Kung-an Ch'an 公案禪

Once, after the Buddha gave a sermon to his senior disciples, he picked up a flower and without saying anything, held it up before the assembly. All the monks, except one, were mystified. Mahakasyapa alone knew the Buddha's meaning, and saying nothing, smiled. Thus, the Buddha transmitted to Mahakasyapa the wordless doctrine of Mind. Although this incident preceded by over a thousand years the rise of Ch'an, it is often cited as an example of an early kung-an.

What is a kung-an? A kung-an is a story of an incident between a master and one or more disciples, which involves an understanding or experience of enlightened mind. The incident usually, but not always, involves dialogue. When the incident is remembered and recorded, it becomes a matter of "public record", which is the literal meaning of kung-an. Often what makes the incident worth recording is that, as a result of the interchange, a disciple has had an awakening, an experience of enlightenment. The disciple's mind, if only for an instant, transcends attachment and logic, and sees a glimpse of wu, emptiness, or Buddha-nature. At this instant, there is a transmission of Mind 傳心 between master and disciple.

Master Chao-chou 趙州(778-897), was asked by a monk, "Does a dog have Buddha-nature?" to which the master replied, "Wu", meaning no, nothing. As kung-ans go, this is a basic one, but possibly the most famous.

In some cases, there is no record of an awakening, but the story is remembered because it contains, or expresses, meanings crucial to the understanding of enlightenment. Here is another kung-an, also involving Chao-chou.

Chao-chou had a disciple who met an old woman on the road and asked her, "How do I get to T'ai Shan 臺山 (Mount T'ai)?" She said, "Just keep going." As the monk started off, he heard the old lady remark, "He really went!" Afterwards, the disciple mentioned this to Chao-chou who said, "I think I'll go over there and see for myself." When he met her, Chao-chou asked the same question, and she said the same thing ─ "Just keep going." As Chao-chou started off, he heard the old lady say again, "He really went!" When Chao-chou returned, he said, "I've seen through that old lady." What did Chao-chou find out about the old lady? What is the meaning of this lengthy and obscure kung-an?

Kung-ans occurred very early in Ch'an history and simply become records of incidents between masters and disciples in the context of practice. These kung-ans were very much alive, spontaneous. Around the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) Ch'an masters began using kung-ans from the records as a method of meditation for their disciples. The practitioner was required to investigate the meaning of the historical kung-an. In his attempt to plumb the meaning of the kung-an, the student has to abandon knowledge, experience, and reasoning, since the answer is not suspectable to these methods. He must find the answer by ts'an kung-an 參公案, by "investigating the kung-an." This requires his sweeping from his consciousness everything but the kung-an. When there is nothing in his mind but the kung-an, there is a chance for an experience of Ch'an, an awakening.

Closely related, but not identical to the kung-an, is the hua-t'ou 話頭. A hua-t'ou, literally "head of a thought", is a question that the meditator inwardly asks himself. For example, "What is wu?", or "Who am I?". As in the kung-an, the answer is not resolvable through reasoning, but requires ts'an hua-t'ou 參話頭, "investigating the hua-t'ou." The meditator devotes his full attention to repeatedly, incessantly, asking himself the hua-t'ou. His objective is to probe into the source of the question, that is, the state of mind that existed before the question became a thought.

There are similarities between the kung-an and hua-t'ou. Both are methods of ts'an Ch'an, investigating Ch'an. In the sutras there was usually a dialogue between the Buddha and his disciples. The Buddha used this question-and-answer format to arouse the understanding of the disciples. The word ts'an is thus also applicable to the method of the Buddha.

Another context in which ts'an Ch'an occurred was in the practice of monks making the rounds to accomplished masters. This custom allowed monks to pay their respects to the masters, but also gave them an opportunity to have dialogue with the master. Sometimes, these practitioners had reached an impasse in their investigation, and needed chuan-yu 轉語, some "turning words" from a master to give them the impetus for a breakthrough. However, dialogue did not always occur. When Chao-chou was still a disciple visiting various masters, he went to see Master Pao-shou 寶壽(?-?). At that time, Pao-shou was doing tso-ch'an. Seeing Chao-chou, he remained on his cushion, doing tso-ch'an. At this, Chao-chou prostrated before him. Pao-shou left his cushion to greet Chao-chou, but by then Chao-chou had already left, saying nothing.

Another way kung-an and hua-t'ou are closely related is that a hua-t'ou can give rise to a kung-an, and vice versa. For example, the question "The 10, 000 dharmas return to One; to what does the One return?" was originally a simple hua-t'ou. Once a student asked Chao-chou this same question, to which the master answered, "The fabric I bought from Ch'ing-chou 青州 weighs seven chin 斤." A hua-t'ou became a kung-an because of the interaction with the master, and the answer he gave to it.

The central or key phrase in a kung-an frequently serves as the source for a hua-t'ou. The often-used hua-t'ou "What is wu?", is derived from Chao-chou's "Does a dog have Buddha-nature?" kung-an.

P'ang Yun 龐蘊(?-811) a lay disciple of Ma-tsu 馬 祖, resolved to follow the Path, threw his wealth into the river, and became a basket weaver. While plying his trade one day, he met a monk begging for alms. Giving the monk some money, Layman P'ang asked him, "What is the meaning of giving alms?" The monk said, "I don't know. What is the meaning of giving alms?" And Layman P'ang replied, "Very few people have heard about it." The monk answered, "I don't understand." And Layman P'ang asked, "Who is it that doesn't understand?" This incident became a kung-an that gave birth to a whole series of hua-t'ous of the "who" type. Some variations on it were "Who is reciting Buddha's name?", "Who is investigating Ch'an?", "Who is dragging a corpse?" etc.

However, many hua-t'ous have no relationship whatever to kung-ans, but are simply questions concerning Buddha-nature that either arise spontaneously, or are assigned by the master as a method of practice.

As we said, the use of the kung-an or hua-t'ou from previous records was not common until the Sung dynasty 宋朝, with the appearance of The Transmission of the Lamp 傳燈錄. This text contained many spontaneous kung-ans and hua-t'ous. Fen-yang Shan-chao 汾陽善昭 (947-1024) compiled a collection of 100 kung-ans, called Hsien-hsien ipai Chih 先賢一百則, One Hundred Selections from Previous Sages. Wu-men Hui-k'ai 無門 慧開(1183-1260) compiled a collection of 48 kung-ans, called Wu-men kuan 無門關(Mumonkan), the Gateless Gate. These all promoted and encouraged the use of kung-ans.

The records of the Ch'an sect, including the Transmission of the Lamp, and the collections of kung-ans, do not frequently refer to tso-ch'an practice. It was understood that by the time practitioners began to ts'an Ch'an, they already had a very good foundation in tso-ch'an. Such a basis is needed if one is to effectively practice kung-an and hua-t'ou. Beginners may get some usefulness out of the constant repetition, but this will be similar to chanting a mantra. Because the beginner lacks the ability to bring his mind to a deep quiescent state, it would be difficult, if not impossible to experience self-nature or become enlightened.

Throughout Ch'an history we read of advanced practitioners who visited masters in order to assess their own understanding of Ch'an, or certify their own attainment. These situations were well-suited for applying the methods of kung-an and hua-t'ou. It is important to remember that any interchange between master and disciple can be an opportunity for a live, spontaneous kung-an or hua-t'ou, and that these practices should not be thought of as being limited to the sayings and questions from the historical record.

Ta-hui Tsung-kao 大慧宗杲(1089-1163) was one of the greatest advocates of kung-an practice. From his record of sayings we see that he maintained that tso-ch'an was very necessary to settle the wandering mind, and bring about emergent samadhi. It is only then that the student can effectively use the kung-an or hua-t'ou. Even though kung-an and hua-t'ou practice can be done while walking, standing, or even lying down, its fundamental basis is still tso-ch'an.

If through tso-ch'an a student's mind has become very peaceful and stable, the application of the kung-an or hua-t'ou may cause the rising of the Great Doubt 大疑情.This doubt is not the ordinary doubt of questioning the truth of an assertion. It is the doubt that arises out of ts'an Ch'an, investigating Ch'an. It refers to the practitioner's deeply questioning state of mind as a result of using the kung-an or hua-t'ou. The resolution of the kung-an or hua-t'ou hinges on the nurturing of the Great Doubt. Because the answer to his questions cannot be resolved by logic, he must continually return to his question, and in the process, clear his mind of everything else except the Great Doubt.

Eventually, this accumulated "doubt mass" 疑團 can disappear in one of two ways. One way is that, due to lack of concentration or energy, the meditator will not be able to sustain the doubt, and it will dissipate. Another way is that by persisting until his doubt is like a "hot ball of iron stuck in his throat", the doubt mass will disappear in an explosion.

If the explosion has enough energy, it is possible that the student will experience "Ch'an", see Buddha-nature, become enlightened. If not, there will probably still be some attachment in his mind. It is necessary for a master to confirm his experience, since the student, with rare exceptions, cannot do that himself. Even as great a master as Ta-hui did not penetrate sufficiently on his first experience. His master Yuan-wu K'e-ch'in 圓悟克勤 told him, "You have died, but you haven't come back to life." He was confirmed on his second experience. So what is a true experience? It takes an adept master to tell. If he is not a genuine master, he won't know the difference.

《TSO-CH'AN》p. 0024-0030

| More
Back to news list

Your are here : News > Kung-an Ch'an 公案禪