Living with a Contemporary Koan

Remembering Here&Now

Maneesha writes the questions for the Zen series: a way for her to learn what a koan is…

After the discourses on Zarathustra, Osho returned to discourses solely based on our questions. Though they were very popular – based as they were on our growth, our meditation, our relationships and so on – I favoured the discourses based on passages from certain books, such as Zarathustra, sutras, or Zen anecdotes.

As question-asker, in the discourses based only on our questions – of which Osho might respond to half a dozen or so in the course of one discourse – I was required to stay constantly alert to Osho’s nearing the end of his response to one question, and to ready myself, inside, to pick up the next question from the little pile in front of me and to read it out. That constant awareness around the structure of the discourse, and the need to move out from my silence in order to articulate the question, meant that I needed to stay aware all the time. Staying conscious of what Osho was saying and picking up on the modulations in his voice enabled me to gauge when he was nearing the end of the question. Yet I didn’t want to make that a tension, didn’t want to become an uptight little figure, face pinched with worry, sitting anxiously in front of him. How to manage that became in itself a meditation – moving into the delicious depths to which Osho’s voice was beckoning me and, now and then, surfacing, to check if he were about to finish his response. If he wasn’t, like a fish I’d turn tail and return to the depths. It seemed that, with each re-immersion, I was plunged even deeper.


By contrast, the sutra-based discourses were an opportunity to disappear inside, with no need to ‘come up for air,’ for one to two hours at a time. Not that I wafted off into dreams or sleep. Sitting directly in front of Osho, who was just feet away, meant that I was very aware of his presence, and that was a wonderful anchor to stay present to him all the time.

In May 1988, Osho’s caretaker, Nirvano (formerly Vivek) told me that Osho would like to recommence talking on the Zen masters (on whom he’d spoken in ‘Pune 1’ – in the 1970’s and ‘80’s), and that I should look through the many books on Zen in his library and find anecdotes from them. I enjoyed the opportunity to do that, and by the time that the first series, ‘Live Zen’, was to start, I had prepared several days’ worth of anecdotes in advance.

However, just hours before the first discourse I received a second message from Osho: I should make up a question for him to answer after he had commented on the anecdote. I was stunned. Almost all the stories about the goings-on of the Zen masters and their disciples were totally enigmatic to me. For example, one anecdote read:

Hofuko said, “There is a man now passing behind the Buddha Hall, and he knows this is Tom, this is Dick, or this is Harry. There is a man passing before the Buddha Hall. Somehow or other he sees nothing and nobody. Tell me, where is the profit and loss of Buddhism?”

A monk said, “Because he distinguishes things badly, it means he can’t see.”

Hofuko said, “Kwatz!” Then he said, “If this is the Buddha Hall, he can’t see.”

The monk said, “If it wasn’t the Buddha Hall, he could see all right!”

Hofuko said, “It is just because of the Buddha Hall that he can see anything.”

Osho, Zen: Solitary Bird, The Cuckoo of the Forest

What was I to make of that? Yet, later, Osho would comment that it was a “profound sutra… a beautiful, very significant dialogue,” and proceed to deliver a breathtaking discourse on it.

My work was to compose a question to follow the anecdote. Obviously, questions are about something you don’t understand. But to even formulate a question presupposes you understand something; you understand enough to know that you don’t understand everything about it. But where could I begin: I didn’t understand anything at all!

I had to create a question about the anecdote before Osho explained it to us. It couldn’t be too obvious a question because Osho would have explained the anecdote to us before he came to my question. So, I reasoned, I needed to read the anecdote, decipher some meaning in it, gauge what Osho might say about it, and then formulate a related-but-not-too-obvious question! Talk about a Zen Koan!

During these Zen talks Osho would remind us that Zen is beyond words, beyond the mind and any mental comprehension; that it is only concerned with the existential. Zen is the answer – but not to any question that the mind might manufacture.

He related numerous stories of Zen monks being given koans by their masters – questions such as ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ Those monks had to search within themselves for a response that was not intellectual but came from their real understanding. Those monks had to find the answer to their master’s question. My master was giving me the answer every day – and I had to find the question!

I saw Zen as a slippery, blubber-like, amorphous creature that the fingers of my mind would frantically claw at, trying somehow to get a grip – if only long enough to feel something about the nature of the beast. Its texture, a corner here, a bump there, a ledge, a right angle – anything that gave it a feature about which I could then concoct some semblance of a question.

When I was not thinking of questions for discourse I was musing about what Osho was doing in giving me this daily exercise. Why was he asking me to ask questions about the unquestionable? Why was he bothering to answer my questions when he was simultaneously reminding us that while our questions might be one, the answer is one: meditation.

Out of curiosity I asked a friend, Devageet, what he thought. “It’s as if he is putting your questions on the palm of his hand and then just blowing them away with one puff, like dandelion fluff!” Yes, that’s exactly what Osho seemed to be doing. But why?

“I’ve run out of questions!” I wailed to Amrito, Osho’s doctor, just eight weeks – and fifty-six questions – into the Zen series. “I’ll have to tell Osho I can’t make up anymore! And besides, what’s the point of making up questions when Zen’s got nothing to do with words?”

“While you’ve got a mind and you’re not enlightened you must have questions…” he pointed out. “And yes, Osho is telling us that Zen is beyond questions but clearly he wants to play this game of question-and-answer with you, so just play it!”

Numerous sannyasins would tell me that my questions were often an exact reflection of their own; someone said I was the vox populi for fellow seekers. That might or might not have been so, but there was no doubt in me that Osho was also working directly on me. Of course, I could always have asked him what he was up to. But that would have spoilt the game and, anyway, I wanted to keep trying to work it out for myself.

I would go to sleep each night with the last thought in my mind: “You’ve got to find a question for discourse tomorrow!” And as I woke each morning, before I was even conscious that I’d begun thinking, like a presence standing there, the thought would quietly but firmly repeat: “You have to find a question!”

Osho in discourse

A question always would emerge, sometimes even two or three. Some of them were quite long because I’d include how far I’d got with my reasoning. For example, in one I asked:

“You speak so highly of the Zen masters, their ingenious and yet simple methods, and the innocence of the kind of people who could become realized through them. Yet while I sometimes see you as a Zen master, I would not say your approach is characteristic of theirs. Is that because the kind of people you have are too cerebral, are so much out of contact with innocence and spontaneity? Or is it that you have a different understanding of what is most effective…or both?”

Osho, This, This, a Thousand Times This: The Very Essence of Zen

Finding questions was not just an academic exercise. Whatever other purpose there might be behind the question-asking, one thing I knew for certain: my questions would expose something about me, and Osho would not hesitate to comment on what they revealed about me if I needed to hear it. He always explained that he was “more interested in the questioner than the questions” and I did not want to hide from him. At the same time, I approached each discourse with a little trepidation, wondering in what way my question might prove to be an arena in which I was parading my unconsciousness.

Text by Maneesha (first published in Osho News)

When Maneesha joined Osho News she asked Punya what she should write about. The immediate suggestion which popped up was: “How was it to sit in front of Osho and read the questions? I would have been scared stiff.” The answer to this became a series of articles which we have published during our first year. Here are the links to all of them:

13 – Osho Making Fun of our Seriousness
12 – Women’s Jealousy
11 – The Barbarous Mind
10 – The Bursting of the Boil
9 – The Device
8 – An Old Sinner
7 – Living with a Contemporary Koan
6 – The Irreplaceable Melody
5 – The Incomparable Privilege
4 – Our Final Questions
3 – The Whispered Transmission
2 – An Experiment: Mind Over Matter
1 – Reading the Questions to Osho: How It All Started

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