Koan Commentary

Dongshan’s Two Crows Fighting

This commentary is by Reverend Chris Bell, Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa; Head of Practice, CityZen

The Koan:

Once, when the teacher Dongshan and a monk were washing their bowls in a stream, they saw two crows fighting over a squirming frog. The monk asked, "Why does it always have to come down to this?"Dongshan replied, "It’s only for your benefit, Honored One.”

Here is a famous and challenging Zen koan for your meditation. We have what Western theologians call a theodicy – a theory of evil. Theodicy asks and tries to answer such eternal questions as Why does evil exist and what is its origin? How can a good Ultimate/God/Source allow for, or even cause, needless and undeserved pain? How shall we face the real complexity of life, which includes destructive emotions and impulses, wrong and harmful choices, and the inevitable reality of sickness and death? These are the monk’s questions, when he asks, “Why does it come to this?”

Dongshan’s answer is shocking. Pain and suffering is “for your benefit, Honored One.” In fact, the ancient Chinese is vague enough that his response might actually be: “It is because of you, Honored One!” Wait, that doesn’t seem fair! How could it be because of ME, when it’s been going on for eons before I even got here?

Of course, that “Honored One” doesn’t refer just to the individuated monk, although it includes him. It refers to the Honored ONENESS, the completeness of being, the Universe, the Tao, the God/Goddess. You know, the Great Big Thing/Verb that has been going on for eons.

Zen considers koans as actual instances where non-dualistic consciousness of the Oneness is manifested. That story conveys a moment of embracing the world completely, without rejecting any part of it.

Yes, animals eat other animals. Yes, most lives involve some pain and all end in death. Yet life also includes the monk’s compassion for the frog and the crows. Affirming that EVERYTHING is connected and whole is the essence of Buddhist wisdom, although such an approach is not exclusive to Buddhism.

Writing in the The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley argued that a universal core, an “inexhaustible theme,” he argued, is found in rudimentary form even in the traditions of the most ancient people, and “has been treated again and again, from the standpoint of every religious tradition and in all the principal languages of Asia and Europe” until the present. He called this theme the Perennial Philosophy, and described it as “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; and the ethic that places humanity’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being.” The whole point of life, the Perennial Philosophy argues, is to awaken to this divine Reality, and then to live and act from that awareness.

Remarkably, the Real Ground, with which we are intimately connected, is consistently described by mystics and poets and preachers and philosophers, in spite of life’s hardships, as benevolent, intelligent and compassionate. Even in allegedly non-theist Buddhism the NOT-TWO is called “a formless field of benefaction.”

Unitarians and Universalists affirmed this teaching, affirming our “Likeness to God” and proclaiming the primacy of God’s all-inclusive Love. We do too, as modern Unitarian Universalists. Our First Source steers us toward “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, known in all cultures, which moves us to renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” We call the One an “Interconnected Web of All Existence,” and give it at least our respect, if not our unbridled love and devotion.

I have come to trust Life completely. I experience a divine Power surging through creation toward beauty, complexity and harmony, which gives us the capacity to love. Spring comes with peach blossoms and the moon and I are made of the same stuff.

Like many people over the centuries, I find that when I stop trying to exclude portions of Reality, and take it on its own terms, I actually become more fearless, more free, more creative, and more appreciative of all that is good in life.

In the face of suffering, the One turns me toward a higher inclusiveness and compassion, a higher appreciation of life’s fleeting blessings, and a greater selflessness, if I remember to listen for Her.

I do think we really can and do find the best of ourselves, and each other, in hard times. The very fact of evil and suffering is what allows me to know the good and to share in the healing and building up. What a thing! You can’t have one without the other. In Isaiah, The Bible quotes the One as saying “I am that I am, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I do all these things.”

AND, just because we can and should open ourselves and dare to fall in love with the entire world just as it is, doesn’t mean that we can’t respond to the suffering and pain that we find within it. Just after that passage I quoted above, God also cries out, “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness,” and elsewhere declares mercy, justice and humility as the best path through life.

There is so much that can be done to extend the formless field of benefaction that relies on us as its eyes and hands. Like simply taking care of our families and neighbors. Like feeding and clothing people. Like adopting a refugee family, (which is actually in the works – stay tuned). Like making room at the Glaser Center and in our imaginations for the many people who are going to want to join us in spiritual awakening and loving service in the next few years.  

How do you respond to this koan?

It is all for your benefit, Honored One.



Satsujo Sits on the Lotus Sutra

This commentary by Rachel Mansfield-Howlett Roshi first appeared in The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women

Satsujo was a niece and student of Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768). She was a Zen adept from a very young age and her awakening was recognized by Hakuin. She was known for defeating others in dharma combat, including, on occasion, Hakuin himself.

Hakuin Ekaku was one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism. All Rinzai Zen masters today trace their lineage through him. CityZen uses practices directly derived from his development of the koan curriculum. Hakuin was also considered a master of calligraphy and painting.

The Koan:

A devout man took his young daughter Satsujo with him whenever he visited Master Hakuin Ekaku. Though only a child, Satsujo was devoted to practicing the dharma. When she was sixteen, her parents were concerned that she would not find a husband, and asked her to pray to Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion. She did this day and night, during all of her activities. Before long she experienced an awakening. One day her father peeked into her room and saw her sitting on a copy of the Lotus Sutra.
“What are you doing, sitting on this precious scripture!” he shouted.
“How is this wonderful sutra different from my ass?” she replied.

Rebuked for sitting on the sutras, Satsujo overthrows thoughts of sacred and profane and comes forth with the tender question, “How is this wonderful sutra different from my ass?” With audacious good humor, Satsujo is intimate with the great matter and invites us to see the treasure within the body, even when it is the disreputable and bawdy butt.

If you are the “butt” of the joke, an “asshole,” or my favorite, a “buttinsky,” you know you’re being dissed. We reveal our misgivings about the body by the use of pejorative terms such as “dick,” “cunt,” and “butthead.” On the other hand, we revere the sutras as the expression of those teachers who cracked open and left a little bit of the light on the page for us to find. But words can be regarded at a distance and the Dharma is worth nothing if it stands so aloof. We long to understand how this life, with all its complexity, and how this body of pleasure and pain, contain the teachings of the sutras.

Satsujo is in league with those who found awakening in “three pounds of flax” or “a dried shit stick,” or, in a more close-at-hand discovery, “in the heart of the one who asks.” Kannon, the many-handed Bodhisattva of awakened compassion, finds us on such an occasion, just as she did when Satsujo called upon her. A woman I know once found a bit of the light for herself and said to me: When we recite from Hakuin’s Song of Zazen, “ALL beings by nature are Buddhas, I think we should add, this includes you!” She understood that it’s tough to see how intimate this matter really is ­– that it has to do with you and me. To explain this quandary it is sometimes said, “Because it is so very clear, it takes so long to realize.”

Zen is well known for holding words and letters lightly, favoring direct experience over discursive thought. For example, the scholar and Zen master, Deshan, upon awakening tossed out and burned the pages of his beloved Diamond Sutra. Even so, it’s considered bad form to sit on the sutras.

With the question, “How is this wonderful sutra different from my ass?” Satsujo shows us that as long as we think awakening is located somewhere outside ourselves, our understanding will be very limited. Zen is grounded in reality, borne out by the empirical discoveries of the old teachers, and today, through our own practice. We may come to see the truth of the koans and sutras reflected in our own lives, and interestingly, visa versa.

In thinking about Satsujo’s question, I picture her slightly bent over, looking directly at her father and pointing to her butt. Her awakening trumped even the reflective nods to filial piety. I’m also reminded of the seamstress Rosa Parks’ 1955 act of civil disobedience – simply sitting her tired butt down on the seat of an Alabama bus and refusing to give up her place to a white man. Rosa Parks’ simple gesture helped set the stage for the repeal of segregation laws and inspired the Freedom Rides. Like Satsujo’s frank question, Parks’ unassuming act raises us all up together. And we’re still in the wonderful process of uncovering the women ancestors who put their butts on the line to point the way for us.

For myself, I honor my mother too, now gone for a quarter century, as one of the many women ancestors. Raised in rural Oklahoma in the 1930s, my mother was the eldest daughter of a practical-minded country schoolmistress and a handsome hard-drinking rodeo-riding Chickasaw. She taught school in the Chickasaw Nation and later taught in a largely Hispanic school in southern California. Although my mother wasn’t familiar with Buddhist ideas, she instilled in me the truth of an inherent Buddha Nature that resides within all beings and that each of us must show up in whatever way we can. Through her daily actions, she taught me that every person has value, no matter their race, gender, or social status.

Through meditation practice I discovered an even broader truth: that my body is the same as the redwood, the mountains and rivers, oceans and kelp forests, and the great earth itself. We must live as if there is only one precious body, and this body includes yours and mine.


Quickly, before thoughts of sacred and profane arise, how is it that your hands and feet are the same as the Buddha’s? How is it that your very own fanny is the source of wisdom; that this too is your original face? You must live these questions for yourself, but please know, without your own ass, there is no Buddha.

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