Monday, July 18, 2016



          Youngsters never own up that they learn things from their parents. I learned a lot from mine, but I didn’t realize it—or was willing to admit to it—until I many years later

From my mother I gained an appreciation of nature and a feeling for self-sufficiency. From my father I gained a sense of humor and an appreciation for paradox.

My dad never sat me down and said “Now think this, or figure that out.” Instead he made up brainteasers that often seemed nonsense, but they had the effect of delighting, challenging, and more often than not enlightening my juvenile mind.

          For example, there’s the conundrum that asks: How do you get down off an elephant?

The response: You don’t get down off an elephant, you get down off a duck.

          With my then-short memory I bit on that one more than once. It was often followed by another poser that could have made a perfect koan because it had no answer.

          Why is a bicycle?

          The response, or a response: Too hot to carry your lunch.

          Move that enigma over to Zen and you have the subject of tonight’s talk.

          Why is a koan?

          I owe the inspiration for what follows to Dad, who was a refrigeration engineer, a welder, and a bartender, and to Thomas Cleary, who is a master translator of Taoist and Buddhist texts.

          First off, what is a koan? A koan has been defined variously as:

1.                  A baffling formulation that points to ultimate truth (Philip Kapleau).

2.                 A story or question given to monks by their masters to discipline them and to test their understanding of Zen (Gyomay Kubose),

3.                 A means of opening a student’s intuitive mind (Nancy Wilson Ross).

4.                 A paradoxical question of existence (Deshimaru Roshi).

5.                 A problem to be solved (D. T. Suzuki).

          The koan was developed in China more than a thousand years ago as a sort of sharpening tool used to put a finely honed edge on awareness.

          Cleary mentions that Zen teachers used koans to test the insight of Zen seekers, and Zen seekers used koans to evaluate Zen teachers. Koans thus became a sort of doorway that looks in opposite directions.

          Koans are sometimes thought of as puzzles, but a puzzle implies a solution or a defining answer. A koan doesn’t have a specific answer, and because of this most people’s minds find koans frustrating.

You can’t pick a koan apart. A koan will not yield to logic or reason.

Rather than thinking of the koan as a riddle, or an exercise in logic, think of it as a means for revealing the inborn potential of the human intellect. Think of it as an awakening experience. Once a person is able to cut through rational thought and do away with a diagnostic approach a koan becomes perfectly clear.

          To quote Cleary (in Unlocking the Zen Koan): “Zen awakening liberates the mind from the limitations and burdens of narrow views, dogmatic assumptions, and circular thinking habits.”

          Koans are commonly used in Rinzai Zen, less frequently in Soto Zen though Soto doesn’t put down the use of koans.

Rinzai uses koans in conjunction with meditation to open the mental barriers, whereas Soto throws the burden entirely onto the individual in his or her zazen practice.

          Which is better, Soto or Rinzai? Koan or shikantaza?

          That’s a koan in itself.

          Which is better, to walk five miles or to bicycle five miles?

          It all depends on the individual who is doing the traveling.

          When most people come across their first koan they are baffled. Confused. Even frustrated. This happens even to Rinzai practitioners.

          Most people can’t make any sense out of a question such as ”What is Buddha?”

          Even less comprehensible is one response. “The very mind is Buddha.”

          And if an individual does gain some insight into that query and reply, the next one blows his or her mind altogether:

          “What is Buddha?”

          “Not mind, not Buddha.”

          How can that possibly be construed?

          It can’t, so don’t worry about it.

                   Koans can be useful in practicing zazen as well as in practicing mindfulness. Since zazen and mindfulness are one and the same this is like saying the length of a piece of string is twice the distance from one end to the middle.

                   Koan inquiry is a fascinating, and enlightening, discipline. But before we get into some suggestions for koan study I want to point out that koans are not like detective novels or short stories. You don’t read them for entertainment, then toss them aside. You need to look at koans three or four times. Or more

        We Westerners are a pragmatic lot. We want to  be led. We like things presented in orderly fashion. So as a Westerner speaking to Westerners, here is a no-nonsense way to deal with koans.

1.     Read a koan, or a couple of koans, without assigning any explanations or interpretations, and without looking at any commentaries. Avoid analyzing or deciphering. Just read carefully and attentively. Don’t worry if you don’t understand. Just read, and let the words sink into your mind.

2.    A few hours, or a day, later read the koan or koans again. Again, only the koans themselves. This time if you find yourself trying to decipher, bring your mind to the immediate present.

3.    Again read the koan or koans. But now also read the commentaries. If your mind starts to wander, bring it back to the present.

4.    Go back to the first step and read only the koan. Now let your mind grasp the concept.

Thomas Cleary recommends calling a koan to mind whenever you realize you’ve forgotten about it, and whenever you find your mind wandering. This is excellent advice. It helps train the mind to be calm and free, and to focus on one thing at a time.

All this may help to clarify a koan. Still, there are no guarantees, no thirty-day warranties with a money-back pledge.

Why is a koan?

You’re on your own.


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