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Where is Buddha?
June 2nd, 2018

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Where is Buddha?
(long Zen post)

Various kōans offer various answers to "What is Buddha?":
• Three pounds of flax;
• This very mind/heart is Buddha;
• Not mind, not Buddha;
• Dried shit stick.
Sometimes, people think they know what is Buddha though, thanks to lists of 'higher' and 'perfected' qualities… Another question might thus well be " where is Buddha?"

Sometimes the Buddha is described as refusing to answer meaningless points by remaining silent (hence e.g. the "14 unanswered questions", cula-Malunkyovada sutta (MN 63)).
But at other times, he's consenting by remaining silent (e.g. DN 32, SN 35.202, Ud 4.3…).
And that's before contemplating the Flower Sermon, at the root of Zen, with the Buddha holding a flower silently before the monastics.
Silence, in Japan, is traditionally associated with truthfulness, but it is also linked to social discretion and conflict avoidance, and it might indicate intimacy or… defiance.
And ignorant silence is not wise silence (

Keeping in mind the possibility of multiple answers (dependent on context?) to one question… and the ambivalence of silence… let's look at a kōan:

One day as Mañjuśrī stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him "Mañjuśrī, Mañjuśrī, why do you not enter?"
Mañjuśrī replied "I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?"

How do you understand this dialogue?


+BupSahn Sunim's recently proposed interpretation is
Mañjuśrī was correct in recogoinising that 'inside and outside are not two gates' (內外不二門), but in abiding in non-duality he turned his back on the situation whereas Buddha just entered. Had it been another, such as Samantabhadra or Kwanseum bosal they would have entered out of compassion without comment.
» —

I see nothing wrong with what's written by BupSahn —let me make it crystal clear that this is not a critique of his post!—, I'm pretty sure some teacher may 'approve' it, and yet… is there another possibility?
Can we kick the kōan back alive again, instead of killing it with the certainty of having the 'right' interpretation? So that BupSahn had a realisation with his answer, but others can still have their own realisation as a result of their own enquiry, not by appropriating BupSahn's view… Can we go beyond e.g. criticising Mañjuśrī, or seeking his limitations, to conveniently side with the assumed / implied correctness of the Buddha's question?

First, the Buddha doesn't reply to Mañjuśrī, so we have to consider that the Buddha might be approving Mañjuśrī's reply. Then, to criticise the "ultimate view" of Mañjuśrī would equate acting "wiser than the Buddha himself" ;-)
In true Zen fashion, what if the Buddha was merely 'checking' Mañjuśrī's wisdom? Maybe the 'right' answer is precisely not to join with the Buddha!
After all, Buddhist teachers regularly have to push even their brightest students not to rely on / not to copy the master's acts: when the circumstances of the students are different from those of the teacher, their ways of engagement have little reason to be the same, we're not in the business of parroting wisdom, of repeating words: autonomy goes hand in hand with freedom.

Second, well, the Buddha doesn't reply to Mañjuśrī, so we have to consider that Mañjuśrī's reply is meaningless to the point there's no response to give to it.
Commenting on it would then be equivalent to arguing on whether unicorns only eat some kind of herbs or any herb… To comment on it, although the Buddha stayed silent, might equate acting "wiser than the Buddha himself"… or being lost in words, lost in the belief that this kōan 'must' have an intellectual answer expressible with concepts such as ultimate truth vs. conventional truth, or wisdom vs. expedient means… [Yes, I'm seeing the irony of the post, if this is the case ;-) Remember that I never claimed to be Enlightened!]

Intermission: on leaving classical koans without explanations (

Third, why interpret "One day as Mañjuśrī stood outside the gate" as implying a 'trait' of Mañjuśrī as a being (then suggesting others would not have had Mañjuśrī's bias)… rather than a description of mere, contingent circumstances?

Intermission: for the fun of it, there exists an alternative reading of that kōan:
If you need to re-acquaint yourself with Zen, a few posts cover the basic teachings of Japanese Zen (, the fundamental sūtras of Zen (, how Zen is (and is not) beyond scriptures (, and the meaning of Zen's "transmission outside scriptures" (

Fourth, symbolically, we can look into the sanmon (三門 or 山門), also called sangedatsumon (三解脱門, lit. "gate of the three liberations"), which the most important gate of a Japanese Zen Buddhist temple… Naturally, the kōan predates Japanese Zen architecture, but the architecture arose from the same understanding, so maybe it can gives us hints?
The sanmon is not the first gate of the temple… it usually stands between the sōmon (outer gate) and the butsuden (lit. "Hall of Buddha", i.e. the main hall). The sanmon of a major temple would actually be three gates, kūmon (空門 gate of emptiness), musōmon (無相門 gate of formlessness) and muganmon (無願門 gate of inaction), symbolic of the "three gates to enlightenment" or "three liberations"…
So, when the kōan states « Mañjuśrī stood outside the gate », which gate are we talking about? We might associate the Buddha calling to him with the butsuden (lit. "Hall of Buddha"), this leaves us with 4 gates (from outer to inaction)… Which gate did Mañjuśrī stand outside of?
Is Mañjuśrī, contrarily to the interpretation of BupSahn, precisely staying in saṃsāra (postponing his entry to nirvāṇa, thus embodying the bodhisattva ideal)? If that was the case, maybe the 'approval' by silence of the Buddha is a serious option! Mañjuśrī's « I do not see myself as outside » would equate Mahāyāna's classic « saṃsāra is nirvāṇa ».
And, again contrarily to the interpretation of BupSahn, « Why enter? » would then mean that Mañjuśrī has understood the nature of non-abiding nirvāṇa : there's seemingly no point in entering it, since it's not separate from dukkkha,
since dukkha doesn't stop upon becoming / joining a buddha (unless the stress stops for all beings: the realisation of inter-dependence doesn't let one be happy while others suffer).
The path is in saṃsāra… (
In true Zen fashion, maybe the Buddha was merely 'checking' Mañjuśrī's wisdom? Maybe the 'right' answer is precisely not to join with the Buddha? Where is Buddha? In his Buddha hall, i.e. in parinirvana (because, well, did any of you meet the Buddha recently?)? Not joining him, in order to continue manifesting wisdom (the primarily quality of Mañjuśrī) "outside the gate"… while the Buddha continues 'manifesting' (or non-manifesting) emptiness, formlessness and inaction… might be the wisest engagement with the situation at hand!

Can we kick the kōan back alive again, instead of killing it with the certainty of having the 'right' interpretation?
Don't trust yourself ( Can we re-manifest "great doubt", "not-knowing", or "what if?" ( Can we see reality as processes, arising – enduring – ceasing (, not certainties? Attachment to one's ease, one's opinions, one's "truth" is not what the Buddha had in mind for us (

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image: Mañjuśrī, depicted as a male bodhisattva wielding a flaming sword in his right hand, representing the realisation of transcendent wisdom which cuts down ignorance and duality. The scripture supported by the lotus held in his left hand is a Prajñāpāramitā sūtra (