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“Step forward from the top of a hundred-foot pole.”

In this essay, Katagiri then gives us the following koan:

A monk once asked his master, “What is the essence of Buddhism?” The master said, “Step forward from the top of a hundred-foot pole.”

Get it? Of course not. That’s Zen for you. You don’t get it by getting it. And if you try, you lose. You can fly, if you want to. But if you want to, you can’t do it. Then,

“What is this silence? How can I speak of it? Do I just keep my mouth shut?”

No, says the master:

Silence — Buddha nature— is not something apart from your life. It compels you to speak. That is why the Zen master had to speak. He had to say something. He had to speak from that silence — from Buddha-nature.

We here have the paradox (yet another paradox!) of a religion that values silence — after all, that is what meditation is all about; but, at the same time, someone has to speak up. You have to say something. That “you” is, presumably, Katagiri, telling us the essence of Zen. To wit, greed, hatred and ignorance run us, lead to misery. Everything changes. You and I are already Buddhas. When we become enlightened, the whole world will be enlightened but, unfortunately, we see ourideas of things, not the thing itself.

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These are the commonalties of Zen, and if one is trying to pick up on the paradoxes of the religion, I guess You Have to Say Something will do. For those who like a little more pickleweed in our Buddhism will find Karagiri very pedestrian. His words are simple, and his teachings are either commonplaces, or baffling:

In Buddhism the Sanskrit term Dharma has three meanings: the ultimate principle of existence, the phenomena of experience, and the teaching about the nature of things. These three meanings work together.

Unh…well, OK. When he becomes specific — on death, for instance — he makes more sense. The dying, he tells us,

reach a stage where they completely give up. They realize that there is no solution and there is nothing to grasp. Within the realm of resignation, their consciousness still vibrates minutely with deep human suffering….While facing his own death, a Zen master was asked about it by his students. He said, “I don’t want to die.” The students didn’t expect such an answer. They believed that their teacher was a great Zen master. They thought a Zen master should say, “I’m happy to die.”

Katagiri died in 1990.

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