Zen Koans seem like paradoxes at first. The reason is that Koans are not meant to be understood by the intellect, but by intuition. Pondering over these riddles can help us unravel greater truths about our world and ourselves. This breakdown isn’t meant to substitute the insight the Koans are meant to invoke, but merely aid in getting there.
From “101 Zen Stories”:
“” The Zen Master Hoshin lived in China many years. Then he returned to the northeastern part of Japan, where he taught his disciples. When he was getting very old, he told them a story he had heard in China. This is the story:
‘ One year on the twenty-fifth of December, Tokufu, who was very old, said to his disciples: “I am not going to be alive next year so you fellows should treat me well this year.”
The pupils thought he was joking, but since he was a great-hearted teacher each of them in turn treated him to a feast on succeeding days of the departing year.
On the eve of the new year, Tokufu concluded: “You have been good to me. I shall leave tomorrow afternoon when the snow has stopped.”
The disciples laughed, thinking he was aging and talking nonsense since the night was clear and without snow. But at midnight snow began to fall, and the next day they did not find their teacher about. They went to the meditation hall. There he had passed on. ‘
Hoshin, who related this story, told his disciples: “It is not necessary for a Zen master to predict his passing, but if he really wishes to do so, he can.”
“Can you?” someone asked.
“Yes,” answered Hoshin. “I will show you what I can do seven days from now.”
None of the disciples believed him, and most of them had even forgotten the conversation when Hoshin called them together.
“Seven days ago,” he remarked, “I said I was going to leave you. It is customary to write a farewell poem, but I am neither a poet or a calligrapher. Let one of you inscribe my last words.”
His followers thought he was joking, but one of them started to write.
“Are you ready?” Hoshin asked.
“Yes sir,” replied the writer.
Then Hoshin dictated:
- I came from brillancy
And return to brillancy.
What is this?
This line was one line short of the customary four, so the disciple said: “Master, we are one line short.”
Hoshin, with the roar of a conquering lion, shouted “Kaa!” and was gone. “”
When I first read this Koan, I felt that there was no insight that can be derived from it. It seemed like a cute little story about Zen masters predicting their deaths.
But then, I saw it, the 3rd line of Hoshin’s seemingly incomplete poem, “What is this?”
I realized that this wasn’t Hoshin dictating the 3rd verse, it was him feeling something, that something that brought his death right after. And yet even on the verge of death, Hoshin managed to complete his death poem.
The poem was Hoshin announcing his departure, yet the second half was not planned, or was it? In some ways, this koan resembles Zen Koan 7: “Announcement.”
The impressive thing that Hoshin did was probably make the final words of the poem his “actual final words.” He did not dictate a poem, said that those words were his last, and proceeded to speak or even breath afterwards.
“What is this?” & “Kaa!” were the last 2 verses. His last breath was the very last word in his death poem and the very last word he uttered, a very appropriate end some might say.