Honor Among Thieves: A Briefest of Meditations on Engaging Koans, and With Whom

In his most recent post at his Wild Fox blog, Zen teacher Dosho Port (truth in advertising, an old and dear friend) brings up the subject of teaching koans. And, with that, of course, studying them. It sparked some comments. After reading them I thought I might have a word or two that could be useful.

Koans, literally “public case” are unique to the Zen way and are anecdotes, bits of poetry, fragments of conversations that Zen teachers find particularly apt in helping students of the way to open their hearts and minds. Or, as Robert Aitken, one of the great masters of koan Zen in the West would say these koans present points in Zen to be made clear.

What is often not understood outside the Zen community is that the use of koans as a teaching tool means different things among us, mainly two different things. A common way of distinguishing between these two approaches is to speak of one as “koan study” and the other as “koan introspection.”

The former is a term for those who admire the literature and who explore a case informally. When a Zen teacher does this the authority for doing so resides within the insights found over many years of practice. Mostly this means through the practice of shikantaza, silent illumination or just sitting, as well as the attendant disciplines of community, retreat and ritual. Most important for this reflection, it doesn’t necessarily mean a Zen teacher is a koan teacher, trained and authorized to do so.

So, teachers within the Soto lineages for the most part, when they take up koans, it is exclusively in this “study” way. And, as I come from the other perspective, I want, really want to underscore how this approach to koans can be enormously enriching. And, also how the stories belong to all of us within the mahasangha. So, go for it!

And.

Koan introspection is a particular discipline with age old protocols to model us toward specific places recognizable by all koan teachers of any lineage. Here we have specific points to explore, many of them, and there are correct and wrong answers, many of them.

Teachers within Rinzai lineages and some Soto lines that have reclaimed the practice, when they take up koans, it is in this “introspection” way.

Dosho spells all this out succinctly.

He then goes on to raise an issue that is important to those of us who’ve given our lives to koan introspection.

Those of us who follow the koan introspection way on occasion get annoyed with teachers, again, completely authentic teachers, but teachers who’ve not undergone the specific discipline, which takes many, many years, who advertise they’re going to teach, or perhaps more modestly, going to explore a koan or a collection of koans.

We sometimes feel there is a muddying of the waters, and when we’re particularly annoyed, a trivializing of a discipline we’ve given our entire lives to.

Now, as a teacher of koans, I want to assert clearly and unambiguously shikantaza is a complete practice, is in fact the great universal solvent. And if one is going to only do one thing, they should do shikantaza.

So, no knock on teachers of shikantaza.

They can be extremely skillful in the arts of stealing our delusions. Among the thieves of the heart, those expert in stealing away delusions, masters of the way of just sitting are as good as any other teachers on the way. Sometimes better.

Study or introspection, we belong to the same boys and girls club, the Zen way.

And, I, we would appreciate our sisters and brothers who are trained and authorized only in the way of shikantaza, when they choose to explore koans with students, to simply, passingly, note they are doing this on their own dime, based upon their years of practice and love for the way. And, for extra points, it would be nice if this other way was mentioned, if only in passing…

Honor among thieves.

Just the right thing to do…

  • Dokan

    Well said James! Being protective of our practice I think is quite natural, and maybe something that should be let go of. But also being aware that maybe our way isn’t the only way. Whether it’s koan introspection vs study, or shikantaza vs counting breaths. Many ways up the mounting, I’ve heard it said.

    Gassho!

    Dokan

  • http://www.treeleaf.org Jundo Cohen

    Dear James,

    I hope this finds you well.

    You statement is, well, narrow … and fails to take the Koans for the timeless Jewels of Endless Buddhist Wisdom and Compassion which they are, available for all to hear … to pierce.

    This is not right …

    [ “koan study”is ] a term for those who admire the literature and who explore a case informally. When a Zen teacher does this the authority for doing so resides within the insights found over many years of practice. Mostly this means through the practice of shikantaza, silent illumination or just sitting, as well as the attendant disciplines of community, retreat and ritual. Most important for this reflection, it doesn’t necessarily mean a Zen teacher is a koan teacher, trained and authorized to do so.

    So, teachers within the Soto lineages for the most part, when they take up koans, it is exclusively in this “study” way. …

    I, we would appreciate our sisters and brothers who are trained and authorized only in the way of shikantaza, when they choose to explore koans with students, to simply, passingly, note they are doing this on their own dime, based upon their years of practice and love for the way.

    BULL! Even a kind of bigotry!

    Let’s just say that James Ford, when teaching the Koans should warn the public that he is trained and authorized to teach them only in James Ford’s way, and Dosho should warn the public that his is trained only in Dosho’s way … or that since James Ford is Dosho’s teacher, that they are teaching in the Ford-Dosho way (plus in the way of whatever teacher rings their bell) …

    In the end, there is also a way beyond behind and right through-and-through Ford or Dosho or Jundo, me and you and this and that … and such is what is sung in the Koans. One does not merely “admire” the literature, or study them under a microscope, or read them like a high school poetry assignment.

    Rather, we eat them up and the Koans spit us out!

    Here is my video response to Dosho, and to you as well.

    http://www.treeleaf.org/sit-a-long/with-jundo-and-taigu/archives/2012/01/sit-a-long-with-jundo-who-owns-the-koans.html

    Gassho, Jundo Cohen

  • http://mettai.blogspot.com Cherry Zimmer

    In Bring Me The Rhinoceros, John Tarrant talks about spending a lot of time doing koan introspection (lc) without a teacher before meeting Aitken. He seems to suggest that this is OK and can produce meaningful results. Is it alright for a practitioner to be caught by a koan and work with it without the structures?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/ James

    In my opinion, Cherry, one may profit enormously engaging koans without a spiritual director. Let a hundred flowers blossom.

    And, if one is looking to get a handle on what the traditional practice looks like, possibly “The Book of Mu: Essential Writings on Zen’s Most Important Koan” edited by Melissa Blacker and me, or “Sitting With Koans: Essential Writings on the Practice of Koan Study” edited by the late John Daido Loori. Also, a wonderful essay on the subject can be found online, by the scholar practitioner Victor Sogen Hori, as the introduction to his book, “Zen Sand.” You can access a pdf of the introduction here: http://www.thezensite.com/MainPages/koan_studies.html

    Fondest,

    James

  • Geoff Lister

    I worked in sesshin and out for several years with my zen teacher on the koan “mu” and then felt completely trashed by it and dropped it, only to take it up again without the help of a teacher for the last few years. I have found deep nourishment in reading on a frequent basis in different versions of the Mumonkan, especially Robert Aitken’s. Somehow the passing of years helped take the desperate striving out of the koan practice and brought back the mystery and wonder of life. The whole point, seems to me, is that the koans all point to giving up intellectual pondering and pontificating, and getting back to the agony and bliss of living and dying.

  • LAJ

    My sixteen years of working on koans with a teacher has made it clear to me that the koan’s “answer” is not as important as finding out, over and over, what happens when you don’t get what you want.

    Gassho,

    LAJ

  • Desiree

    Possibly we get what we want over and over again every day. We just don’t get what we Think we wanted – usually what we do get is much better. But, thats just me.

  • Stephen Slottow

    I have been listening to Jundo Cohen’s video reply to Dosho Port and James Ford. Two points struck me rather quickly: (1) Jundo says that when one has a taste of the state of clarity in shikantaza all of the koans are clear–there is no doubt. (2) He also uses the phrase “there is no doubt” several other times.
    In Zen it has never been enough to have no doubt. The insight about which one has “no doubt” must be checked out with a competent teacher. Jundo’s core practice is shikantaza, and he has authorization and dharma transmission to teach that. He is a member of a lineage, and has those credentials. However, the particular style of practice currently known as koan introspection, the core practice of the Rinzai and Harada-Yasutani schools (but not of the current Soto sect) is not one which he is authorized to teach. He may study koans and teach koans based on his own insights about which he has no doubt–there is nothing wrong with that–but not a representative of the koan introspection practice and the lineages that focus upon it. The fact is that koan introspection is a valid, powerful, and deep practice of its own. Jundo recognizes shikantaza as a core practice with its own protocols, but does not appear to extend that recognition to koan introspection, which is a different core practice with its own protocols which requires very close work with a qualified teacher in a lineage that focuses on that practice.

    Finally, as a music teacher at a university, in reference to his final statement, yes, jazz, pop, and classical pianists all play the piano–and I have never heard a jazz player tell a classical player that jazz is the “right way” to play the piano, or vice-versa. But jazz and classical are different styles. They have different repertoires and stylistic requirements. Of course, they influence each other and can merge, but they are still different. That’s WHY they can merge! They’re not only the all same (all “good music”). They’re also all different.

  • http://www.treeleaf.org Jundo Cohen

    Hi,

    Just a comment on the above reply by Stephen. I agree with this:

    Jundo’s core practice is shikantaza, and he has authorization and dharma transmission to teach that. He is a member of a lineage, and has those credentials. However, the particular style of practice currently known as koan introspection, the core practice of the Rinzai and Harada-Yasutani schools (but not of the current Soto sect) is not one which he is authorized to teach. He may study koans and teach koans based on his own insights about which he has no doubt–there is nothing wrong with that–but not a representative of the koan introspection practice and the lineages that focus upon it. The fact is that koan introspection is a valid, powerful, and deep practice of its own.

    I do not teach “Koan Introspection”, in the way of the Harada-Yasutani line or otherwise. I appreciate that as a wonderful Path for many people, but it is not my Practice. That is correct.

    However, neither do I Practice anything resembling what James described as “Koan Study”.

    Nor is “Koan Introspection”, whether the Harada-Yasutani approach or any other, the only highway to total intimacy and piercing of the Koans. I believe that, for example, the folks in the Harada-Yasutani way (or James and Dosho’s ways, or others) should take James’ advise and warn people that “doing this on their own dime, based upon their years of practice and love for the way”, offering their vision and interpretations.

    As to “doubt” about the Koans, I have not the slightest doubt … especially about Koans which are about living in a life where we will always have doubt.

    Gassho, Jundo

  • http://heartland@prairiewindzen.org Nonin Chowaney

    When, as a Soto Zen Buddhist teacher who practices shikantaza, I speak about a koan, I do so from my own understanding, which comes from many years of practice and from a deeper place than intellectual cognition, although what I say encompasses all of the above. All who speak about a koan do so from their own understanding, whether it is a result of “intellectual study,” “koan introspection,” “intuition,” “shikantaza practice,” or “reading a book.” I have never felt the need to say how I arrived at my understanding and certainly have never felt the need to issue a disclaimer by saying that it should be regarded as suspect because I don’t practice “koan introspection.” Those who do practice it need to recognize that there are many ways to get to the bottom of things, and that no way is either infallible or the only way. Attempting to claim superiority of understanding by saying that one way is the only way to truly understanding our teaching stories on a deep level is only an attempt to claim superiority.


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