A gongan is a word that cuts off the path of thought. It is another word for hwadu. From the past, patriarchal monks of China and Korea were enlightened through investigating gongan. This (word) gongan derives from the sense of “government official documents.” This means the absolute criteria through which one must observe the standards.
“The scenery of the original land” of the patriarchal teachers who lead the practitioners to enlightenment are words that indicate that standard. Therefore the Old Man of the Three Religions who wrote the preface to the Biyanlu said, “What the patriarchal teachers taught and show are the gongan.”
In this way, the gongan are records of the words and deeds and enlightenment of past Seon masters. There are many gongan, and usually it is said there are 1,700. This derives from the opportune conditions and words and deeds of the 1,700 Seon monks who appear in the Jingde chuandeng lu. But if one looks at the representative gongan collections; the Wumen guan, the Biyanlu and the Seonmun yeomsong etcetera; in reality 1,650 gongan appear.
If one observes the content of the dialogues of the Seon masters that were adopted for gongan, there were no special forms or rules. Gongan such as “a dried shit stick,” “the cypress in front of the courtyard,” “a dog has no Buddha-nature” etcetera were made in order to show in this present here and now the original sites of the mind of people. Doing so was “direct pointing at the mind of humans, seeing the nature and becoming Buddha.”
Seon Masters who had an experience of enlightenment used various methods to awaken the students to this original mind. Here the concrete locality that deeply confronted the master and student was animated, and with that special location as a background, this exceptional method that transcends all the conventional everyday life appears through the particular words and deeds of the Seon master that come out of the world of awakening. To the students who asked, “What is enlightenment?” or “What the hell is the mind?” Seon Master Linji would shout, “Ah” and Seon Master Deshan would strike with a staff. It is here that the lively Seon style of ‘Linji’s shout’ and ‘Deshan’s staff’ was first unfolded. Because a monk asked Zhaozhou, “What is the mind?” he said, “Have a cup of tea.” Such actions, bringing awakening on the spot, were to Seon Masters everyday actions.
Ever since Seon Master Dahui systematized Ganhwa Seon in the Song Dynasty, Seon practitioners, under the direction of their teachers, selected one of the many gongan and investigated it. Therefore it is proper that the Seon practitioners of today also receive a selection of one of the 1,700 gongan from their teacher.
If so, can only these 1,700 gongan become genuine hwadu? In the past, practitioners of Ganhwa Seon made and studied as gongan, i.e. hwadu, the contents of scriptures or the words and deeds of the patriarchal teachers as revealed in their recorded sayings. Moreover, the Seon masters of Ganhwa Seon also made gongans from those parts where they fully revealed their own opinions of the words of preceding Seon masters. If one reads the recorded sayings of Seon masters, the teachers frequently displayed sections where they critically evaluated the words of the Buddhas and patriarchs, but when they left it just as those words said, or were not denials of these person’s words or critical of them, they were offering them up as another gongan.
There are people today who advocate the necessity of having new gongan to suit the current age. However, as gongan are not understood through language or knowledge, there are no bad gongan that are separated from good gongan. And so a clear-eyed lineage master can examine the peculiarities of modern people and present a new gongan that will cut off the paths of language and thought.
But one must not think in terms of “the gongan of the past are inferior and the new gongan are superior.” This means it is wrong to think in terms of old gongan and new gongan, and that each gongan is appropriate only to that age. Today, purely for the reason only that it is old, it is unfortunate for one to evaluate lowly and unreasonably the gongan of the remarkably perfect teachers of the past.