Thursday, November 13, 2008


When it comes to Zen practice, I’m not an advocate of following formulas. In Zen, there is no standard operating procedure, no how-to-do-it.

However, the distinguished translator of Asian philosophy, Thomas Cleary, suggests, in his book Unlocking the Zen Koan, an exceptional five-step way to reading a koan. It isn’t a magic recipe, it isn’t a sure-fire formula, and it sure isn’t a shortcut to enlightenment.

It is one way.

To quote Cleary, “. . . Zen texts need to be read several times, in different states of mind, to achieve the degrees of absorption and penetration required to produce the optimum effect.”

He goes on to note that koans do not open up to a logical approach, or to analytical methods of understanding.

Here, in a truncated form, are Cleary’s five steps to reading a Zen koan.

1. Read no more than one or two koans at a time. Include the accompanying verses, but do not read any explanations. Read quickly, avoiding the tendency to read between the lines. No matter how tempting, do not predict, or anticipate, or criticize.

2. Read the same koans again, staying focused on the present. Let your mind mirror what comes to you, without drawing any conclusions or making any judgments.

3. Read the koans again. This time read the interpretations. However, avoid agreeing or disagreeing with what ever is written. Keep an open mind, and let everything sink into it.

4. Repeat Step 3. Yes, read the koans again without puzzling over them or second-guessing.

5. Now read the koans and their interpretations once more, this time more slowly. Without trying to make sense of any thoughts, try to intuitively grasp the essence of the koans. Do not force anything. Relax, mentally and physically.

This process may work for you. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. It’s worth a try.

* * * *

At this point in my talk someone asked, “What’s the point of working with a koan?”

That is a reasonable question. But why not ask what the meaning of existing is.

Does there need to be a reason, a rationale, or a motive?

My answer was that—if nothing else—the five-step exercise might help train us to avoid bending logic and making snap judgments in order to reach an answer.

Maybe there is no answer to working with a koan. Maybe there is no point. Maybe the “doing” is reason enough.

Someone else asked me to give an example of a koan, so I quoted a favorite of Keido Fukushima, Abbot of Kyoto’s Tofukuji Monastery.

“Two men are walking together when rain starts falling. One man is wet, the other isn’t. Why not?”

Everyone smiled and thought for a moment.

Finally someone asked, “Are you going to give us the answer?”

“No,” I said. “My answer is my answer. You must find your own answer.”

And that is the point of Zen.


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