Global Buddhist Community

{Dharma Talk} Master and Student

by Gilbert Gutierrez
Gilbert Gutierrez is a Dharma Heir of Chan Master Sheng Yen with over thirty-nine years of experience in meditation, various martial arts, and Chi Gong. He lectures regularly at DDMBA centers throughout the United States and gives weekly classes at his own group in Riverside, California. His Riverside Chan Meditation Group makes excellent use of web technology (, with a lively “meet up” site and a weekly Dharma Talk podcast, and written transcripts of his lectures, allowing Gilbert to support long-distance students.
As formal practice I do not assign my students koans. But I do believe that the exchange between master and student in the appropriate moment of giving a question or a double or triple entendre response is very useful. Koans point directly at mind in which the student must ultimately abandon cogitative thinking. For instance:
Student: But Master I don't understand.

Master: You will never understand.

But the timing and the student must be right for the master to use this response. The process goes from a student believing he has been insulted to pondering further, with trust in the master, that the master is pointing to something beyond what the student initially comprehended (that being an insult to the self). This goes to abandoning discriminatory thought and using Right View to process what the master has said. A ripe student in an instant may grasp the direct truth of emptiness and realize "who indeed can understand, just a bubble in a stream." Some students grasp the conceptual Right View and do not have a profound realization (not bad but in need of further contemplation rather than cogitation). Others penetrate deeply where discussion and conception ceases and get a glimpse of mind as it is without conception (thisis Right View realized or perfected Right View). I have used a simple koan example so that it would be easy to follow. When used in a class many will see at least conceptual Right View.
In our Chan school it is not about "passing" a koan. Where would one pass to? Koans are not about intellectual understanding. There are no levels in sudden enlightenment. The beauty and simplicity of the Chan school is that it points directly to the mind, be it the Buddha twirling a flower to Mahakasyapa or Hui Neng asking "Without discrimination what mind is this?"
In this manner koans are very useful. The master through his own cultivation and contemplation develops an "intuitive sense" of when to use a koan. The koan may be a series of questions and responses to a student, or in some cases a group of students. The students ask questions and the master responds in sometimes apparently nonsensical responses, which on further reflection by the student point to the substance of mind.
This method tests students and keeps them honest in their practice. It also keeps the student from sticking to a conceptual cogitation. Thus it is useful to the cultivation of Right View and is essential to the proper utilization of meditation. It facilitates the eradication of reliance on consciousness and its "polishing" when one is in meditation. Consciousness is returned to mind as sages do rather than mind turning into consciousness as fools do.
This is the purpose of koans as I utilize them. I often respond to a student's email in this manner. In this way technology is very useful because it requires that a student ponder the master's response before responding. Little by little the useful intellectual banter must be discarded in attempting to respond to the master.
Koan practice leads to cutting off conceptualization and having the student practice contemplation. This is a major key to Chan meditation practice—to return consciousness to its source, resting the mind where thoughts arise. As the student learns it is contemplation and not cultivation that must be practiced, then the student truly has entered the practice of Chan. Initially this may be overwhelming for the student as they ponder this endlessly quizzical practice.
Koans can be used to initially confuse the student and then allow the student to realize that circuitous "reasoning" is ineffective to solve the puzzle. It may be different than a huatou which can bring an immediate cease to the search—as in realizing there is no puzzle at all. Koans are likened to following a maze puzzle until one realizes that there is no exit in following the pathways in the puzzle. The only answer is to not play the game. This is proper conceptual Right View. Once the student has a better grasp of Right View the student's practice will be more seasoned, the difference being that the student's investigation will be on mind. In Master Hsu Yun's Prerequisites of the Chan Training, He first states "The object of Chan training is to realize mind for the perception of self nature (true nature, not ego)."
How does this work? As the student realizes conceptualization is fundamentally as empty as "a bubble in a stream" one learns to relinquish thoughts. Master Hsu Yun asks "How can one talk about investigating Chan when one is covered up and bound by the myriad conditions and ones thoughts are produced and extinguished without interruption?" How is this done? By thinking of not thinking? Here is another koan for you:
Student: "What do you meditate on? "

Master: "I think about not thinking. "

Student: "How do you think about not thinking? "

Master: "By not thinking"
For Chan instructors I highly recommend the book entitled The Mind of Chinese Chan written by Yi Wu. It is very hard to find but worth the search as it is filled with many koans appropriate for Chan practice. It is also a useful guide and study aid to any Chan instructor, and also those who aspire to be one. Our Chan school is lively and vibrant. It should be constantly engaging. Engaging what? The investigation of mind.