public case in the sense that it is brought forward as an example of a dialogue to help us elevate our practice and understanding. The more we can understand the content, the meaning, the purpose of that dialogue the more we can deepen our realization of our own practice. Koan study with a koan teacher is a skillful means that is unique to Zen. Like any skillful means, one should not become attached to it as a device, but use it and let it go.

In order to penetrate a koan, the student must drop away attachments to images, beliefs, and projections. As Dogen Zenji said, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self and to study the self is to forget the self.” He is talking about the small ego-grasping self that hinders our free functioning in life. In order to drop that away, we have to see the fundamental nature of our mind and our self.

The dialogue between Bodhidharma and Eka, who would become the second Zen Ancestor, illustrates the nature of mind. This koan appears as Case 41 in the Gateless Gate. Eka sat out in the cold waiting for instruction and one night after it had snowed, in order to show his determination he cut off his arm. At that point Bodhidharma asked him what it was he wanted. Eka said, “My mind is not at rest, please pacify it.” Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind and I will pacify it for you.” And Eka said, “After searching exhaustively, I find the mind is ungraspable.” Bodhidharma said finally, “Then I have pacified it for you.”

One essential point about koan study is to reflect on the dialogue and determine exactly what is being said. If you are assigned a koan to study, the first thing you should do is memorize it and think about it. Just don’t imagine deep realization will immediately come to you in a flash of light. Think about the koan. What are the people in it saying? What is motivating them? What is motivating you? Which line in the koan is most important? In the example above, Master Eka says, “Mind is ungraspable.” He is not saying, “I cannot grasp the mind” but that the very nature of mind is that it is ungraspable. He is not saying, “I looked exhaustively and I can’t find it.” What he is saying is, “I have looked exhaustively and it is unfindable.” This is a crucial difference. He is not saying, “Boy, I don’t think I will ever find this thing”— rather, he is saying, “I am telling you, this thing can’t be found!”

So, what is the purpose of koans? Why do we study them? Our practice is to examine the very nature of the ignorance that causes us to grab onto the self—not only the self as we perceive it but also the self in relation to everything else.

There is a notion among Zen students that they should not use their reasoning faculties when practicing meditation. That is true when you are focusing on the breath or “just sitting” (a practice called shikantaza). When I first started doing koan study I imagined, “When I sit, I shouldn’t be thinking.” I am telling you from my experience if you don’t think about your koans, whether you are sitting or not sitting, you are not going to penetrate them. Of course, thinking alone will not reveal a koan’s subtle meaning. You need to empty your mind of thoughts in order to do that, but thinking will help you set the proper course. I believe thinking in meditative disciplines has been given a bum rap. But be very clear: I am not referring to egocentric or self-grasping thinking—that kind of thinking will not help you.

With each koan, you have to know what the problem is you are trying to solve. If you don’t know what the problem is, you don’t know what target you are shooting at. So what are you aiming at? What’s your purpose? What’s your goal? Ultimately the goal of Zen is “no goal”—but you have to have a goal first in order to realize no-goal. And in koan study, the goal is to penetrate each koan as thoroughly as possible.

Even though the function of the brain is to think, there are moments when you don’t think, or at least you are unaware of your thinking. My favorite example is downhill skiers. They go eighty–ninety miles per hour down a slope of snow with these two little pieces of wood or plastic on their feet. What happens if they think, “I am supposed to lift my right leg and bend my ankle this way and lean into the hill”? By the time they think it, they will be rolling down the hill! How about a gymnast or platform-diver? If they are thinking during their maneuvers, they will make a mistake and possibly even come to great harm! In Zen practice as in these other disciplines, you just have to train and train and train so that you are not thinking at certain times. You can be aware without thinking and without being self-conscious. Beyond the realm of thought, I am fascinated by how one comes to a realization of the meaning of a koan and how one integrates it or embodies it.

In trying to solve problems of physics, Albert Einstein didn’t just always think about the problem at hand. He would feel bodily sensations and would move these sensory patterns around with his body and see how they fit together. And once he saw some patterns that fell into place, he would test them. He would try and devise mathematical equations that explained these patterns.

Another scientist named August Kekule discovered the structure of benzene, one of the most important structures in organic chemistry, through a dream. The structure is in the form of a ring, a circle of six carbon atoms. This organic structure had puzzled scientists for a long time. Kekule wrote, “I turned my chair to the fire [after having worked on the problem for some time] and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly to the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by repeated vision of this kind, could not distinguish larger structures, of manifold conformation; long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lighting I awoke…. Let us learn to dream, gentlemen.” * Then he had to go back to his lab and he had to prove that the ring structure was it.

In Case 39 in this collection and in Case 7 of the Gateless Gate, a monk asks Joshu in all earnestness, “I have just entered the monastery, I beg you master, please give me instruction.” It doesn’t say a monk “casually” asked Joshu. “In all earnestness” is important. And Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your gruel yet?” The monk said, “Yes, I have.” Then Joshu said, “Then wash the bowls.” And the monk attains some realization. Now I ask you, are they talking about eating rice gruel and washing bowls? On one level they certainly are—but there is more there as well. You must open your Dharma eye to realize your Buddha mind. In every one of these koans realization of your true self is the topic on some level.

Einstein was once asked about his creativity and he touched upon the subject of patience. He said the search may take years of groping in the dark; hence the ability to hold on to a problem for a long time and not be destroyed by repeated failure is necessary for any serious researcher. The same sentiment applies aptly to koan study.

The best koans are those that come from your own life experience. The koans in this collection should not be approached as a conversation between two men or women taking place a thousand years ago. Every one of these koans, if you take it correctly, is part of your life experience right now— otherwise they are just dead pieces of literature. Make each your own experience. This is your life.

When I was working at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, we were developing an apparatus that would allow a deep-sea diver to remain warm. We were testing it in a tank that was about forty feet deep containing deep cold ocean water that was continually circulating. I was a subject in the tests. With probes all over my body, I went to the bottom of the tank while my core body temperature, blood pressure, and other variables were measured. While I was floating near the bottom of the tank, I thought of Case 43 in the Blue Cliff Record, “Tozan’s Hot and Cold”:

A monk in all earnestness asked Master Tozan, “How do you avoid the discomfort of hot and cold?” And Master Tozan said, “Go to that place where there is no hot and cold.” And the monk said, “Where is that place?” And the Master said, “When you are hot, be hot and when you are cold, be cold.”

“When you are cold, be cold.” Since I was not wearing a wet suit, it was very cold. I asked myself, “What’s cold?” I totally experienced the cold. With each breath my whole universe was a feeling of cold penetrating my whole body.

Most of the subjects had to leave the water after twenty minutes because their body temperature dropped too low. I sat there concentrating on the cold and after an hour they finally told me to come up. My body temperature had barely dropped. The naval officer who was running the tests said, “What were you doing down there?” I replied, “Nothing.” But after that experience I didn’t get cold for the longest time. I really understood “Tozan’s Hot and Cold.”

So when you sit and you feel that you understand the content of the koan and you have examined each line of dialogue carefully, a response pops up. Test it. Sometimes a response will pop up and you know that that’s it. Aha! That’s it! Most of the time, you have to think about it.

Consider the way Gandhi formed his political strategy in India. All of his lieutenants would express their opinions to Gandhi. He would then retire and do his meditation. While he was meditating, a strategy integrating the important information would come up. By emptying himself of thoughts, it arose.

You can take this approach to koan study and apply it to your life in general. When you have a problem, think about it. Then think about it some more. And then think about it and after you’ve thought all you can think about it, then just think “non-thinking.” In “Bendowa” (“The Wholehearted Way”) Master Dogen, referring to a dialogue from Yakusan Igen, wrote, “Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking! This in itself is the essential art of zazen.” When you touch the origin of thinking, this is not-thinking. Our practice is neither about thinking nor non-thinking. As Case 20 in the Book of Equanimity says, “Not knowing is the most intimate thing.” Let go of your cherished opinions and cultivate the mind of “not-knowing” and the True Dharma will appear.

Make sure that your insight agrees with the Dharma. Dharma means the teachings of the Buddhas and the patriarchs and the Zen masters. The Dharma also is the reality of our life itself. The Dharma means the grass is green and the sky is blue. Mountains are high and valleys are low. The Dharma is the words exclaimed by the Buddha upon attaining enlightenment: “I and all sentient beings and the great earth simultaneously attained enlightenment.” Having a conceptual understanding is not sufficient. You need to experience it. Experiencing your Buddha Nature eliminates attachments to self-grasping ignorance.

If your insight does not agree with the Dharma, start over again. That’s what Einstein would do. When he worked out the mathematical equations based on his bodily patterns, he would check them against details of reality. If according to his new theory there would be, for instance, no gravity created by massive objects, he would have to reject it. Reality says when you release something it falls down. So he would have to start over again.

Penetrate each of the koans in this collection—and in your life itself— with every fiber in your body. And allow each koan to penetrate into you. Take each one as personally as possible. Using nonjudgmental awareness developed in your meditation, never stop examining your insights and understanding.

My own study of koans is not finished. Life is a continuous koan.

Gerry Shishin Wick
Great Mountain Zen Center
Lafayette, Colorado September 2004


How to cite this document:
© Gerry Shishin Wick, The Book of Equanimity (Wisdom Publications, 2005)

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