Question: "These answers don't seem to be very snappy and Zen-like. Doesn't that mean they're kind of phony?"

Although we encounter them in written form, the charmingly cryptic answers of the classical Chinese Zen masters, which are imitated by their modern Chinese and Japanese descendents, were originally delivered face to face as speech. Their enlightening impact came from the bodily presence of the teacher. This is the "mind to mind transmission" of Zen. If words alone, in any written style, could duplicate this, the transmission would not be "outside the scriptures."

The famous Zen koans, which were polished by ancient editors, and published in the Gateless Gate, Blue Cliff Record, and other collections, are part of the cultural heritage of China. Countries in the Chinese "sphere of influence," such as Korea, Japan, and Viet Nam, also share a legacy of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism which they inherit from millennia of close contact with China.

Americans don't understand or share the underlying cultural values and literary references which form the background of the famous Zen stories. (Asians, on their part, do not share or understand the cultural values and literary references which Americans inherit from ancient Greece and Rome, from Europe, and from the Hebrew Bible.) Much that seems "dark" or paradoxical in the koans is really just cultural references, including puns and jokes, which we don't "get."

The famous question and answer style of the Zen mondo, or "dharma combat," also presupposes a "culture within a culture": the world of the Zen monastic community. The terse Zen style grows out of daily face-to-face contact between the monks. When you sleep, eat, bathe, work, and meditate beside someone every day for months, or even years, you get to know them intimately even though you might not consider them a "friend." In these intimate circumstances, a lot can be taken for granted and much is left unsaid.

In the classical stories, the assumption is that the Master has "understood the great matter of Zen" and that the disciple may, or may not, understand. When modern people imitate the style of the old stories, they inevitably put themselves in the awkward position of asserting that they are on the same level as the masters of the Golden Age. Since, for a variety of reasons, we cannot reproduce today the conditions that made the old Zen style of mondo work, it seems prudent to stick with what comes naturally to us, and to emulate, but not imitate, the great Zen teachers of the past.

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