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Did Shunryu Suzuki use koans?

John K Nelson, a professor of religion and Buddhism at USF forwarded me (DC) a query from one of his students.

From: John J O'Shaughnessy
May 7, 2011
To: John K Nelson
Subject: Shunryu Suzuki and koans

At one point in the article I read this (speaking of S. Suzuki): "Suzuki was apparently entranced by the openness of America and of its 'beginner's mind,' and, as he became one of the first Buddhist teachers in the United States, he concentrated largely on the zazen and the koans that were so popular among disaffected youth." I am mainly curious by this statement because of the mention of "koans." Did S. Suzuki teach koans?

John Nelson added

This particular student has been accepted for the summer program at Tassajara & will start residency there on June

I'll also poke around and see what I find. I wouldn't be surprised if SS did teach koans, since Dogen was certainly well-versed in koan traditions and used them in some of his writing. On the other hand, it's more likely he may have referenced them only and did not assign them to students.

DC answer to John Nelson

The later is right: it's more likely he may have referenced them only and did not assign them to students.

He gave lots of talks on the Blue Cliff Records and referred to koans often in talks but he wasn't into doing them. He gave talks also on the Genjo Koan which to my mind infers that one's practice naturally evolves into the ultimate question and answer. He passed a koan with a Rinzai teacher in his area, possibly the great - can't remember his name now, Soen Nakagawa's teacher at Ryutakuji - Gempo Yamamoto who helped to convince the emperor to end the war (I think). An old guy at Rinsoin told me it was him.

From pp.31-2 of Crooked Cucumber: the Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki

SO-ON ARRANGED for his students to study with another teacher for a while, a Rinzai Zen teacher. Before they left, So-on had some words of advice: Don't forget beginner's mind; don't stick to any particular style of practice. When you go to a Soto temple, practice the Soto way; when you go to a Rinzai temple, practice the Rinzai way. Always be a new student.

They studied a completely different type of Zen, which emphasized attainment of satori, sudden enlightenment, through assiduous concentration on meditation teachings called koans, which pose such questions as "What was your original face before your parents were born?" The boys were excited by the challenge. They were to concentrate on their koans in zazen and throughout the day. They weren't to talk about them though. Shunryu endured the rigorous Rinzai training but had trouble with his koan. Every morning and evening during zazen, he'd take his turn to visit the teacher, bowing before him, reciting the verse of his koan, and presenting his answer. One day one boy passed, then another, and finally all but Shunryu had passed their koans. He became distraught. On the day they were to leave he had still not passed his koan, and there were to be no more interviews, just a closing ceremony for their period of instruction. Just before the ceremony Shunryu went running into the master's room and yelled out one last attempt to answer his koan to his master's satisfaction.

"Okay! Okay! You pass!" the master said. Shunryu was happy, but later he felt that he didn't really understand the koan and believed the master had just passed him to be nice. This left him with an unsatisfied feeling about koan practice, although he continued to read and reflect on them all his life.

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