HIROAKI (Shotei) ‘Shrine in snow at sunset’

I don’t know that winter is so very different in other parts of the world that have a similar climate to Paradelle.  I’m sure that winter in Hawaii and winter in Maine are different, but I am thinking more about the mental idea of winter.

I encountered a few things this past week that made me think about Japan. One was a book by novelist David Guterson who is best known for a good novel,  Snow Falling on Cedars,  which was made into a not-so-great movie.

I read that book in the mid-1900s when I was still teaching in a secondary school. I picked it off a bookshelf because I loved the image of the title. It sounded like a haiku line or the title of a Japanese print. I had also read an article that said Guterson taught high school for many years and that he got the idea from teaching Romeo and Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird. Those are both novels that I love and that I  loved teaching.

His novel is about a Japanese-American on trial for murder at the end of World War II. Star-crossed love (R&J) and courtroom drama (TKAM) combined and it worked pretty well. He won the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction.

by Yokoyama Taikan (1868~1958), Japan

This week I was also looking through a bound notebook that I have filled over the years with kōans.  I realized that I first encountered Zen kōans when I read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in seventh grade. The book contained the one line koan:

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

I loved the book and I went searching for more Salinger to read and things about him, and along the way discovered the puzzling sound of one hand clapping was one of many kōans.

Kōans in Zen Buddhism are stories, dialogs, questions, or statements that are used to teach.  The meaning of a kōan often defies rational thinking – and therefore many Westerners.

The one Salinger used is often translated as “Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?” and it is attributed to the oral tradition of Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1769)  who is considered to be a reviver of the kōan tradition in Japan.

The kōans are used to train teachers, monks, and students. They come from many sources. They might be taken from a story in the sutras and historical records. They may refer to poetry or the commentaries written by later Zen teachers.

I imagine winter at a Buddhist temple in Japan to be even more peaceful than at other times of the year. Less activity outside. the snow muffling sounds. Teachers and students inside quietly meditating on their koans.

That is probably not a very accurate picture of life there.

Some people mistakenly see the kōan as an “unanswerable” question or a “meaningless” statement. Practitioners do not see them as meaningless, but a teacher probably does not expect a student to give a “correct” answer or response when asked about a kōan.

Is it a a riddle or puzzle? No, and there is no one answer.

I took an approach to koans in my earlier years that is probably very “Western.” I looked for a book with the answers. And there are some traditional recorded answers” (kenjō) to many of the classical kōans that are used. Those answers were “correct” for the person, the time and the situation in which they were given. But hearing those “answers” may actually confuse you even more.

For example, take this one from the Book of Serenity:

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “What is the meaning of the ancestral teacher Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?”

Zhaozhou replied, “The cypress tree in front of the hall.”

Does that makes the meaning clearer for you? For me, the answer is another koan.

But if I was in Japan at a quiet Buddhist temple on this winter weekend and all I had to do was think… maybe I could come up with an answer. I think I should be gazing out at Mount Fuji on Honshu Island.

Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji reflected on Lake Yamanaka

Books of Koans
The Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koans
Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life
The Zen Koan: Its History and Use in Rinzai Zen
The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koans