A monk once asked Zen Master Jo Ju:
“The ten thousand dharmas return to one.
Then: Where does 'the one' return to?”
Zen Master Jo Ju said:
“When I was in Cheong Ju,
I made a linen shirt. It weighed seven pounds.”
The Gong-An (Jap.: Koan) is a question of essential significance that should be solved through practicing Zen. It is also called 'Hwa Du' or 'Patriarchs’ Gong-An.' In the Zen Buddhist tradition a Zen master confers a Gong-An (Hwa Du) on his disciples in order to inspire within them a state of profound doubt that will lead them to enlightenment about the question of the given Gong-An. The answer to a Gong-An must, without fail, be sanctioned by a keen-eyed Zen master, for if a student does not receive approval from an eminent Zen master who has already attained enlightenment, he might only end up being caught in yet another illusion of his own.
In ancient China, the term 'Gong-An' literally meant 'official document'. When such a document had to be copied, a single seal was applied half to the original, half to the copy; and so the authenticity of the copy was proven when both halves of the seal were fitting together. Likewise should a student’s answer in Gong-An Zen exactly match with the preceeding enlightenment of the Zen master about it, i.e., the student’s mind has to be in perfect accordance with the Zen master's. The Dharma-seal (as the proof of enlightenment) should be transmitted from the Zen master to the disciple in this way. This is also called "the transmission from mind to mind".
History of Gong-An Zen
The first case of a transmission from mind to mind was the transmission of the Dharma from Shakyamuni Buddha to his disciple Mahakasyapa. Its account is given in the Dae-Beom-Cheon-Wang-Mun-Bul-Gyul-Ui Sutra. There it is written that, when the Buddha taught the Sad Dharma Pundarika Sutra on the Young Chui mountain (Grdhrakuta), he held up a flower, given to Him by a king named Dae Beom Cheon Wang and without saying a word, showed it to the assembly. No one understood the meaning of this gesture. But at that time Mahakasyapa sitting in the back was smiling. As soon as Buddha saw him, He declared: “I entrust the genuine Dharma I have enlightened to Mahakasyapa.”
And so Mahakasyapa became the First Patriarch in India after Buddha entered Nirvana. Then the transmission of the Dharma from the mind of a master to a disciple continued up to the 28th Patriarch Bodhidharma who left India and went to China, where he sat facing a wall in a cave behind the Sorim Temple (Shao Lin Temple) for nine years and practiced Zen. From Bodhidharma up to the present day Zen Buddhism has been vividly passed on following the lines of transmission of the Dharma.
The history of the Patriarchs began with the Dharma transmission from Buddha to Mahakasyapa. But for a Zen practitioner it is not the historical account of the transmission from mind to mind but the Gong-An question that is hidden in this event that is of importance: “Why did Mahakasyapa smile when Buddha held up a flower?” One who is able to attain the meaning of Mahakasyapa’s smile can also enlighten the meaning of Buddha’s holding up of a flower. This Gong-An is called the Yeom Hwa Mi So Gong-An (“Mahakasyapa smiled when he saw Buddha holding up a flower.”). It is considered to be the origin of Zen.
What is Gong-An Zen?
The practice of Gong-An Zen means to give rise to a mind of doubt, i.e. just the mind absorbed in search with a question. The state of keeping the question about a Gong-An is of utmost importance. Gong-An Zen is not about theories of literary beauty or philosophical ingenuity.
A monk once asked the famous Zen Master Jo Ju: "Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?" "Mu (No)!" Jo Ju replied. This answer must have filled the student with great doubt, for it is just the opposite of Buddha’s teaching that all beings have Buddha nature. Since a student should hold the words of a Zen master as well as the words of Buddha in great esteem, he finds himself trapped in this contradiction between Zen Master Jo Ju’s answer and Buddha’s original statement. He therefore has no choice but to let go of all his knowledge and attain the meaning of Jo Ju’s answer by giving rise to a question: "Why did Jo Ju say that the dog has no Buddha nature?" Through asking himself thus, the student enters the world of deep doubt. Only a question of this quality can be called Gong-An or Hwa-Du (Jap.: Koan).
"Why did Jo Ju say that the dog has no Buddha nature?" - Practitioners should constantly keep this question in their minds. Neither through the advice of another person, nor by reading books can this question be broken through. Only by one's own question and doubt can the Gong-An be enlightened. Gong-Ans can never be solved by intellectual knowledge or philosophical consideration. Trying to solve the Gong-An in the latter way is just like searching for the cow while riding a cow. Gong-An Zen, instead, means to give up all worldly cleverness, knowledge, and logical opinions, and to become completely one with the question of the Gong-An.
Our world is full of mysteries: Who am I? Where did I come from before I was born? Where will I go to after I die? How was this universe created and how does it relate to me? Why do I live? Why do I die? All these questions present us with continuous doubt. We sentient beings are caught up in all these questions and, usually, do not even dare to ask them. According to the view of Buddhism, the circumstances of our life are created by no one other than us. Likewise, the great mysteries of life can only be experienced and solved within our own minds. If, by practicing intensively, someone finally breaks through the Gong-An, all mysteries and questions dissolve like smoke. Then, the thusness of mind will clearly appear.
The Gong-An way of practice is awakened and maintained through the mind of great doubt and therefore it is of utmost importance for practicing Zen to actually ask oneself the essential questions of life. Without a question or a doubt, there could be neither motivation, nor progress. The Gong-An is the driving force to enlightenment. Working on the Gong-An initiates a process in which all wandering thoughts are totally dissolved into one essential question. Thereby can the mind of restlessness all sufferings and fears be overcome.
How to practice with a Gong-An?
Sitting Zen is the main way to develop a state of continuous doubt. Later, one will be able to keep this state of continuous doubt permanently - in whatever situation one is: while working or having a break, while being alone or with others. Through this kind of practice all Zen practitioners can finally liberate themselves from all sufferings, even from birth and death.
One who likes to practice Gong-An Zen first of all has to find a Zen Master on whose guidance he can rely and from whom he will receive a Gong-An that fits his level of practice. After receiving a Gong-An, the practitioner should try, with all his might, to create and to maintain a doubt about the Gong-An question. The Gong-An should become the practitioner’s fountain for his entire life. If a practitioner loses the grip on his Gong-An, it means that his mind is not concentrated anymore and has become distracted.
One day a monk named Nam Ak Huai Yang visited the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng. As Hui Neng saw the monk approaching, he asked him: "What thing has thus come here?" On hearing this question, Huai Yang became totally dumbfounded. How could he have answered to such a question? Should he have said that this thing is a human or just some thing or some kind of a divine being? He became very embarrassed and answered: “I don’t know.” And then he withdrew himself sweating all over. From this day on Huai Yang maintained a continuous doubt concerning the question: “What is this thing?”. As he finally attained the answer, he again went to see the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng, told him his answer and was recognised by him. Thereby, Hui Yang became the official Dharma successor of Zen Master Hui Neng.
What Gong-An should be used?
Presently, approximately 1702 Gong-Ans are known to have been used by eminent Zen masters. They can be found in Gong-An collections such as the Gyongdeok-Jeondeung Rock, the Byuck-Am Rock, the Mu-Mun Kwan, the Jong-Gyong Rock, the Im-Je Rock, or the Gal-Deung Jip.
One day a student asked an eminent teacher: “Which Gong-An is the best?” He replied: “The ten thousand questions are nothing but one question.” Accordingly, you should continually practice with one question: “What am I?”, and you must not deviate from your path, go straight: “What am I? What am I? What am I?” Then, your ten thousand questions will instantly vanish like smoke and only one question will remain.
The “What am I?” is your main Gong-An. The Gong-An is the driving force of Zen, the root of enlightenment. Then: What is Zen?
Spring comes; the grass greens by itself.
Summer comes; it is very hot.