A koan about religious tolerance (or is it?)


About a year ago, we changed the way we work with koans in BoWZ.  Rather than skipping over koans that appear again in later collections, a student now must work with them multiple times.


I’m currently working with Case 65 in the Blue Cliff Record.  In John Tarrant’s and Joan Sutherland’s as-yet unpublished translation of the BCR, which James Ford shared with me, the koan is titled “A Philosopher Questions the Buddha.”  This koan appears earlier in our progression as case 32 in The Gateless Gate.


Here it is:


An outsider asked the World-Honored One, “I do not ask for the spoken; I do not ask for the unspoken.” The World-Honored One just sat still. The outsider praised him, saying, “The World-Honored One with his great compassion and mercy has opened the clouds of my delusion and enabled me to enter the Way.” He then made bows and took his leave.


Ananda asked, “What did that outsider realize to make him praise you?”


The World-Honored One said, “He is like the fine horse who runs even at the shadow of a whip.”


This koan is very interesting to me at the moment for two reasons.


First, having passed through it quickly before, I stumbled on it this time.  I read it the morning I expected to present it to Josh in dokusan, then again that evening, just before we began to sit.  In other words, I hadn’t really stepped into it – entered it, and allowed it to enter me – and so my presentation of it in dokuan was off-the-mark, and I didn’t pass through it.


This is a really good reminder that we do not realize something unless we realize it in the moment, even if we’ve realized it before.


This is one way in which we can see the wisdom of working with a koan multiple times.


Second, this is a powerful, early example of religious tolerance in Buddhism.  I’m not sure this feature of the koan really hit me the first time around – and so we see another way in which there’s wisdom in working with a koan multiple times.


The World-Honored One is the historical Buddha, of course.  Ananda was one of the Buddha’s most senior and respected followers.  The Zen tradition regards him as the second Indian patriarch, just one step removed from the Buddha in the (at some points likely mythological) line of transmission that includes all living and departed Zen teachers.


The outsider in this koan was not a follower of the Buddha, not part of the clan.  In another translation, the koan is titled “A Hindu Questions the Buddha.”  Perhaps this “outsider” stood within the major religious stream within India then, as now.


This outsider clearly gets it, and Ananda, one of the Buddha’s most senior disciples, clearly doesn’t.  (Ananda apparently came to his realization very late in life, but he was revered for his big heart and incredible memory.  He is credited with preservation of many of the Buddha’s key teachings.)  The fact that an “outsider” gets it is clearly fine from the Buddha’s perspective.  In yet another translation, the Buddha is said to have been “respectful for a long time” after this man’s opening remark.


(What does the outsider realize?  We all need to realize that for ourselves, of course.)


This case seems to me to be making a point about religion and religious boundaries, in addition to other points it’s making.  This is the purpose of identifying the Buddha’s interlocutor as an outsider (or a Hindu).  Otherwise, why not just start the koan “A man asked the World-Honored One . . .”?


Note that there’s a fourth character in this koan, the narrator (and a fifth, you or me).


The narrator ushers us into “insider vs. outsider” mode almost imperceptibly.  It’s so seemingly natural to label people according to their traits, views, and social groups.


But is this really a koan about religious tolerance?


The Buddha doesn’t seem to see this guy through a “my religion, your religion” lens, as the narrator of the koan apparently does (or else playfully entices us to do).


Jesus was not the first Christian, as they say, and here we seem to be seeing that the Buddha was not the first Buddhist.


For the Buddha, this apparently was just an encounter with another human being who saw what he saw.


No religion here, and so no religious tolerance either, one could say.


Just a genuine encounter.  Presence.


Appreciation without labels.


Appreciation whatever the labels.