The Difference Between Gong-an and Ko-an Practice

Chinese Gong-an Table
Chinese Gong-an Table

The Japanese system of ‘ko-an’ as used within the modern Rinzai School of Japan, is a separate and distinct method of mind cultivation, and is different from the Chinese conception (and use) of the original ‘gong-an’ (公案) device as practiced within ancient and contemporary Ch’an Buddhism. The Japanese ko-an system was not formulated until the 18th century, and departs from that found within Ch’an practice. The reasons for this difference are historical and cultural. To fully understand the Japanese Zen use of ko-an, it is advisable to seek the advice of a qualified Zen authority – but assumption that the Ch’an gong-an, and the Japanese ko-an are used in the same way, is incorrect, despite the fact that all of the older ko-an material stems directly from Chinese (Ch’an) sources.

Over the last hundred years or so, Western scholars have looked toward Japan to understand China. This is a flawed academic methodology akin to studying France to understand Ireland. This has led to the false and absurd assumption that Chinese culture is dead, and that only the Japanese have a ‘correct’ and ‘authentic’ record of it. In reality, Japanese history is a record of how other cultures are perceived through the rigours of Japanese culture, and as important as this is, it is not an objective record of the much older Chinese culture that exists on the doorstep of Japan’s island nation – and which has bequeathed much that has become ‘Japanese’ over-time.

It is bizarre to consider that as Japan descended into fascism and racism prior to WWII – the distorted, nationalistic Zen Buddhism of that time was popular in the West amongst intellectuals, despite a number of its masters expressing openly hostile attitudes toward the Western people. It is even more bizarre to consider that after WWII – many of these very same masters remained popular as they quietly pushed their formerly racist rhetoric into the background, and applied a more ‘neutral’ policy toward the acquisition of Enlightenment. For a study of this distorted Zen Buddhism read ‘Zen at War’ by Brian Victoria. As for the Chinese people who lived under the brutal occupation of the imperial Japanese forces, a book is not needed to understand the deviant behaviour associated with this time. However, having made this point clear, it is important to understand that Japanese Zen Buddhism has existed in Japan for nearly a thousand years, and during much of that time, has pursued a legitimate and effective path – as it does today. This does not deny the difference between Chinese and Japanese culture, but it does contextualise that difference. Prior to the 18th century, all indications are that Japanese Zen Buddhism followed the Chinese Ch’an gong-an system before a governmental decision demanded that Japan distance itself from Chinese culture.

The Zen ko-an is used to build pressure in the mind so that a ‘breakthrough’ occurs during periods of intense sitting meditation, or during interviews with a master immediately following long periods of intense meditation. The ko-an is repeated over and over again so that the ego mind becomes eventually ‘frozen’, and eventually ‘dissolved’ through insight. At this point, this extensive effort of will is designed to literally ‘smash’ its way into the perception of the empty mind ground. As few people within Zen have an immediate and total enlightenment experience, grades of insight are acknowledged, starting from shallow up to complete enlightenment. For most people in the West, this narrative is familiar become it is the dominant narrative. In fact, so familiar is this narrative that anything that appears to ‘deviate’ from its premise is presumed ‘a priori’ to be false. This explains why the legitimate Ch’an interpretation of the correct use of the gong-an does not exist in the popular imagination of the West, as it has been effectively written out of history.

The Ch’an gong-an is different in usage from that of the Zen ko-an. Within Chinese language, the term ‘gong-an’ refers to an ‘official record’, or an ‘official table’ where important decisions are made. As the table is set-up in ‘public’, and considering that everyone can see the decision process in operation, a gong-an is also referred to as a ‘public record’. However, the gong-an originally had nothing to do with Buddhism, but rather was used in the legal administration of the state. An official – probably a magistrate or similar – would administer matters of state in a transparent manner, so that justice could be clearly seen to have been done amongst the people. This justice was in fact the presentation (and correct interpretation) of the law of the land, which was nothing less than the expressed thoughts of the emperor himself. If the divine law was applied correctly by the officials, then peace, tranquillity, and wisdom would exist in the land. However, if this divine law was not applied correctly, then chaos and social disintegration would befall the country. Applying the emperor’s law in a transparent manner was a very grave undertaking that had associated with it, much danger and risk. This is why an official was expected to have a virtuous mind and disciplined demeanour when administering a ‘gong-an’.

The gong-an was originally a device for administering a Confucian state. In this respect, a gong-an is a Confucian legal device that became used within Chinese Ch’an Buddhism to describe an enlightened dialogue either between one master and another master, or between a master and a student. These dialogues were considered so important by Ch’an Buddhists, that the word of the enlightened master was considered akin to that of the emperor, and the liberating effect of the gong-an (in the mind and body) similar to that of a peaceful and stable society. Ch’an encounter dialogues became ‘official records’ of the administration of the Buddha’s teaching in China. How did the gong-an work? The encounters between master and master, and master and student were not contrived, scripted or otherwise determined beforehand. These encounters were spontaneous and ‘freeing’ in their lack of set definition. An enlightened Ch’an master was able to immediately assess the inner potential of the encountered master and student, and behave in such a manner that encouraged the arousing of inner energy (or qi), so that the barrier of ignorance in the mind could be instantly ‘seen through’ to the empty mind ground. This enlightening behaviour was verbal, behavioural, or a mixture of both. The arousing of inner energy was not a matter of the use of blatant force, as applying blatant force toward an already deluded mind simply served to strengthen the delusion. The Chinese Ch’an method of gong-an is about applying the correct enlightening stimulus so that the appropriate ‘frequency’ of inner energy is aroused in the recipient. As everyone has slightly different and distinct mind-conditioning, the Ch’an master had to immediately adjust and direct the arousing energy in the right direction, suitable to each being. Later, when there were not so many great Ch’an masters in China, these ‘encounter dialogues’ became a method to ‘arouse’ inner energy so that it could be marshalled into the hua tou method – forming the penetrative aspect of the questioning ‘who?’ Sometimes, the inherent power is so great in the recorded gong-an that a student is immediately enlightened either completely, or partially. In China today, the gong-an is read so that the inner qi is aroused, strengthened and developed, but a forceful repetition is unknown. The gong-an effectively arouses the inner energy so that the hua tou can return all six senses to their empty essence. In the old days, the gong-an itself performed this task, but people today are considered not to possess such a clear perception as those who lived in the past. This is generally believed to be due to the fact that modern life over-loads the senses with massive amounts of information that forms a thicker obscuring layer across the surface of the mind. These are the differences between the Zen ko-an and the Ch’an gong-an.

©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2014.

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