Zen Koan – Reflection

Where they all meet

It was that time of the year when little Aiko loved lazing under the firs, though it was mostly the mystery of the wet-needle-thrower that brought him there every day. He would rest quietly on the damp sere leaves, with one eye open waiting for his invisible tormentor. Suddenly a dew drop would fall on his furry back and a twitching shudder ran up his spine to whip his head into a spasmodic search for the phantom. He would look all over and search for monkeys and bark a warning to no one in particular before spiralling his trot back into the centre where he would rest, waiting for the next clue.
Today was also the day when a particular batch of students were to leave Sensei Hisa’s school and make a life for themselves. Some found a life in there while others thought it impossible to treat this school as anything beyond a rung in the ladder of their progress. It was rumoured that the king’s son was also one of the students but no one was able to spot the royal scion based on the Master’s treatment of his students. Today there would be the ceremony when the Master would hand over each of his students a bamboo leaf with a directed but cryptic message. Most of these leaves simply rotted away with the household beetles treating it with no greater reverence. Some of the students lived their lives entirely based on that singular message, and grew to be great commoners. Still others used it to guide them through times on their path to noticeable greatness. The Master never refrained from continuing this tradition but always explained to the bamboo shoots as to why he needed their leaves.
Hideaki was looking forward to this occasion as the Master was also known to pronounce who was the best student. It didn’t happen always, but Hideaki was planning on pressing the Master to confess to Hideaki being the best. He might also pursue, based on the the number of creases on the Master’s forehead, to educe a greater accolade of the best of all times. He had outshone everyone in every subject except in bonsai, where Daisuke had surpassed his capabilities. But Daisuke was just a common help in the Master’s school. What better could he do than bonsai and winnow.
The Master was busy composing the individual certificates while the boys waited outside, some discussing about the fair that was being setup at the outskirts and some about the maidens who came to wash clothes near the streams. Some were studying books in the hope that their Master might take that as a sign of sincerity and award them suitably. Hideaki was rehearsing his speech of gratitude. He would flex his muscles to let his Master realise that he hadn’t erred in conferring the title on him. The Master’s door opened to snap everyone into their ranks. Even Aiko dropped his trail of the phantom and darted towards his master in foot-long leaps. The Master stood for a brief second surveying the assembly before re-entering his chamber. The students paused a while longer before following him in.
The Master was seated behind his low table with a stack of leaves beside him. He was casually looking at each boy as they entered. When they were all seated, he arched his lips before addressing the batch of students.
“I suppose you realise that today is your last day here.”
The boys nodded in silence.
Hmmm. May it not be. This school has a purpose, and that purpose is to let you learn enough so that you may carry on with the life chosen for you, without much hesitation. Nevertheless, the school also includes in its purpose that of welcoming the student whenever they feel a need to learn more about life. Do remember that nothing stops. Such is the breath of the Buddha.”
He paused to make sure that everyone had heard him although none had understood him. Like a tan, there are some Truths that will fall unnoticed on the mind but create an impression over time. He was in no hurry.
“I would like each of you to eat your fill today before you leave. Now I shall hand over the certificates to each of you.”
He then proceeded to call each student, handed the certificate to them and blessed them with a life without regret. Once he was done, he nodded his head to the students. They would wait for him to nod once more before they rose to the music of rustling robes and left the Master’s chamber. Hideaki was unable to hold himself back.
“Master, do I have permission to speak?”
The Master nodded with a smile.
“Master, it is my honour to be your student and no greater honour can be done unto me in this life.”
The Master’s smile neither grew nor shrank.
“Master, if this is impudence, may I be struck down by the God’s wrath, but I in earnest and borne by the eagerness of establishing the greatness of what you have taught us, seek to know whom you consider the best amongst our batch.”
Murmurs rippled through the class and the paper stretched between the strips of woods of the amado trembled. The Master looked around.
“Does anyone have something to say?”
No one opened their mouth.
“Then silence is the best to practice.”
He turned towards Hideaki and smiled.
Hideakikun, I think we shall not go into why you wish to find that out or what you intend to do with it, like I didn’t ask why some of the boys here wanted their certificate when all they were thinking about were the maidens of Kyoto nor what they intend doing with the certificates upon receiving them. I hope everyone realises that Hideakisan’s request is acceptable in this gathering.”
The Master paused before continuing.
“Without doubt, Hideakikun, you are best student of this batch. I was about to pronounce this just before this batch was to leave and I am thankful to you for having given me the opportunity.”
Hideaki was holding his joy back in the pressure of his clenched fists, but he still had more to know.
“Master, if I may explore further, may I know whom you consider the best student from all your batches. Perhaps it is someone from this batch. It would serve me and others to have someone as an example to live up to.”
The Master smiled and closed his eyes to visualise what was going to come. His eyes lightened behind the closed lids.
“An example for the world of this school, eh? Quite a noble intention. In that case, the finest student that this school has ever produced is Daisuke.”
This time the murmurs were loud enough to stop the school-helps outside. Hideaki was shocked and was unable to hold himself back.
“What? The winnower? Master, perhaps I didn’t make my question clear. My apologies. I wanted to know who amongst all your students was exceptional in all that was taught and can serve us as an example. Daisuke hasn’t even learnt the art of sword-fighting from you. I am told that he did attend a few classes of yours before he was relegated to the role of a help. Surely, you do not consider him an example for all of that you have taught.”
“I understood your question quite clearly, Hideakikun. Daisuke has learnt the crux of all that I have to teach as well as something that I haven’t taught anyone.”
“But he is just a winnower! What is there to learn about winnowing? He doesn’t know literature or fencing. How could he be an example?”
“That is for you to figure out, Hideakikun. Surely, someone with your sharpness cannot miss that.”
Hideaki, for once, had the sympathy of all the students. They couldn’t digest the fact that all of them had to look up to a mere winnower. They rose silently and left the chamber. The Master studied the length of the sun rays and realised that it was just a few minutes before his morning bath. Suddenly, he heard some commotion outside. He smiled and walked toward the entrance of his chamber.
Outside, he saw a circle of students with Hideaki and Daisuke at the centre. Daisuke was on his knees with a mound of grain scattered all around him. He saw Hideaki standing arms akimbo towering above Daisuke.
“Come on, I challenge you to a duel.”
Daisuke turned slowly to where the Master stood and sought his permission in the silent speech of his eyes. His Master gave his assent in an equally imperceptible manner. Daisuke requested someone to loan him a sword. No one offered so he requested a few minutes before he brought his sword. Hideaki granted his wish with a huff. Daisuke ran to fetch his sword. Hideaki maintained his back towards the Master. When Daisuke returned, Hideaki demanded an explanation for the delay and Daisuke simply bowed his head.
Hideaki took his position and commanded Daisuke to prepare. Daisuke did just that. Hideaki’s eyes were filled with a fury which found no reflection in Daisuke’s. Daisuke was busy watching Hideaki. Hideaki lunged forward with a scream and attacked Daisuke. Daisuke warded the attack and moved quickly with his sword. Every attack of Hideaki was countered and Daisuke attacked Hideaki in return. Soon Hideaki gained an upper hand and toppled Daisuke on his back. Hideaki burst out laughing and shouted, “What are you going to teach me now, winnower?”
Daisuke rose to his feet and bowed low.
“Shall we continue?”
Hideaki grew serious and attacked Daisuke. The duel grew furious with Hideaki unable to find enough space to pierce his sword into Daisuke’s flesh. Daisuke’s eyes were fixed on every single movement of Hideaki and every move of Hideaki was countered. After a few minutes, Hideaki was tackled and tossed to the ground with Daisuke’s sword placed firmly an inch away from his throat.
“Are we done?” asked Daisuke.
When Hideaki looked away, Daisuke dropped his sword and ran away from the circle. Hideaki slowly rose and the crowd dispersed. Hideaki went and sat on a nearby stump and dusted his elbows and ego. The Master walked up to him and placed a hand on his head.
“How is it possible, Master? Did he have some secret lessons? I have always found him sleeping when the other boys did. He woke up not much earlier than the rest of us. During lunch he would also eat and rest on his pile of hay. The only time he seems to have had for himself was the few minutes he took to get his sword. What could he have learnt in that time?” Hideaki asked and paused. He looked up at his Master and continued, “Is it black magic or some secret communication between him and you? Please tell me Master, else I will not be able to be at peace.”
Daisuke came to this school and after a few days asked me: “Master, how does the rice know how to grow and bear seeds?” I had asked him to meditate. He returned in seven days to let me know that he would like to work in the fields. I granted him leave as his education was over. I have not taught him anything secretly and what purpose does black magic serve beyond placing an individual at a disadvantage?”
“Then how is it possible that a winnower could wield a sword like that?”
The Master smiled and said, “Come with me.”
He led Hideaki to the ladies’ dressing room. He held Hideaki in front of a mirror and said, “There are two aspects to Daisuke’s knowledge and learning. One aspect is in front of you.”
Hideaki didn’t understand and looked puzzled at his puzzled reflection.
“I don’t understand, Master.”
“Can you show me your best moves?”
Hideaki proceeded to demonstrate the nagare moves of the okuden class. Finally, he plunged his sword towards his reflection.
“Good, so now you see?”
Hideaki was still puzzled but, like a good student, repeated his moves in the hope of catching something that he had missed earlier. He noted that his flow was perfect in the reflection and his elbow was now bleeding.
“Master, I only see my reflection, and yours.”
“Good, so now you know.”
Hideaki pondered over and wasn’t sure what to realise.
“Forgive me, but are you saying that Daisuke has been studying my reflection?”
“Not entirely.”
“I shall answer this, else the next facet of his knowledge will be totally lost to you. Daisuke was busy becoming your reflection. Do you now see what I mean?”
Hideaki looked closely at his reflection and repeated his moves and stopped as soon as he realised why Daisuke wouldn’t take his eyes off him.
“In life, all knowledge is a just a reflection of what is. All demonstration of knowledge is best done when it is a reflection of what the other person knows. Daisuke would not do more than what was required in the situation in which he was placed. All he had to study was how you moved and how the sword moved and he simply had to reflect it.”
“And if I hadn’t attacked?”
“Does he need to?”
Hideaki nodded his head.
“And the second aspect?”
“You should find out, else how would you justify being my best student from this batch?”
Hideaki bowed his head lower and proceeded to walk out.
“In case you are still wondering why he was away for a few minutes before returning with his sword, he went to remove a few logs of wood from the fire which was heating my bathing water. That gave him enough time to tackle your challenge and then return to a cauldron with water at the right temperature.”
“And the second aspect he learned by meditation?”
“No, by being a winnower.”
Hideaki walked out of the school gate meditating on that when he remembered his certificate in his kimono’s folds. He extracted it to read what his Master had written for him. It was a haiku.
With dust in the eye
Or bloody sword, what reflects?
What you see is seen.

8 thoughts on “Zen Koan – Reflection

  1. “In life, all knowledge is just a reflection of what is. All demonstration of knowledge is best done when it is a reflection of what the other person knows.”Hmmm. This koan is too much a stating of obvious facts. Yes, all knowledge is indeed a reflection of what is, and yes, all DEMONSTRATION of knowledge automatically presupposes a demonstratee, according to whose knowledge or ignorance the demonstrator is going to demonstrate his knowledge… This is common sense, that I don’t demonstrate my knowledge of French to one who knows only English, it will fall on deaf ears, as it were. “Paathiramarrindhu pichchai podu.”What we DO, depends upon what we are, whom we do it to, why, how and when – you are only concentrating on the whom (demonstration of knowledge a reflection of the other person), there are lots of other factors that decides on the way you demonstrate your knowledge…Ultimately, it is all a question of rightness of being and rightness of doing. “I am therefore I do”, “I do, therefore I am” – one of these was Plato’s words and the other Socrates’s ;-D. # Just passable as a koan. The magic of the previous ones is missed. Usually I have to rack my brains to be able to crack them, this seems to be too simple and unexciting. Not necessarily because I understood it easily, but because after I understood it, it seems to leave me with a feeling of “OK. What then?”

  2. This makes me think, though, and I realise in a tangential manner, that if the knowledge in me is immense, but by virtue of the ‘other’ person or job, in front of whom I am going to demonstrate this knowledge, I am perforce made to always only demonstrate only a tittle of the immensitude in me, I will feel a different sort of a pressure from what is inside me, and will want to find the right place/work that will enable all of me to flower to the fullest, receive all of me – I mean, when the ‘other’s capacity of knowledge is able to receive all of what I am capable of.Just by the way reflection of my thoughts…

  3. # I may as well issue a warning that I am in the next few minutes intending to do a splendid job of putting my foot in my mouth. I hope it is entertaining if not illuminating 😉# I have a lot to object to your statements that A GOOD STUDENT IS ONE IF HE JUST REFLECTS AND DISCRIMINATES.All learning cannot be put under two heads of reflection and discrimination. There is more to taking in and giving out than just reflection and discrimination. That is why the post doesn’t appeal to me and doesn’t seem to be out of the ordinary.Learning involves a broader action between 3 elements – the past, the student, the doing/application.What happens between the past and the student is not just reflection, – it involves observation, sifting even there as to what of the past he will keep in himself, which means even in reflection there is discrimination, even before application commences . Application is again a conglomoration of observation, discrimination, judgement , knowledge of the environment, the vicissitudes that ask for the solution of a particular problem, imagination, creativity, originality of bringing in something that was never there in what he had learnt etc etc.My disappointment regarding this zen koan are that 1.it is explicit2.in its explicitness, it is not comprehensive3.it stops short of defining a good student to be one who reflects, and one who discriminates.4.it should have used better images to bring in the totality of the activities of a student which are taking in the existing past and giving out all this learning in the form of doing, application by the judicious use of discrimination, imagination, understanding, originality, efficiency etc.And now for the wise words of the Master himself :-D! Meditation and silence never seemed more welcome to me, I admit…# I have to confess that this koan is going round and round in my head till either I am irrevocably addled, or have, despite me, covertly gained more clarity – I suspect it is the former, and your poor blog suffers. Sorry—

  4. Dear P, P and P,I am glad you found time to read through this entire post. After posting it there were two things that bothered me: thing 1 and thing 2 😀1. Would anyone want to read this?2. What on earth does this koan mean?I think the first is answered partially (for I doubt whether you read it properly). The second is something that will evolve for me, as most of the koans do. Honestly, I am not sure what the Master intended here, but I seem to have understood portions of it to surmount the difficulties which plague you.Point 1. Hideaki wishes to know whether there is/was a student who could serve as an example to all the students.Point 2. The Master is clear as to why he picks Daisuke as an example <><>has learnt the crux of all that I have to teach as well as something that I haven’t taught anyone<><>Point 3. Daisuke has demonstrated that when required he can learn an art and apply it to the desired effect (in this case, winning)Point 4. The Master uses the phrase “becoming your reflection” and not “reflecting” or something on similar lines.Point 5. The second aspect is not necessarily winnowing as much as it was learnt from spending time as a winnower (and bonsai, and being a help and…).I think this is one of the first koans where the Master has explicitly (and there you are right) refused to provide an answer. In all the earlier koans the hint was quite there and hence, I would call them more explicit. I am afraid I don’t get where you gathered the reflecting and discriminating bit. One aspect seems to be <>becoming<> a reflection, which is sort of gathering all that one has learnt. In one move of Hideaki, Daisuke is able to see the crux of all the teaching that led to that move, and his mind moves fast enough to transform that move into the initial teaching and then back into the move and the corresponding counter move. How he manages to do it, is what (I think) the Master holds as something to be learnt from. Your second comment is beautiful but I think it took the wrong fork…Probably, as you say, I haven’t projected the image well of the entire scene that took place. But that would be my fault and not the lacking of the koan… 🙂Now let me go back to meditating…

  5. Thank you, Eroteme, for the explanation which seems to be of sheer words and thoughts, but is verily and simply a lightfilled silence.

  6. Thank’s for the story. It is not exactly a koan, but it’s a nice story.Say like this: someone has a big desire to win and get’s humiliated because he chalenges a honest and humble person. Sound’s sooo familiar … it could be a scenario for the next hwood movie 😉 (Karate kid 5 😉 )The thing you’re saying about reflection is right. When write or say something, to show others we are very smart, it’s usualy our ignorance we point out.This does not exclude me, of course … nor you 😉Often, by writting we learn more than by reading …

  7. Dear D,Welcome to this blog. Koan… story… what’s the difference? One listens to the soft tones of a flute and find in them an answer to his woes. Another listens to the same and realises that it is not as good as the other flautist. The flute and the tones stay the same while the impression they create on the fertile mind, differ. 🙂

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