‘Master Shoku was asked by a monk, “What is the meaning of our founder coming from the west?” The master said, “It is like getting a man out of a thousand-foot-deep well without using one single inch of rope. This answers your enquiry.” The monk said, “The monk O of the district of Konan recently became famous and the subject of people’s gossip.” Upon this Shoku summoned the young monk Jaku and said, “Drag out the corpse.”

Master Kyozan (who heard about this dialogue) asked Master Tangen, “How can you get the man in the well out?” Tangen said, “You stupid fool! Who is in the well?” Kyozan said nothing. Again, he later asked Master Isan, “How can you get the man in the well out?” Isan called out, “Kyozan!” Kyozan answered the call and Isan said, “He is out of the well already!”
Kyozan always used to tell the story described above to the people saying, “I got the principle from Tangen and learned the use from Isan.” (The Sound of the One Hand)

More on koans, following on from yesterday. My dharma friend Jamie gave me a battered copy of The Sound of the One Hand a little while ago, and it has been my commute read recently. It purports to give away all the standard ‘answers’ to koans that Japanese Rinzai monks have got in the tradition of giving to their masters.

At the risk of a bad pun, on the one hand, just looking at so-called standard answers misses the point, as the essential element of the exchange between student and master is the student’s ability, or otherwise, to embody the expression.
At a Japanese shuso ceremony, the same principle applies, as far as I understand it. There are stock questions and answers, but the shuso is expected to express themselves fully and with vitality. At Zen Center, spontaneity of question and answer is the custom, but there are still very Japanese elements in the ceremony, especially in the closing statement where the shuso professes ‘I am deeply ashamed’ at their lack of understanding and ability. In the assembly we listen to that, and sometimes a depth of emotion is exposed. I remember in my own ceremony, five years ago, even though I felt I had acquitted myself reasonably well over the course of responding to sixty or more questioners, I put more into that phrase than I imagined I would.
Jamie and I are plotting our visit to Tassajara in a couple of weeks, with some former shuso colleagues to put Yuki, the current shuso, who is Japanese, to the test. I am sure she will do wonderfully – her vitality is certainly not in question.

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