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Z E N K O A N
#1
Who is asking?
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A student once asked, Where is the Buddha?” The master replied, “Not far from the source of your question.” The deepest answer that Zen gives to any question is, “Who wants to know?” How can we find a solution to our questions if we don’t know who we are? Most people identify themselves with their body and personality, but Zen says, “look again.” Your body has changed beyond all recognition - from a small baby to a grown adult. Your personality is adapting all the time to new situations. Are these really you? The only consistent thing in your life has been your experience of being a witness of all the changes. For Zen, our sense of personal identity is a self-created illusion. Any idea we have of who we are is just that - an idea. We are not the idea, but the consciousness that is experiencing the idea. We can, therefore, never know ourselves through thought. We can only be where we are - indescribable Buddha-Nature.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Do you assume that you know who you are? Before solving the problems in your life, spend some time with the fundamental question, “Who am I?”

  • Are you trapped in ideas about who you are? One by one, consider all your ideas about yourself and then discard them. Sense your subjective experience of simply being. Allow your choices to arise from the depths of your true nature, not your ideas about yourself.

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    Discover Who You Are

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#2
TO FIND YOURSELF
IS TO LOSE YOURSELF

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Master Hashida taught, “To study the way of the Buddha is to study your own self, and to study your own self is to forget yourself.” Zen teaches that the separate person that we take ourselves to be is not our real nature. To know our true Self, we must cease to identify with this illusory separate self. When we behave in a selfish way, we serve the false ego-self, but when we become selfless, we awaken our deeper Buddha-Nature. Selflessness is the spiritual path to overcoming our sense of separateness, and experiencing the Oneness of all that is. According to Buddhism, enlightenment is not something you obtain for yourself, but something that naturally occurs when you give yourself away.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you trying to find yourself? Then give yourself away. Think of something you can do today to serve others selflessly. Be aware of the needs of those around you and simply express your natural compassion. Test out Hashida’s teachings and you will find that when you rise above your self-interest, you feel more your Self.

  • Are you trying to be selfless, but finding it impossible? As long as you believe you are a separate person serving separate people, you cannot help but act from your self. Imagine all beings as the hands and eyes of one great being.

  • When you help others, let it be as natural and unaffected as if you were feeding yourself.

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    Be Selfless

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#3
The wave and
the sea are One

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Master Thigh Nhat Hanh writes, “The wave lives the life of a wave and at the same time, the life of water.” Zen teaches that our seemingly separate self is like an individual wave that rises and falls on a great sea of Being. Like a wave, we are propelled forward by the deep currents of life. If we only experience the surface of things, we will believe we are the wave. Then we will feel as if we are being pushed around by life and will fear crashing down onto the rocky shore line. If we experience the depths of things, we will know that we are the whole ocean, and all anxiety will disappear. Waves come and go, but the ocean remains.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you feeling tossed around like a wave on the sea? Go deeper. Be a part of life, not apart from life. Let life flow through you and live in harmony with its ebb and flow. Fighting the current is a waste of energy. Pushing the current will not hurry things along. Ride the waves of life with equanimity, knowing that you are in reality the whole sea.

  • Are you anxious? Imagine yourself as a wave with the power of the whole sea behind it. Unstoppable. Feel the Life-force surging through you. What is there to be anxious about? You are Life itself.

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    All is One

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#4
Look and see with your
own eyes. If you hesitate
,
you miss the mark for ever
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Master Yuan-Wu teaches us not to hesitate, but to see directly into the nature of life for ourselves. In the Zen tradition, a human birth is seen as a wonderful opportunity to become enlightened. if we don’t do it now - when will we do it? If we hold back from fully embracing life today, we will miss it forever, because the Zen vision can only be experienced in the present moment. The past is gone and the future has not come. Now is the only reality, and if we want to awaken, we must awaken now.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you holding back from life? If you don’t seize the day, you will reach your death having missed your life. Don’t hesitate. Be alive.

  • Are you putting off until tomorrow something that your inner intuition is telling you to do today? Whether it is something important, or significant, when we don’t follow our inner prompting through fear and inertia, we cut ourselves off from the guiding light of our life.

  • Are you waiting to begin your spiritual search in earnest? You are alive now, and you don’t know for how long. Don’t waste this precious opportunity to discover the Truth for yourself.

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    Look for Yourself Now

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#5
I burn the books in by bag.
But the verses written in my
guts cannot be forgotten

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Ikkyu was an outrageous Zen master who taught that instead of endlessly studying Buddhist scriptures, we should learn to read the love letters sent by the snow, the wind and the rain. He burned his copies of the scriptures and followed the dictates of his intuition. He simply expressed his own nature. He was as at home in a brothel as in a temple. Spending time with a pleasure girl, he reports, never made him feel like he was burning in hell. He believed Zen was about becoming a natural human being who enjoyed life to the full, and thought a puritan saint was nowhere near a Buddha.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you following your deepest intuitions or what others have told you is right? We often fail to express our own nature through fear of others’ judgments, but a Zen life is free of any such constraints.

  • Do you fear that if you let yourself go you might act badly? Transcend your ego-self and sense your Oneness with all life, and you will naturally want to act for the best. Zen is about becoming free to express your particular nature in natural harmony with the whole of life. Sense your deepest Self. Trust it. Now, disregarding all the opinions of others, even the teachings of the Buddha - how do you want to express who you are?

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    Be Yourself

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#6
When walking - walk.
When sitting - sit
.
But don’t wobble
!
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When asked how he disciplined himself in Zen, a master once replied, “When hungry, I eat. When tired, I sleep.” His astonished questioner responded, “But that is what everyone does.” “Not at all,” replied the master, “Most people are constantly distracted from what they are doing.” Zen is knowing that we are a part of Nature, and allowing our own nature to express itself naturally - when hungry, we eat. But it is about doing whatever we do with complete awareness. In this koan, master Yun-men advises us not to “wobble.” We wobble when we are not fully present with what we are doing. Zen is not doing something special, it is consciously performing everyday activities. Master Nan-ch’uan was once asked, “What is Zen?” to which he replied, “Ordinary mind is very Zen.” “Should we try to get it?” the questioner continued. “As soon as you try, you miss it.” cautioned Nan-ch’uan. Zen is not “trying” to be a certain way, it is just being what you are and doing what you do."


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you completely engaged with whatever process is unfolding in your life? Insight does not come from living unconsciously or standing aloof, but by fully entering in.

  • Are you valuing the extraordinary and overlooking the ordinary? Zen is nothing special. It is simply being conscious as you live your everyday life.

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    Be Natural and Aware

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#7
Without anxious thought,
doing comes from being

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Zen teaches us that it is possible to live spontaneously. This is not condoning a wildly irresponsible approach to life. It is about allowing our natural decision-making process to function efficiently. A useful modern metaphor with which to understand this teaching is to imagine the mind as a computer. If we are running a lot of unnecessary programs on a computer and then ask it to process certain information, it is significantly slowed down. Each step of the process appears on the screen before us, until eventually it presents us with the answer. If these unnecessary programs are turned off, all of the computer’s power is freed up to process the question. In the same way, if the mind is full of irrelevant thoughts and anxieties, our natural decision-making process is slowed down and we become painfully aware of each step in the deliberation. If we still the mind through such practices as meditation, it frees up our mental powers to respond quickly and efficiently, so that we spontaneously know what to do.


Thought to contemplate:

  • Instead of thinking through the question that life is confronting you with, sit quietly and let your thoughts settle down. Allow the answer to emerge spontaneously from your intuition without unnecessary deliberation. Go straight to the solution

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    Be Spontaneous

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#8
Do what you will ~
but not because you must
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Zen teaches us to follow the promptings of our inner nature, but these should not be confused with habits. Zen is fresh in each moment. Masters are infamous for suddenly doing crazy things to shock their students out of their habitual states of mind and into the immediacy of the spontaneous NOW. When we act from our habits, we are like a record that has become stuck in a groove and is repeating the same things over and over again. When the Zen Master intuitively responds in a bizarre way, students do not know whether to be insulted, angry, or amused - they suddenly don’t know how to be. It is as if the master has given the record player a nudge and suddenly it is playing new music again. Students are free from their old habits and are alive to the wonderful magic of the present moment.


Thought to contemplate:

  • Are you caught in playing out a habitual pattern of behavior? Be your own Zen Master! When you catch yourself being habitual, spontaneously do something absurd. Make a strange noise or put your shoe on your head. It will feel very strange, but you’ll find you can’t take your habits so seriously when you’re behaving in a bizarre, uncharacteristic way. Every time you do this your habit will become harder and harder to slip into unconsciously - until you are effortlessly and naturally set free to find new ways to respond to each new moment.

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    Don’t be Habitual

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#9
Know who you are.
Be what you know

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Zen teaches us to look deeply into ourselves and know who we really are. Having glimpsed even a little of our intrinsic Buddha-Nature, we must then attempt to live what we know. It is easy to have a momentary insight into our essential nature, but then only to hold onto it as a philosophical idea. To practice Zen, we must constantly return to this insight to make it a living reality. Zen is not a set of beliefs to be discussed. Zen is seeing the Truth and then living authentically.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you being authentic? If you are not living a life that expresses your inner nature, consider what changes you need to transform yourself and your life so that you can really be you. Start making the changes today.

  • Are you living what you know? Consider one way in which you would live your life differently if you put into practice your deepest insights. Decide to live that way from now on. If you find you have failed to do so, don’t waste time in self-judgement, just affirm the decision again and continue on your way.

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    Be Authentic

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#10
Water beats gradually
and boils suddenly

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Some schools of Zen emphasize a sudden and spontaneous awakening. Others stress that we awaken gradually through practice and perseverance. There is no contradiction here, however, as is brought out by the Zen saying on this page. Through patiently persevering in practicing the principles of Zen, we prepare the conditions that are conducive to the completely natural experience of enlightenment. You cannot force a seed to sprout, but only provide it with the best conditions that allow sprouting to occur naturally. Likewise, awakening can not be forced, but may be encouraged.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you frustrated with your life? See yourself as water that is slowly heating and will suddenly surprise you by boiling. Let go of your frustration and concentrate on creating the conditions in your life that will gradually allow fulfillment to arise naturally over time.

  • Do you need to develop patient perseverance? If you developed this attitude, how would it change your life? Consider one specific area and decide to be like a gardener cultivating seeds. You cannot make the seeds grow, but you can lovingly tend them until harvest time.

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    Be Patient

 
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