Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Recording of Goddard's Translation of Lankavatara Sutra

Here's a recording of the Lankavatara Sutra The whole sutra is “chanted” in English by Christian Pecaut with separate files for each chapter making 13 mp3 files.
I've downloaded the files and listen to them while I commute. It makes a wonderful commuting experience.  Pecault chants in a sing-song voice of rising and falling tones that create a very soothing and dynamic atmosphere of reverence. At times it seems that Pecaut is doing his best not to bust out laughing and only holding it together barely until he gets back on track.  

The Lankavatara version being recorded is the one translated by Dwight Goddard in his book A Buddhist Bible which is online at the Sacred Texts site:

The main thing I don't like about Goddard's translation is that both the words citta and vijnana are translated into English by using the same word "mind" which causes a lot of confusion when the discussion is about the 8 consciousnesses (vijnana). Thus translating "alayavijnana" as "universal mind" glosses over subtle nuances.

In his 2004 introduction to the etext version of the book, John Bruno Hare explained a bit about the style of translation that Goddard was presenting.
Hare wrote: "Goddard, particularly in this first edition, took the best available translation of key documents and edited them heavily to eliminate repetitious passages and extraneous material. So this is a readers edition, not a critical edition, of these texts. However, he did nothing to water down or simplify the message of the sutras; quite the contrary. One can read this book repeatedly and still come back with new insights on each reading."
But regardless of the translation technicalities, as the Lanka itself says in Goddard's translation,
"Anyone who teaches a doctrine that is dependent upon letters and words is a mere prattler, because Truth is beyond letters and words and books."
We read the Lanka correctly when we read and hear the truth of it and not just the words. This is what Huineng called "turning round the sutra" and "not being turned around by the sutra."

Lastly, for those who wondered where the Zen motto attributed to Bodhidharma came from, we see that the line "not established on word or letters" came from the Lankavatara that Bodhidharma was known to favor. Thus the scholars who claim that the motto came well after Bodhidharma have nothing to stand on when we see that the pieces of the motto came from the Lanka and Bodhidharma was a solid supporter of the Lanka.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

New Translation of Lankavatara Sutra by Red Pine

I just came across Barry Briggs' blog post on Red Pine's new translation of the Lankavata Sutra that he posted about 3 weeks ago. Since the comments section was closed I decided to write some extended comments. Here is Mr. Briggs' original post:
Last week Counterpoint Press sent an "advance galley" copy of Red Pine's new translation of The Lankavatara Sutra. The book was on my Amazon "wish list," so I consider myself pretty fortunate.The Lankavatara Sutra played an important role in the development of Zen Buddhism and, according to legend, Bodhidharma passed on his personal copy to his dharma heir, Hui-k'o. As I understand it, this sutra is important for teaching that consciousness is reality itself. Further, it provides a detailed analysis of consciousness, heady reading for an unconscious fellow like myself.
Red Pine is known for his translations of the Diamond, Heart and Platform Sutras. This new translation looks fully annotated with notes and references, making it especially valuable for those of us who might not grasp its teaching.
Although I haven't read the text, I have skimmed randomly through it. Here's a gem that jumped off page 110:
Mahamati, words are not ultimate truth, nor is what they express ultimate truth. And how so? Ultimate truth is what buddhas delight in. And what words lead to is ultimate truth. But words are not ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is what is attained by the personal realization of buddha knowledge.
I plan to offer an actual review of the book in the coming months. In the meantime, you might pre-order through your favorite bookseller.

Some of the commenters on that page shared their reservations about Red Pine's translations suggesting that Red Pine doesn't have a very good grasp of the deeper ideas of Buddhist teaching.  I too am looking forward to Red Pine’s new translation, and I also have reservations about how Red Pine does translating.  But I strongly disagree that "the problem" with Red Pine's translations has anything to do with his not having "a good feel for what the texts are talking about." 

In my view, Red Pine knows exactly what he is doing, and I don’t think that his translations are invalid or illegitimate.  It is just that he is translating for the general non-Buddhist audience, so he does not worry about keeping the terminology strictly in accord with the original or presented in the technical jargon of Buddhist rhetoric.  People who have no background in the technical terms of Buddha Dharma won’t notice a thing and will be inspired by his translations. But when reviewing the translation against the original texts, it becomes clear that his primary goal in translating is to make the work the most palatable to the most people, not in keeping great accuracy for the original words or Buddhist concepts.  For me, knowing that is his goal, I can read his translations without getting my knickers in a twist about his using popular terminology rather than strictly Buddhist terminology. I know if I want the more strict translation to look elsewhere, and that does not prevent me from enjoying how Red Pine translates.


Mr. Briggs wrote,
As I understand it, this sutra is important for teaching that consciousness is reality itself. 

As D.T. Suzuki writes in his Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra, the companion volume to his translation of the Lankavatara, there is a significant difference between the “consciousness-only” (vijnanamatra or vijnaptimatra) orientation of the Yogacara analysis and the “mind-only” (cittamatra) of the Ekayana (One Vehicle) taught in the Lankavatara. 

The doctrine expounded in the Lankavatara and also in the Avatamsaka-sutra is known as the Cittamatra and never as the Vijnanamatra or Vijnaptimatra as in the Yogacara schoool of Asanga and Vasubandhu. (p. 181) 

The core refrain of the Lankavatara is that all things are discriminations to be seen as of mind itself.

In his introduction to his translation of the Lankavatara, Suzuki writes,

“Without a theory of cognition, therefore, Mahayana philosophy becomes incomprehensible. The Lanka is quite explicit in assuming two forms of knowledge: the one for grasping the absolute or entering into the realm of Mind-only, and the other for understanding existence in its dualistic aspect in which logic prevails and the Vijnanas are active. The latter is designated Discrimination (vikalpa) in the Lanka and the former transcendental wisdom or knowledge (prajna). To distinguish these two forms of knowledge is most essential in Buddhist philosophy.”

Thus the orientation of the Lankavatara is not that consciousness is reality itself, but that consciousness is the discriminating activity of mind that makes us cling to duality, and only by realization of the non-dual or oneness (ekagra) of Mind-only is the highest samadhi attained.

Suzuki also writes in his introduction to the Lankavatara translation,

“The Lanka is never tired of impressing upon its readers the importance of this understanding in the attainment of spiritual freedom; for this understanding is a fundamental intuition into the truth of Mind-only and constitutes the Buddhist enlightenment with which truly starts the religious life of a Bodhisattva. [...] The awaking of supreme knowledge (anuttarasamyaksambodhi) is the theme of the Prajnaparnmita-sutras, but in the Lanka the weight of the discourse is placed upon therealisation by means of Aryajnana of ultimate reality which is Mind-only. This psychological emphasis so distinctive of the Lanka makes this sutra occupy a unique position in Mahayana literature. 

In other words, the conception that "consciousness is reality" does not pierce the veil of consciousness, and only by piercing the veil of discriminating consciousness can people awaken to the ultimate reality of Mind-only.

To play with the translations for comparison, here are the side by side translations of the section Mr. Briggs selected, as translated by Red Pine, with the same section translated by Suzuki:

Red Pine wrote: Mahamati, words are not ultimate truth, nor is what they express ultimate truth. And how so? Ultimate truth is what buddhas delight in. And what words lead to is ultimate truth. But words are not ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is what is attained by the personal realization of buddha knowledge

Suzuki wrote: Mahamati, words are not the highest reality, nor is what is expressed in words the highest reality. Why? Because the highest reality is an exalted state of bliss, and as it cannot be entered into by mere statements regarding it, words are not the highest reality. Mahamati, the highest reality is to be attained by the inner realisation of noble wisdom;

Suzuki is translating from the Sanskrit edition of Bunyu Nanjo published by the Otani University Press in 1923. I don’t know yet which version Red Pine is using as his basic text, but I assume it is either this Sanskrit version or anotheer.  Suzuki compared the Nanjo Sanskrit version against the three extant Chionese translations of Gunabhadra, Bodhirucci, and Sikshananda and also one Tibetan translation. Based on this comparison Suzuki thought there must be some omissions in the Nanjo Sanskrit version. 

Comparing the last sentences of the two versions above:

RP: Ultimate truth is what is attained by the personal realization of buddha knowledge

DTS: the highest reality is to be attained by the inner realisation of noble wisdom;

The terms “ultimate truth” and “the highest reality” are translations of the Sanskrit word paramartha (C. 第一義, literally, e.g., “primary meaning” or “first truth”)  Other translations could be “the highest matter”, “the chief concern”, etc.  I prefer the Chinese literal translation “primary meaning” for the compound term “parama-artha.”

The terms “buddha knowledge” and “noble wisdom” are translations of aryajnana (C. 聖智).  Obviously, Red Pine is inserting the word “buddha” to help the reader know that the noble-knowledge being spoken of is the noble-knowledge of a Buddha.  But by leaving out the word “arya” that means "noble, honorable, highly esteemed, excellent, worthy one," etc., and inserting “buddha,” Red Pine is going further than I like in translation. The text has arya-jnana not buddha-jnana, so I feel obligated to translate it that way and not change arya-jnana to read buddha-jnana.

The Sanskrit word jnana is a difficult word to translate because it is usually translated as “knowledge” which unfortunately in English connotes more the image of what is the collected data rather than the pure ability to know. This is why Suzuki translates is as “wisdom,” to indicate that it is not the objects or data of knowledge but the act of knowing truly.  To explain what the term jnana means, I like the translation “innate intelligence” to indicate that it is not something acquired as knowledge of external things but the innate knowledge or intelligence that we become aware of by meditation that gives us the ability to know the true naturre and conditions of things.  But I admit it is a cumbersome term, since for some, “intelligence” also means “what is learned or understood” rather than the ability to learn or act of understanding.  


I translate this last sentence of the excerpt according to the three Chinese translations like this:

Gunabhadra: That which is the primary meaning is the noble intelligence to which one’s own realization attains.

Bodhirucci: That which is the primary meaning is the noble intelligence confirmed within.

Sikshananda: That which is the primary meaning is the noble intelligence within one’s own field of confirmation.


The Lanakvatara Sutra is a most interesting Sutra in that it does not have much of a narrative and after the opening section, it is primarily in the form of the Bodhisattva-mahasatva Mahamati asking questions about points of Buddha Dharma and Buddha responding to clarify how to perceive from the perspective of Mind-only. The Mind-only perspective is the stance of the Ekayana lineage that Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen lineage in China, brought from Southern India.

An early reference to Huike, the disciple and Dharmaheir of Bodhidharma, is found in the Continued Biographies of Emminant Monks () by Daoxuan () who was not himself a monk in the Zen lineage.  In telling about his contemporary,the monk Fachong who lectured on the Lankavatara, Daoxuan says that Fachong was a great admirer of the Lankavatara Sutra and lamented that it was not receiving the respect and recognition that it was due.  Fachong travelled extensively in his quest to propagate the Lankvatara and eventually he came upon a group of descendants of Huike who also studied the Lankavatara extensively. Here he had frequent insight into the "Great Point" and was certified to teach the Lankavatara. Then in further travels he met a monk, who had been intimately transmitted by Maser Ke himself, "relying on the One Vehicle lineage of Southern India to explain it." Fachong then lectured over 100 times on the Lankavatara.

Daoxuan states that Zen master (Bodhi)Dharma propagated the Lankavatara South and North: "Forgetting words, forgetting thoughts, and without attainment, the right insight was taken to be the lineage."  

The Zen lineage is comprised of all those who have Bodhidharma as their chief ancestor in the Buddha Dharma. Thus every student of Zen must at some time in their career study and realize the "Great Point" of the Lankavatara if they are to consider themselves a true descendant of Bodhidharma.  Certainly, to the extent that Red Pine's new translation makes the Lankavatara more accessible to Zen students, this new translation is a great and virtuous benefit to the Buddha Dharma.


Cross-posted at Zen Forum International at

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Koans Are Not About Santa Claus

This essay is a reply to a talk titled “Dogen’s Use of Koans” by Griffith Foulk given on November 12, 2011, at the Bringing Dōgen Down to Earth conference held at FIU Miami.  The audio of the talk is available at Ancient Dragon Zen Gate, Audio #124, -

Though I am critical of Foulk’s perspective on koans that is presented in this talk, I do very much appreciate his willingness to present his views and make them available to the public like this.  The Dharma neither increases nor decreases, but discussions of the Buddha Dharma like this help to increase people’s awareness and realization of the Dharma.

Griffith Foulk is an academic scholar and my criticism of his approach to koans is centered on his academic orientation on “understanding” koans, as if that is what koans are about.  Zen koans are not created by scholars, not used by academics, not appreciated by pundits, and not realized by professors; they are created, used, appreciated and realized by Zen practitioners.  This fundamental distinction is lost in talks by academics who tell their audience as Foulk does that after a brief academic presentation “You will understand koans.”  The core error with this type of “understanding” is that it applies an inert doctrine as an overlay to a living koan and then claims to have established “understanding” thereby.  This is like saying you understand a dog because you know the name of its breed and the major anatomical features of the species.  This kind of understanding is so limited that it in no way approaches real understanding of this particular living dog. Likewise, Foulk in no way has approached real understanding of the particular living koans.

Foulk’s talk is titled “Dogen’s Use of Koans” and he attempts to bring Dogen’s use of koans down to earth by presenting a key to understanding all koans through the use of two primary doctrines of Madhyamaka analysis, that is, the doctrines of emptiness and the two truths.  Most of the talk describes his method of understanding koans as metaphors used in the context of teaching emptiness. 

Foulk begins by alluding to the fact that there is a common misunderstanding that portrays Dogen as not using koans. Foulk is quite correct that this view is erroneous and that Dogen did indeed use koans frequently in his writings and talks as a central teaching device and that Dogen even compiled a collection of 300 koans.  It is most unfortunate that in the first half of the 20th century a legend arose within the Soto branch of Zen that Dogen was opposed somehow to koans.  It is amazing to consider how this legend grew independently of Dogen’s actual writings in which any plain reading must clearly observe Dogen’s abundant appreciation and use of koans.

In asking “What are koans?” Foulk also points out correctly that koans are not riddles as the term is commonly used and as koans are often misunderstood to be.  But then he refers to a koan and says, “When I’m done in ten minutes you’ll understand it,” which no one who seriously knows koans would ever say even in jest.  That a koan is not a riddle, i.e., a problem to be solved or guessed, doesn’t mean the opposite, that it is a locked box that can be opened simply by applying the doctrine of emptiness as a skeleton key to understand every koan.  .    

Foulk points out that because koans use striking imagery or irreverent non sequiturs that they are often thought of by some scholars as nonsensical statements intended to stop the workings of the intellect or to cut off discursive or dualistic thinking.  He dismisses this view as “totally idiotic,” because koans would not be around for over a thousand years if they were nonsensical.  But then he throws the baby out with the bath water and leaves aside the basic working of the koan: that even though the koan is not “nonsensical,” there is in fact a strong component to all koans that is intended to cut off dualistic thinking.  This is the soteriological “understanding” of koans whose purpose is to act as the ferry to cross over the ocean of afflictions by turning awareness around to its own source. This function of “turning the light around” is called in Sanskrit paravrtti and will be discussed further below.

On the question of the translation of the word “koan,’ Foulk says “The term ‘koan’ is often translated as ‘public case,’ but that also is not correct.” However, it is Foulk who is incorrect on this point.  The word koan as it has come into English is from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word gongan composed of two characters gong (J. ko) and an (J. an). Foulk wants to make much out of the fact that gong means “public official, a magistrate or a judge” but he is just plain wrong when he says it doesn’t also mean “public” without the “official.” Chinese characters do not change form as English does when a noun is made plural, turned into a verb, or made into an adjective. So the term gong means both “public” and “public official” and the term gongan or koan means, depending on usage, either “public case” or “case of a public official.”  In the current usage within Zen practice, it makes much more sense to use just “public case” as the koan has become public and none of the players in koan are actually “public officials, magistrates, or judges” even though, as Foulk points out, they can be metaphorically imagined to be acting judicially.   This little detour into translation points just appears to be an attempt at scholarly one-upmanship. 

Next, Foulk presents some of the traditional contexts for koan use. He points out that in public meetings, a monk may come forward and ask about a koan or a teacher may raise a case on their own to comment on as part of their teaching.  Also a student may bring a koan into a private interview with the master.  However, at this point Foulk leaves out the most important aspect of current koan use in Zen practice today in those Zen schools that use koan inquiry, which is that in the private interview setting the teacher will raise a koan and present it to the student to measure or check the student’s realization.  This is the hub of all koan use, and Foulk’s omission or lacuna on this point says much about how he misperceives koans.

 The central point being made is the following: “Koans are not nonsensical. This is the point I want to stress. There is a standpoint from which they make sense and they’re perfectly logical. They do involve a lot of word play, punning, joking, metaphorical flights of fancy, but all of those are grounded in an understanding of the point being made.”   He concludes this analysis saying that “The meaning of any koan can be explained in logical philosophical language, but that’s not the rules of the game. The rules of the rhetorical game of commenting on them call for a rhetorical response in kind.” 

First, there are many different kinds of “understanding” and “logic” and Foulk seems to ignore that every understanding is based on its particular standpoint.  So koans may be “understood” from the standpoints of history, sociology, psychology, phenomenology, ontology, soteriology, etc., and even from a standpoint of Madhyamaka Buddology, but so what?  Of course there is a logical standpoint that can be overlaid onto koans to make them appear “perfectly logical” but does that really have anything to do with the function of koans or just with the analytical measuring tool that results in what is labeled as “understanding”?  

Koans are not “rhetorical games” and to call them such is to malign them just as much as one does by calling them “riddles.”  Why Foulk acknowledges that koans are not “riddles” but then calls them by the equally erroneous term “rhetorical games” is expressive of his scholarly approach in which nothing about koans is really understood, but the gamesmanship of the academy is front and center.  What Foulk misses is that the “logical philosophical language” that he uses to “understand” koans is after the fact of the koan itself and is merely a case of putting the cart before the horse.  Koans are about the horse, or the ox to use the more Buddhist associated animal, that is pulling the cart and not about the cart.  And focusing on the ox rather than the cart is not merely a rhetorical game; rather it is the essence of Zen itself and the factor that distinguishes Zen from all other forms of Buddhism that focus on the carts.  And it is the factor that Foulk has completely missed in this presentation.

Foulk would have people believe that koans are making points of Buddhist doctrine to be understood. This is wrong, but it is a nuanced error.  In its fundamental aspect, the koan represents a nexus or nodal point of awakening or potential for awakening.  Buddhism is about awakening and Buddhist doctrine when rightly understood is about the various paths to awakening. Therefore koans may be analyzed in terms of Buddhist doctrine because it is the function of Buddhist doctrine to analyze life in terms of awakening and koans are both about awakening and life.  But that analysis does not mean that the koan is understood, it only means that the doctrine applied to the koan is understood. There is a big difference between these two aspects. 

In other words, every koan has within it a presentation of some Buddha Dharma. Why? Because Buddha Dharma is about life and Buddha Dharma can be related to every aspect of life and koans represent life and thus also represent the Buddha Dharma of the life represented in the koan. 

I like the analysis that every koan can be understood through the multidimensional prism of the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  That is, every koan has a Buddha aspect, a Dharma aspect, and a Sangha aspect.  Foulk primarily focuses on the Dharma aspect and mostly ignores the Buddha aspect.  But more importantly, Foulk only focuses on one Dharma aspect, that of the Madhyamaka analysis of Emptiness and the Two Truths.  This is nothing other than a Buddhist version of philosophical reductionism.   

So how does this work for Foulk?  He compares Dogen’s use of koans with the Linji lineage Zen master Dahui Zonggao (大慧宗杲) (1089–1163), the most well known koan master of the time, as advocating focusing on the koan and “go into trance” to have a breakthrough experience.  The crassness of the term “trance” in this context is only understandable when one recognizes that Foulk has a pejorative view of koan practice calling it by the derogatory term “kanna zen.” He says Dogen did not advocate using koans as a device in mediation for a single moment of awakening and instead used koans in his teaching so that over a long period of time one would get a different point of view that could be called awakening.  Of course this ignores the fact that in his own life Dogen did indeed have a single moment of awakening, but whether it is Foulk or Dogen who is ignoring that Dogen had his own all important single moment of awakening is something to be left to another discussion.

Then Foulk takes up Dahui’s favorite koan and perhaps the most famous koan in the West, “Zhaozhou’s Dog.”  He relates the koan like this:

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Even in a dog, is there Buddha nature or not?” 
And Zhaozhou said “Wu” (or in Japanese “Mu”).

Foulk explains that saying “Wu” means “there is none,” so that Zhaozhou is saying the dog does not have Buddha nature which files in the face of standard Buddhist teachings that all beings have Buddha nature.  Foulk then says it can be explained like this: “To ask if a dog has Buddha nature is just like asking, ‘Does Santa Claus have a red suit?’”

From here, Foulk goes wrong.  He says that everyone knows Santa Claus has a red suit just like all Buddhists know a dog has Buddha nature, but that everyone knows that Santa Claus does not exist and so the red suit also does not exist, just like Buddhists know that a dog does not exist so the Buddha nature of the dog also does not exist. It seems to make no difference to Foulk that the non-existence of Santa Clause is a different order of non-existence from the non-existence of either the dog or Buddha nature. By ignoring this distinction between the two kinds of non-existence, Foulk is ignoring an important distinction of Buddha Dharma. 

When he says Santa Claus doesn’t exist in an ultimate sense, he is relying on Madhyamaka analysis and its two primary doctrines of Emptiness and the Two Truths.  He says that the doctrine of Emptiness is that there is no subjective being and no objective thing (dharma) as both are mere empty categories, and the doctrine of the Two Truths is that there is the conventional truth that beings and things exist and the ultimate truth that in its Emptiness no being or thing exists. Foulk then goes on to say “Emptiness makes all language defective.” 

The limitations of this flawed dualistic analysis of the Two Truths are what led to the Yogacara analysis of the Three Natures or Three Truths.  In this analysis, there is a significant difference between an actual living dog and Santa Claus.   While both the dog and Santa Clause have the constructed nature of conventional truth, that is, the constructed images of identity based on language, only the dog has the interdependent nature that can be petted, can retrieve a ball, can lick its master’s face, etc., and Santa Claus doesn’t, and only the dog has the fulfilled nature of its Buddha nature and Santa Claus doesn’t.  In other words, the dog is a living being and Santa Claus is not. It is the evidence of Foulk’s entanglement in Madhyamaka philosophical scholasticism rather than Buddhist practice that he does not recognize this living distinction between a dog and Santa Claus and instead says, “there is no such thing as Santa Claus or a dog.” 

Based on this faulty analysis, Foulk then asserts that this view of Emptiness and the Two Truths is the underpinning of all of koan literature.  He says that since all language is defective because it can only convey conventional truth and never ultimate truth, that a hit or a blow is more appropriate than even saying “Wu” because even the word “Wu” is defective as it too is language.  In this shallow analysis, Foulk makes himself appear completely ignorant about how the “hit” is used to communicate various meanings or messages, none of which are usually a message that “language is defective.”  In other words, the “hit” presumes as its context the understanding that language is limited within the field of duality and that the hit is effective to get around the usual distractions of duality, but that is the presumption for the context of the message, not the message itself. Foulk loses this point completely.

Again, Foulk takes up another famous koan, again one with Zhaozhou as the protagonist, Zhaozhou’s Cypress Tree.  Foulk calls it the “Oak Tree in the Garden,” which, by the way, reveals that he is using the Japanese sources that call the tree an oak tree rather than the Chinese sources that call the tree a cypress tree. This koan, as I translate it, goes like this:

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Like what was the intent of the ancestral founder coming from the west?”

Zhaozhou said, "The cypress tree in front of the hall.”

The “ancestral founder” is a reference to Bodhidharma who brought the Zen lineage to China in the East from India in the West. So the question translates into “What was the purpose of bringing Zen Buddhism to China?”  (Foulk unfortunately, misremembers this koan when he presents it and has it coming from Yunmen by mistake rather than Zhaozhou and he has the question as “What is Buddha?” rather than the question as above. Be that as it may, it doesn’t matter as far as Foulk’s wrong turn in understanding the koan.)

Foulk, then says, “When he is asked, ‘What is Buddha?’ how about saying ‘Santa Claus’?”  Like when he could not distinguish between the dog and Santa Claus, now Foulk is unable to distinguish between the living tree and Santa Claus.  This inability to differentiate between living breathing feeling sentient beings and myths on Foulk’s part must give us pause as this is the primary issue of the Bodhisattva path of Mahayana Buddhism.  . 

tTo Foulk “one of the tricks of koan rhetoric” is that if often uses metaphors and similes without using words like “like” or “as if” to indicate the presence of metaphor.  This is a bogus charge of the academic. No Zen practitioner worth his or her salt gets confused by such things.  Often, as the above example of the Cypress Tree shows, the word “like what” is often in the question, so there is no need for the reply to include it.  But even if the word “like” is not present there is no infirmity in the verbal exchange because it is not a rhetorical game relying on metaphor.  Foulk seems to completely misunderstand the use of metaphor in koans.  Yes the “Cypress Tree” can be seen as a metaphor, but that is only one aspect of it, and not even the main or central aspect.  More important, is the fact that the cypress tree is a living being actually present in its living appearance.  Again, this deconstructs Foulk’s “Two Truths” analysis, where all language is defective, in favor of the Zen preference for the “Buddha nature” analysis of living beings as expressions of living Suchness. 

It is at this turning point that Foulk misapprehends the point of koans.  Koans are not as Foulk states, teaching points about emptiness or the Two Truths based on the underpinning of seeing that ultimate truth is just the understanding of the limitations of language.  Koans are not about anything even remotely intellectual as that.  Koan work is within the context of recognizing that language is limited by its inherent duality, not by its inability to express ultimate truth. Koan work is about seeing through the limitations of the dualities that frame our views of reality and our lives, including the structural dualism of views such as doctrines of “the Two Truths.” 

In Foulk's view, koans are rhetorical games used for the purpose of teaching us the ultimate truth that language is defective. However, koans are not that at all. Koans are living expressions of teachers pulling out the nails and pegs of dualism that hold together our constructed realities.  Here, recognizing that language is limited is not the ultimate truth, but only the signpost that suggests we are going the wrong way in search of the ultimate truth that is our Buddha nature and own true suchness.  The point of koans is all about turning us around from grasping at externals based on our dualistic views, to turn the light of our own awareness around to see the source of awareness itself.  

This “turning around” is what I call the Buddha Treasure aspect of the koan.  The Dharma Treasure aspect is seeing how the koan relates and conveys an aspect of Buddhist teaching, and this Dharma Jewel aspect is often conveyed in metaphor as well as practical imagery and presence.  When Zhaozhou was asked what was the intent of Bodhidharma coming to China to convey the Zen lineage, his response of “The cypress tree in front of the hall,” was not a teaching about the emptiness of language like Santa Claus is empty, but about the living presence of a living tree in the living world before the hall.

In the metaphorical aspect, Zhaozhou was saying that as the tree gives shade and solace and beauty so does the practice of Zen.  He was saying, too, that this very tree and its actual location before that hall was the living realization of the purpose of Bodhidharma’s Zen lineage, not some conceptual idea as Foulk would have it about Two Truths or a fantasy that the existence and nonexistence of the cypress tree is equal to the existence and nonexistence of Santa Claus.. Zhaozhou’s response was leaping clear of that exact hot water of duality of existence and nonexistence that Dogen refers to in his essay Genjo Koan.  That which is the leaping clear of the dualistic framework of language is the Buddha aspect of complete unity and clarity that is in all koans, in both the question and response, and that is only found by the turning around that all the past Zen masters including Dogen emphasized in their practical teaching of zazen.

This turning around of paravrtti is at the heart of Dogen’s Zen just as it is at the heart of koan practice and is directly how he used koans in his literary efforts.  Everything that Dogen wrote that included koans was about confronting our own grasping at externals by affirming our dualistic frameworks and about turning around from that wrong practice.   Based on the paucity of the available records, none of us will ever know definitively how Dogen did or did not use koans in personal interviews or as meditation methods, but there are enough suggestions in his writings to confidently conclude that he used koans in both contexts of personal interviews and in meditation, at least to some degree.