Monday, November 12, 2012


Anyone who is familiar with the practice of Zen knows something about koans. I say “something” because if you think you know all about koans you probably think you know too much.

          So, for a few moments erase your mind about the concept of the koan and listen up. Maybe you’ll pick up something new.

          One definition of the word “koan” tags it as a word, story, dialogue, question, or statement that is used in Zen practice to test a student’s practice. Here are three examples.

          A word: Mu.
          A question: What is the sound of one hand?
          A statement: Make that fencepost one with everything.

          For most individuals any or all of the above may sound nutty. For most individuals they would evoke a “Huh?” or a “What the hell?” And, sorry to say, for many Zen students they would evoke the same response.

That may be because most individuals believe a koan is some sort of trick question, or it has deeply hidden meanings, or it has a blueprint answer.

          Many books claim to interpret koans. You know the kinds that say “This is what Mu really means.” Such books are best avoided. They are for lazy individuals who want quick and dirty answers to life.

Some other books inventory classical Zen koans and give wild guesses about their meanings.

One book is different:The Blue Cliff Record . It’s a translation of a collection of a hundred koans from the teachings of twelfth century Chinese masters. It contains biographical information about the masters as well as remarks and observations.

It does not give answers.

          Perhaps the best edition of The Blue Cliff Record is the thick volume of almost 650 pages translated by Thomas Cleary and J.C. Cleary.

          In another Cleary book—Unlocking the Zen Koan—the author suggests a five-step way to reading a koan.

Note, I said reading, not understanding. The book isn’t a magic how-to. It is a nudge in a good direction.

          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 condensed form, are Cleary’s five steps in reading a Zen koan.

1.       Read no more than one or two koans at a time. Include any accompanying verses, but do not read any explanations. Read quickly, avoiding the tendency to examine 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.

*     *     *     *

You may ask, “What’s the point of working with a koan?”

That’s 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 is that—if nothing else—the five-step exercise might help train one 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.

A contemporary koan was presented by 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?”

Once when I gave this koan everyone smiled and thought for a moment.

Finally I was 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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