Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mumonkan, Koan 22: Kashyapa's "Knock Down the Flagpole"

photo: Professor Gary Lee Todd
Ananda asked Kashyapa, "The World-honored One gave you the golden robe; did he give you anything else?" "Ananda!" cried Kashyapa. "Yes sir!" answered Ananda. "Knock down the flagpole at the gate," said Kashyapa.

Sometimes there are references in koans which, not understood, make it difficult to interpret them. So a little background:
  • The World-honored one is the Buddha
  • The giving of the golden robe refers to transmission of Zen
  • The flagpole - The flag is raised when a master is about to teach
  • Koan 6 (The Buddha Holds Out a Flower) describes the transmission of Zen from the Buddha to Kashyapa (called Mahakashyapa in that koan). The picture here is a wooden sculpture of his head from the Tang Dynasty.
Ananda's question is surprising if he is a monk. Zen is not given from a teacher to a student; a person finds it for themselves. There was nothing else to give since nothing at all was given. Kashyapa's response could mean several things. It could be an attempt to illustrate that a master does not need to teach his students overtly for them to find satori. It might even suggest Kashyapa refuses to teach Ananda until he meditates on his own to answer this question for himself. Sekida's notes suggest a third possibility: 'knocking down the flagpole' as striking down what one is striving to learn in order to not be deluded by some imagine purpose.

In any case, this koan once again highlights that satori or Zen is something reached by a person, not given to them by an instructor.

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