Shaku Soyen gives Suzuki hidden help with the koan

The Monk Daitō Kokushi as a Beggar, Shunsō Joshu (Japanese, 1750–1839) © Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By Trevor Leggett

For a teacher or expert to help without the pupil knowing or recognizing it is good for a pupil’s motivation. But if the teacher is not present, it may induce despair when there is continued failure or seeming failure. For the pupil to know he is helped may on the other hand lead to dependence – ‘What do I do about this? Oh, he will sort it out for me when he comes to it.’

A good teacher is able to give a tiny hint at just the right moment to bring the pupil to a realization or a success, so that he feels he has achieved it by his own efforts. Only afterwards does he appreciate what was done for him. Then he is grateful.

In a memoir, Dr. D.T. Suzuki wrote of how he was given the koan of the Sound of One Hand by the famous teacher Shaku Soyen, and struggled with it for three years. Each time when he had come in, made the prostrations and announced the koan, the teacher simply stuck out his left hand in front of him and remained like that while Suzuki presented his solution. Then he rang the bell to dismiss the solution and him.

The same pattern was repeated for three years, with every attempted solution. Suzuki says that the teacher gave him no help whatever with the koan. After three years he changed it for another, which, says Suzuki, he did manage to solve.

It is remarkable, however, that Suzuki did not recognize at the time, nor apparently later, that he had been given help. It was hidden from him, but it was there. Perhaps that great teacher realized that this pupil needed to be drained of all his confidence in intellectual agility, “wrung out like a wet cloth” in monastery jargon. Certainly the result was Suzuki’s burning and lifelong interest in Zen, and his enormous contribution to its dissemination in the West.

© 1998 Trevor Leggett


Image: The Monk Daitō Kokushi as a Beggar, Shunsō Joshu (Japanese, 1750–1839) © Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Monk Shunsō, a pupil of Reigen and Suiō, followed in the tradition of these and others in the lineage of Hakuin Ekaku in creating dynamically brushed images of famous Zen figures. Here he has depicted the emiment early-medieval monk Daitō Kokushi (Shūhō Myōchō, 1283–1337) in the guise of a beggar in a straw cloak and tattered sedge hat. The monk lived as a recluse for many years in Kyoto, taking refuge under Gojō Bridge. Daitō Kokushi ultimately established his legacy by founding Daitokuji in Kyoto, the great monastic complex of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Hakuin considered Daitō Kokushi to be the head of lineage and thus painted many images of him; Shunsō followed in this tradition.

Categories: Chan / Seon / Zen, Trevor Leggett


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