ZEN SAND: The Book of Capping Phrases for Koan Practice, by Victor Sogen Hori. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003, 764 pp., $37.00 (cloth).

Back in 1947 when I was sitting with Dr. Suzuki Daisetsu, he gave me my first and last koan — the one about Nansen Fugan’s cat. The eminent Zen master Nansen saw two monks quarreling over the animal. He held it up and said that if they could give an answer the cat would be saved — otherwise not.

Not knowing what to answer, there being no apparent question, they were silent and Nansen cut the cat in two. Later he told another priest about the incident. This person removed a sandal, placed it on his head, and walked off. Nansen then said that had the priest been there the cat would have been spared.

I too came nowhere near a reply to the koan since I did not comprehend that an inquiry was concerned, and it is typical of my disposition that the first and only reaction was a concern for the unfortunate feline.

I should have had a copy of “Zen Sand” with me. It does not give the proper answer to the cat’s dilemma, though it does mention the animal itself. Indeed, it gives no proper koan answers at all. Rather, it offers more than 4,000 jakugo or “capping phrases” — given in kanji, in romaji and in English — for Rinzai Zen koan practice, and includes all references as well as a full glossary and a complete bibliography.

These phrases, found in Chinese and, later, Japanese classics, serve to express what Zen cannot. They suggest in words an essence of the koan experience, one which in itself so famously defies language. The koan (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a famous example) creates a rational impasse that helps to free the mind from its habitual conceptual form. It thus opens us to an encounter with reality as it is, rather than as we conceptualize it. The Rinzai tradition maintains that the koan itself may effect a sudden enlightenment. The Soto sect tradition lends less validity to this idea.

Through the jakugo, a kind of communication, explanation, validation becomes possible. One Zen roshi compared the relationship to wasabi complementing sashimi: The koan is prosaic in its raw and natural form; the jakugo is in the form of an artificially contrived metaphor.

The two do not coincide so much as they maintain a kind of symbiosis. For example: “If you’ve never understood life, how will you understand death?” This phrase, taken from the “Analects,” used in support of the appropriate koan (and its “solutions,” for koans often have more than one “answer”) may confirm insight, and may lead to further insight on its own. The jakugo is, as one scholar has called it, “a cross between a koan and a footnote.”

Over the years Zen adepts ceased combing the classics and began compiling lists of those metaphoric phrases already found. Eventually large compendiums became available. The present volume combines and translates the contents of the two most widely used Japanese Zen koan-capping-phrase books.

Such industry has led to the criticism that Rinzai Zen has allowed koan practice to calcify into a rigid formalism. The author/editor of this volume however has, in his truly masterful introduction, denied this by illuminating the role that the koan plays. “The fixed response to a koan resembles the fixed patterns of movements in the martial arts called kata. One practices them again and again until they become movements of power, executed precisely and without deliberation.”

As to whether there are “correct answers” to a koan, Zen teachers insist that before one engages in the practice, a koan may appear to have a fixed meaning. After one has completed the practice, however, that koan has no meaning at all, fixed or otherwise. It is just here that the jakugo is located and appended. It recalls the koan, it authenticates the experience and it communicates it.

For some time the major resource for koan study in English has been the early works of Dr. Suzuki and the admirable “Zen Dust” (1966) of Miura Isshu and Ruth Fuller Sasaki. Now, however, with Dr. Victor Sogen Hori’s book, a new tool for koan/jakugo study is available.

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