“Basically, a straight hook seeks fish that turn away from life.”
~The Book of Serenity, Case 18, Hongzhi’s verse

I want to make a confession: in working with students on hundreds of koans over some years, I have developed a few favorites in the curriculum. And I also have a couple that I have struggled a bit to embrace. One of the koans I have come to deeply appreciate for its warmth and humanity is the well-known “Dizang’s Intimate” from The Book of Serenity. Dizang asks Fayan, “Where are you going?” Fayan replies, “Around on pilgrimage.” Dizang asks, “What is the purpose of your pilgrimage?” Fayan responds, “I don’t know.” Dizang tells him, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Another foundational koan, which I enjoy for its inclusiveness and freedom, is “Zhao Zhou’s Dog.” Though Zhou often said “No” when asked the question of a dog’s nature, sometimes he replied “Yes.” A monk asked Zhou, “Does a dog have Buddha Nature, or not?” Zhou replied: “Yes.” The monk then asked, “Since it does, why has it jumped into that skin bag?” “Even though he knows better,” Zhou replied, ”he can’t help but transgress.”

In contrast, one of my least favorites has been the above “straight hook” koan, which is in Pacific Zen’s Miscellaneous collection. Ironically, it is found as the second line in the appreciatory verse by Hongzhi, one of the greatest Chan poets of his era, attached to “Zhao Zhou’s Dog.” The koan “No”, as we call it, is hugely important to our curriculum. So I asked myself, basically, why have I been “turning away” from the straight hook?

There is a delightful story behind this poetic reference in The Book of Serenity: King Wen of Zhao was out hunting and saw Jiang Ziya, an exiled court official, fishing in the valley of the Bowl River. Ziya was sitting three feet from the water, dangling a straight hook in the air. The king asked, “How can you catch a fish with a straight hook?” Ziya replied, “I only seek fish who turn away from life.” I think the bit I did not like about the koan was “turn away from life.” Koan work, for me, is the strongest affirmation of life, the deepest turning toward life. Humor then intervened.

A few weeks ago, I began working with a friend on the koan, and mumbled something about it not being my favorite; fortunately, she did not care what I thought of the koan, and just plunged into it. She wrote: “Soooooo. I am intrigued by the ‘straight hook’ koan… Having so much fun. So apropos to our time and people getting hooked by conspiracy theories and false information. People who turn away from reality into the delusional world of make believe…after all, a straight hook can’t catch any fish unless they want to get ‘hooked’….that is where I got so far…loving it. D.”

I sent D. the back story of the fisherman sitting three feet from the river, with the comment, “I guess we all are totally nuts.” For some reason, when she read that, the koan kind of broke open for her. She jumped up in her office, dancing and laughing loudly with joy. “Fabulous!!!”, she wrote back. Hmm, I thought, maybe there is something to this koan.

I was speaking with another friend, who has long been familiar with the straight hook, and he said, “If someone is really turning toward the dharma, then a straight hook is more than enough to catch them.” I liked that. Both the utter impossibility and the absolute certainty of realizing the Way.

With these exchanges, for me, the koan has become about all of us together fishing on the Bowl River. Barbed hook, no hook, straight hook; the absurdity and yet the beauty of the act of fishing is enduring for me. So no more mumbling about the straight hook. It’s time to move onto the next un-favorite in our curriculum: “One hair goes through many holes.” That one is still a head scratcher for me.