Photo/essay by John Mujo Fritzlen
For centuries zen communities have observed “ango,” a three moth period of intensive meditation practice and spiritual training. A priest is selected by the abbot to be “shuso” or head monk for this period. He selects a koan that he must penetrate and then present his resolution before the community as well as accept questions regarding his comprehension. A koan is a phrase from a sutra, or a teaching on Zen realization, or an episode from the life of an ancient master that points to the nature of ultimate reality. Essential to a koan is paradox, i.e., that which is beyond “thinking,” transcending the logical or conceptual. Since it cannot be solved by reason, it is not a riddle. It requires a leap to another level of comprehension.
Below are several photographs taken just before and after the highly ritualized ceremony in which the Shuso presents his koan.
The abbot and a senior student wait in a separate room before the beginning of the ceremony.
The Shuso prior to his entrance into the Zendo or meditation hall.
The abbot teases the shuso after a job well done. Relief. Pleasure.
Successful koan or not, if you’re going to spend 3 months in retreat, it’s best to have an understanding wife. Maybe one who practices zazen.
I have included the core of the Shuso’s koan. It is from The Book of Serenity, a 100 koan collection from 12th Century China in which the great Zen master Hongzhi played a pivotal role. Translated by Thomas Cleary. Shambhala Publications.
A monk asked Yunmen, “When not producing a single thought, is there any fault or not?”
Yunmen said, “Mount Sumeru.”
Try sitting with that for three months.
Photography: Copyright John Fritzlen
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