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Kannon (Guan Yin)

Satori, The Koan, and Monastic Polishing


All human beings have two identities - one sacred and singularly real, and the other profane and illusory. The sacred is the Buddha Nature, the God within. The profane is the everyday, ordinary ego, the personality complex which presides over consciousness with monarchic pretensions. This is the phantom tyrant which all Chan practice strives to dethrone and dispel.

Salvation is realized when, through any of the lifeline states of super-consciousness which constitute religious experience, we reach the Nirvanic mountain's shore. This event signifies that our ego has transcended itself and has experienced the Other, the sacred Self. But this encounter does not serve automatically to erase the fictive ego. The tyrant continues to harass our steps up the Eightfold Path until we are finally privileged to witness the ego's obliteration (Satori) and to be, however briefly, our living, sacred Self. Satori demonstrates beyond all doubt that we and our Lord are one in the same. Until we experience Satori we merely believe that there is a buddha within us. We don't know it and we certainly can't testify to it. Religious experts we may be; but without Satori we are able only to state opinions about enlightenment, to be "Shepherds who count," as the Buddha put it, "other men's sheep."

The following (with some personal references) is a list of seven identifiable parts of the Satori experience:

l. The attention is grabbed by something... a word or phrase or rhythmic sound such as a distant bell, dripping water, or a pebble bouncing down some steps. (Mine was caught by a chirping cricket.)

2. A revolving, enveloping sensation is felt... as though the brain is literally turning over. This is called, naturally enough, 'turning about in the seat of consciousness' (paravritti). A weaker version is felt upon entering samadhi.

3. There is an awareness of going away, of instantaneously receding into the horizon's vanishing point or of being extinguished as a blown-out candle flame. This is not a blacking-out as in a loss of consciousness. There is no loss of consciousness. The sense of I-ness simply blinks out. One actually feels oneself depart.

4. The senses continue to operate, i.e., the attention-grabbing stimulus continues to be recorded (the cricket continued to chirp) and the setting - the surrounding place and objects - remains unchanged except that it seems strangely peaceful and is seen in peculiar clarity, crisply defined with a pristine loveliness. There is a remoteness to this vision: it is akin to staring at the plane surface of a diamond and seeing, the moment one focuses correctly, the entire side of a room precisely reflected in the tiny surface.

5. There is an awareness that one returns - from wherever it was that one went.

6. There is another revolving sensation as if the brain is again turning, reversing its direction.

7. There is an immediate surge of euphoria and a spontaneous exclamation. (I shouted the name of the Sixth Patriarch, saying, "Hui Neng was right! Hui Neng was right!" I had previously paid him very little attention and in fact, mispronounced his name when I shouted it.) The duration of this euphoria varies from several days to several weeks or more. This 'high,' commonly called "Zen disease", "God Intoxication", or, by Plato, "Divine Madness", is characterized by a goofy kind of elation that makes one feel like dancing, jumping or singing, usually at completely inappropriate times.

A period of confusion may also follow. (I am almost ashamed to admit that I walked around for nearly a week saying to myself, 'I know that I was gone... so, who heard the cricket?' as in part 4 above.)

After this initial confusion, one may reach some peculiar but bold conclusions that are incomprehensible to others. For example, my first rational evaluation of the experience was that it would be absolutely inaccurate ever to say that 'I' experienced Satori. Since I was not there at the time, I could acknowledge the event only by pointing to my head and saying, 'Satori was experienced here.' This sounds bizarre but, in truth, no one can ever say that he has experienced Satori. By definition, 'he' would have had to be gone from the scene. (The word play on this fact accounts for some of the deliberate absurdity of many of Chan's famous questions and answers.)

The entire satori experience lasts no more than a few seconds which, considering a person's lifetime commitment to Chan is certainly not very much. Yet, it is vital in that it is so confirmatory. Only in Satori are we permitted to witness our true identities.

The experience, it should be noted, is not limited to Buddhists. The pure egoless state and the revelation of one's divine identity is known in all religions.

Hui Neng is often criticized for telling people how vital it is to experience enlightenment while neglecting to supply them with the necessary instructions. Hui Neng, it must be remembered, was not a product of monastic training. Intelligent and sensitive, he matured in the poverty of the streets. Nobody had to tell him how to achieve enlightenment. When his mind had sufficiently ripened, "it" just happened.

Further, there are risks involved in even discussing the enlightenment experience. Friends and religious professionals tend to back away from anyone who announces that he is or has been God or a buddha. Friends don't like to dine with God. He's no fun at football games and makes a wretched pub crawler. Clergymen who have not experienced satori for themselves usually react viciously to such news. Immediately they doubt the authenticity of the experience: The claimant either is foolishly mistaken or is deliberately lying. It simply cannot be true. How, they wonder, could this fellow have been admitted into the privileged circle while they have been so long excluded? Would a just God ignore their years of hard work and exemplary behavior and reward someone who is clearly less deserving? Not bloody likely!)

In many old, effusive texts we sometimes read about instances of mass enlightenment. So and so said something special and the two thousand people who heard it were instantly enlightened. No credence should be given such remarks.

The Koan

Meditation and 'polishing' methods are common to all religions. But Chan found something else to offer, something that could jolt the ripened mind into the satori experience. Chan's peculiar and, as far as anyone can tell, wholly original contribution to religious methodology is the gongan (koan), a term which means, in ancient legalese, a 'case' under consideration, one that has perhaps set a precedent. The Koan and Man Tou are obviously related techniques.

Strictly speaking, by limiting the definition of the koan to that usage which is unique and original to Chan, the koan is a question that sounds logical but, in fact, is nonsense. Because it sounds logical, it engages the intellect, challenging it to the point of obsession to find a solution to the question posed. For example, a famous koan is, "We know the sound of two hands clapping; but what is the sound of one hand clapping?" In antiquity, a few Chan masters discovered that if a candidate was sufficiently mature, he could be jolted into experiencing enlightenment by trying to answer a question of this ilk. Now, "to clap" means to strike two things together. The question, then, is nonsensical. One hand cannot clap and therefore can make no sound of clapping. Yet the question is so seductive that candidates can be lured into pondering it, in extremis.

Let us imagine one such trial as it might have existed between master and pupil in old China. (Recall that in Chan's formative years (AD 500-900) there were no private audiences. All of the exchanges between master and pupil usually occurred before an assembly of monks.)

Doe Ming, heir to the Doe fortune, has spent some time in the Swamp, been saved, learned how to meditate, and is, by his master's estimation, ready for the final assault upon the Nirvanic summit. The monastery's head monk begins the ordeal. He publicly flatters Ming by telling him that he is extremely impressed by his progress and has recommended to Master that Ming be given a koan to solve. (Beginners did not receive koans.) Master, the head monk confides, though not entirely sure of Ming's ability, is personally very fond of Ming. He has therefore accepted the recommendation. Soon he will honor Ming by assigning him a koan.

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 18: Monastic Polishing: Page 1 of 3

Last modified: July 11, 2004
©1996 Ming Zhen Shakya (Chuan Yuan Shakya)