Zen Koan Discussion: “Linji’s Four Realms”

In the Zen tradition, koans are used as direct expressions of the truth of Zen. Examining the words of masters past allow koans to take on an awesome depth and join us on our inquiry to help guide us. Koans are a challenge to look at their truth for ourselves without turning away from our humanity. We can use them to come to our own understanding of Zen’s “Only Don’t Know,” an unraveling of our most basic assumptions and ways of looking at the world.

Looking at koans, I was initially confused and couldn’t really make sense out of them. A daily sitting practice has gradually shown me that koan answers are so precisely tuned that it’s easy to overlook them. Instead of molding koans to try to fit our expectations of them, we have to look at the koan and try to understand it on its own terms.

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The koan collection Entangling Vines, translated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner, is one the of the most valuable koan references I’ve found. It’s packed with intriguing details that enhance the original text, as well as a fantastic translation. I haven’t finished the whole book yet, but it has steadily become my favorite koan collection. One of the koans featured in Entangling Vines that struck me recently is called “Linji’s Four Realms.” After some biographical details, we’ll take a look at the main text of the koan, and discuss how it locks together to form an organic whole. Linji’s economy with his teaching is astounding, and he covers a lot of ground in a short span of time.

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According to Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and their Teaching by Andy Ferguson, Linji was the founder of the Rinzai school of Zen.

Linji Yixuan (d. 866) was a disciple of Huangbo Xiyun. Linji is a preeminent figure in the history of Zen. He came from the city of Nashua in ancient Caozhou (now the city of Dongming in Shandong Province). As the founder of the Linji school of Zen (in Japanese, Rinzai), his tradition remains, along with the Caodong school, as one of the two lineages that survive to the present day.
After taking the vows of a monk, Linji studied the sutras, the Vanaya, and the various doctrines that were carried on the currents of Buddhism in his era. Although he practiced under Guishan Lingyou, his enlightenment came about under Huangbo Xiyun, with the teacher Gao’an Dayu a key player in the drama.
 (173)

And according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (PDB), koans such as these are extremely important to the Rinzai tradition:

[Rinzai was] one of the major Japanese Zen schools established in the early Kamakura period . . . After the decline of the Gowan monasteries, the Otokan lineage came to dominate the Rinzai Zen tradition during the Edo period and was the only Rinzai line to survive to the present. Despite the presence of such influential monks as Takuan Soho and Bankei Yotaku, the Rinzai tradition began to decline by the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. The monk credited with revitalizing the Rinzai tradition during the Edo period is the Myoshinji monk Hakuin Ekaku. Hakuin systematized the koan method of meditation, which is the basis of modern Rinzai Zen practice; it is also through Hakuin and his disciples that most Rinzai masters of today trace their lineages. (715)

The information on Linji quoted in the Ferguson volume contains a story about Linji’s interviews with monks Dayu and Huangbo. The first part of the story involves Linji asking for the dharma teaching in various ways. He only gets hit in response. I’ve included some of the text here for reference:

When Linji reached Dayu, Dayu said ‘Where have you come from?’
Linji said, ‘from Huangbo.’
Dayu said, ‘What did Huangbo say?’
Linji said, ‘Three times I asked him about the essential doctrine and three times I got hit.  I don’t know if I made some error or not.’
Dayu said, ‘Huangbo has old grandmotherly affection and endures all this difficulty for your sake-and here you are asking whether you’ve made some error or not.’
Upon hearing these words, Linji was awakened.
(174-175)

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Now let’s see the main text of “Linji’s Four Realms” taken from Entangling Vines:

Someone asked Linji, “What are the four realms of no-form?” The master said, “A thought of doubt in your mind and you’re obstructed by the element of earth; a thought of desire in your mind and you drown in the element water; a thought of anger in your mind and you’re scorched by the element fire; a thought of joy in your mind and you’re blown about by the element wind.”  Understand this, however, and you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go. You can appear in the east and vanish in the west, appear in the south and vanish in the north, appear in the center and vanish at the border, appear at the border and vanish in the center. You can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.  Why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions. (Kindle Version, loc  4848)

Like many koans, “Linji’s Four Realms” is structured in a question and answer format. In the first part of the koan, Linji is asked the question, “what are the four realms of no-form?” The question is used as a springboard to address Zen’s concerns in an honest and direct fashion. The question is usually set up to indicate that the student is looking for some kind of doctrinal answer, or is seeking clarification on some area of Buddhist doctrine. Linji twists this question around and breaks it down. The question also indicates the artistry called for in these responses, as the master uses the question to create something new and interesting, while still broadly reflecting the Zen tradition as a whole.

In the next part of the koan, Linji uses the concept of “four realms of no-form” and creates an outline based on the student’s question that uses doubt, desire, anger, and joy. This outline is used to show the student their own mind, and the consequences of thinking and feeling in certain ways. When we have thoughts of doubt, desire, anger, or joy, those thoughts suffuse our actions and we enact the corresponding state of mind. Since we have examined anger a little bit in a previous article, let’s use desire as an example of what Linji is talking about.

When we look into desire, several components of the experience come immediately to mind. There is an abstract longing for the desired object, in which we fantasize about situations with that object, and how by acquiring it we will make our current experience happier or more meaningful. There is a tendency, at least in my own experience, to abstract out the problems associated with acquiring and keeping the object. Desire perpetuates itself through any objects that exist at hand, and can readily shift between them. There is also a corresponding sensation that is stimulating or enthralling, like a compulsion that moves us closer to the object.

Based on this examination, we can see how when we fully give ourselves over to desire, according to Linji we “drown in the element water.” Once this happens, we no longer see the ephemeral basis of desire and drown in its elemental nature. Linji’s succinct analysis indicates that forms such as desire are unfounded, and in fact are empty as discussed in Buddhist texts such as the Heart Sutra. By showing us that emptiness is in fact the fabric of our own minds, Linji gives us the key to pulling down the entire structure. He ties this point into the last segment of the koan, how insight into this empty nature of thought helps us respond to change.

In the next sentence, Linji says that “you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go.” Once we see into the empty nature of mind and constant change, we no longer have to rely on rigidly controlling situations or relying on external situations for happiness. One of the realms of reality that Buddhism describes is the “realm of hungry ghosts,” in addition to “hell denizens, animals, and sometimes demigods or titans” (PDB, 677).  Read metaphorically, we are no longer hungry ghosts that chase after the ephemerality of our own minds. We become much more capable of utilizing the intelligence of situations to help others and ourselves.

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This is why Linji says we can “appear in the east and vanish in the west.” Understanding this passage was informed by my own deepening process of self-observation. Closely noticing my own behavior, I could no longer believe in a necessity to the way I did many things. My approaches were often limited and sometimes arrogant if they did not allow for change. For example, at my job my skill set was a mix of approaches built over time. Some of these I had fine tuned to deal with many of the problems that arise at work and take the form of flexible programs. Many others were subjective, allowed within the wide scope of the job but not correct in any absolute sense. Some of my methods seemed more neurotic, entangled with a variety of personal and idiosyncratic details and repeated only for their own sake.

Over time, I have used these insights to broaden my own situational awareness and change my behavior as needed. Within these situations a tremendous amount of potential exists. Knowing this can result in a much more childlike, playful sense of existence. We can do things that seem unlikely because we are no longer relying on following rigid lines of behavior. We can break out of these boundaries as needed while still understanding the value of rules and obligations to social life. After this, Linji says that “[we] can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.” Linji reflects this childlike attitude through playing with the concepts of land and water.

In the last sentence of the koan, Linji says “why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions.” It’s as if we thought that elements such as desire, anger, joy, and sorrow were the proper way to live our lives. We spent our time patterning things after their structure. But what if we want to experience a different dream? Can we see through Dogen’s “colors of the mind” to the thing that interlinks us all? Can we do this, through our own efforts and with the help of Zen students of the past and present?

Let’s pursue this question fully, with the help of koans such as these, to realize our true capabilities and our identity with the boundless universe.