The Whole World Is A Single Flower: 365 Kong-ans for Everyday Life
With questions and commentary by Zen Master Seung Sahn.
Edited by Jane McLaughlin and Paul Muenzen.
Charles E. Tuttle Company: Rutland, Vermont, 1992.
244 pp. $16.95 (paperback).
A kong-an (Korean for koan) collection does not exactly lend itself to a conventional book review. And merely creating a koan calendar—a charming enough literary conceit—does not by itself make koan study applicable to everyday life. Zen Master Seung Sahn is well aware of this. In his brief essay, “Zen Teaching, Kong-an Practice,” which follows the koan collection, Seung Sahn argues that nothing less than a “Zen revolution” is involved. This is because traditionally Zen koan training “meant checking someone’s enlightenment.” Now, we use kong-ans to make our lives correct. Whether the answers are correct or not doesn’t matter—only how you can use kong-ans in your everyday life.” In other words, the revolution consists in associating koan study not with realization (the “attainment” of enlightenment-experience and its certification) but with actualization. We are told that “correct kong-an practice” consists in just doing whatever you are doing. The implication is that one can, in fact, actualize the Way without having, strictly speaking, realized the Way. Or is the point rather that the distinction should be abandoned altogether? Or maybe this is primarily skillful means (upaya)—the adaptation of traditional koan study to suit the needs of secular laypersons (rather than monks) in the West who, in addition to living in the “real world,” may be impatient with the traditional connection between koan and enlightenment? If it is primarily a matter of skillful means, then it is inappropriate to judge it by anything other than pragmatic criteria. And it goes without saying that this “revolutionary” way of seeing the value and point of koan study will be more appealing to Zen students, many of whom are somewhat koanophobic. But the other practical concern is: will this new approach actually transform everyday life in the sense of making for what Zen Master Seung Sahn calls “correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function”? Rather than waiting it out, I would like to suggest that there remains a danger in catering to an increasing tendency in American Zen to ideologize “everyday life” at the expense of the traditional insistence on realization and enlightenment. And while it can be a mistake to overemphasize the attainment of enlightenment, there is really no Zen without it.
That said, the collection itself is terrific and reveals the incomparably profound, minutely subtle, and disarmingly humorous Mind of the Master. For the first time a koan collection includes Christian and Taoist koans as well as the more familiar Japanese koans. The “Buddhist” koans are selected from the classic collections The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Record, as well as from a large number of orally preserved koans from Korean Zen teachers. The Christian koans are derived from the poems of the German mystic known as Angelus Silesius; the Taoist koans come from the Tao Te Ching (in the “translation” by Stephen Mitchell, who also wrote this book’s foreword). The checking questions are indeed probing and dumbfoundedness-inducing; the commentaries are uniformly brilliant and incisive (though, frankly, repetitive). One question, however, lingers in my mind. If one of the primary problems with koan study is attachment to language, why not use the language that we are attached to, rather than using the cryptic language of traditional collections? For an everyday-life koan collection, it seems that everyday-life language should be used in the koans themselves, not just in the commentaries. With that reservation aside, this is unquestionably one of the finest collections to have appeared since the dawn of Zen in the West.