Tuesday, 23 August 2016


56. Zen Master Wakuan puts a 'why question' to his disciples. Practitioners who take up Wakuan's 'why?' will find themselves being led deeper and deeper into Zen's questioning quest. But there comes a critical moment in this quest and it happens when the practitioner's 'why?' transmutes into 'who?' And this 'who?' leads the practitioner into the mystery of the one who clings to nothing and to whom nothing clings, least of all a beard. 'Why does the Western Barbarian have no beard?'

Saturday, 20 August 2016


55. Ch'an master Wakuan refers to Bodhidharma as 'the Western Barbarian'. In common parlance this is a derogatory expression, saying in effect that someone is uncultured, rude, wild, ignorant. It points to behaviour that is at odds with accepted civilised standards. But in the Zen tradition Bodhidharma cuts a great figure. So why is he referred to as a barbarian? Various explanations are given. All of them fixed on the bearded Indian monk who is credited with introducing Zen Buddhism to China. Yet given that Wakuan's derogatory expression occurs within a koan, it might well be the case that the focus of Wakuan's gaze is not so much on the figure of Bodhidharma as on the practice he represents and teaches. Perhaps Wakuan is alerting his disciples to a feature of Zen practice that many might find disturbing. This is its propensity to take a practitioner very quickly out of his or her comfort zone. For the practice can at times appear foreign, wild, rude and unpredictable. The novice who might look to Zen for an experience that is all sweetness and light is in for a very rude awakening.  

Friday, 19 August 2016


54.          quietly climbing up
               this cloudless blue mountain sky -
               the moon round and full

Monday, 15 August 2016


53. In twelfth century China Zen master Wakuan put the question, 'Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?' In contemporary Australia his question might be, 'Why has the Asylum Seeker no rights?'


52. The Southern Sung Dynasty master Wakuan asked a question that so puzzled his disciples that it soon achieved the status of a koan. That is to say, it was felt that even to understand their master's question, let alone respond to it appropriately, they would need to share in his own Enlightenment Realisation. The question: 'Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?' Now given that the most junior novice in their monastery knew that 'the Western Barbarian' referred to Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who was always depicted with a great bushy beard, the question as to why he lacked a beard must have struck the disciples as most perplexing. What could their master be playing at?

Wednesday, 10 August 2016


51. Some of the old Zen masters are remembered and revered for a teaching that, at first glance, does not appear to amount to very much. Take the case of Ch'an master Huo-an, known in the Zen tradition as Wakuan. He died in 1179 aged in his early seventies. His contribution to Zen lore would seem to be limited to a question and a brief death poem. Wakuan's question: 'Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?' On the basis of this question alone the Zen tradition holds him in high esteem as a great teacher. Clearly, the formulation of a question can sometimes be more enlightening than the provision of an answer.