More on Koans and Who Gets to Comment

My last post seemed to rile some folks up, as did the Old Monkey Mind in a related effort to be clear and gentle, it seems to me. James Ford is a much nicer person than I, btw, much more developed too, and it shows in many ways including the genteel generosity of his words.

Despite our careful consideration – oh, how we suffer (wink, wink) – “some” Soto Zen teachers got rather huffy and puffy about owning a share of the koan literature and the right to definitive commentary. Koans in Zen circles seem like money, sex, and children in relationships – the hot buttons around which conflict springs. They are provocative little buggers, (the koans, that is, not the teachers, just to be clear) so it makes sense to me.

“They’re our teaching stories too,” said one dear friend and Soto teacher off blog while messaging on Facebook, no less, or our make-up phone call afterwards, I don’t remember which. And we’re probably going to need another make-up call after this post.

Well, fair enough, koans are stories for everybody and nobody that I know is saying differently. And that’s the point.

For koan Zen, they’re not only teaching stories. As James cuts the cat, there is koan study and koan introspection. In “study,” koans are stories to be interpreted, sometimes with deep feeling and subtle application of the practice suggestions embedded in the context of the koan. Good stuff. Great dharma talk material. No problem.

This mode of interpretation, btw, may be largely a Western invention as a Japanese-trained priest once told me. Kind of literary interpretation, I think he said, which he’d never heard in a dharma talk in Japan.

In koan introspection, face-to-face presentation of the koan point, the truth happening point, is the point. The face-to-face part is important, it seems to me, and the method of student-meeting-teacher, self-meeting-self, has developed because it so wonderfully suits and even draws out the insights or sets up the accidents and manifestations called for in the koan.

Now from the depths of your Pure Shikantaza you might well have seen through the koan but without the presentation of the koan in face-to-face meeting, who’s to know? Who’s to verify? Who’s kidding who?

After all, koans are essentially relational, as a student said to me recently. Very few are about somebody sitting alone and having the once-and-for-all “Eureka!” moment. The koans themselves are mostly set in the face-to-face context and so of course the koan point is best actualized in that same context – and then generalized to sitting, standing, walking, lying down.

So especially those of us who haven’t undergone that process, yes, please do exercise caution when commenting on koans by noting softly and humbly from time-to-time, showing tenderness and inadequacy, the true “don’t-know-mind,” that there might be a meaning and dimension to koan that we have not yet fathomed. Certainly true for me.

This caution (as I said, dear, in my last post if you read the dang thing before getting all defensive), is always a good idea for all of us, yes, including me. I am, after all, sitting here and talking to myself and I hardly know what I’m saying so don’t listen to me and think this is definitive in any way. I’m just a “this and that,” zig-zag, poorly trained, working-class white kid from the swamps of northern Minnesota, mostly self-educated, bumbling along making quite a mess of this life, trying to make sense of it all, hammering nails in empty space, despite the obvious futility of that endeavor.

So your thoughts are welcome.

BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
Zenshin Tim Buckley Dies: One Heartbeat, Ten Thousand Buddhas
The Way of Tenderness: the Form and Emptiness of Race, Sexuality, and Gender
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
  • Lynette Genju Monteiro

    I have absolutely no authority to speak on this.

    I’m going to anyway because we are obliged to give sound to authoritative speech. In anthropological terms (of which I am no expert), authoritative speech is giving voice to the inner truth of our life in the very moment is arises. Think Tibetan shamanic voices (of which I am no expert).

    What I am trained to do is observe the ways in which we weave our stories; and, we do that by pulling out the threads from the warp and woof of the fabric of our culture. Koans as part of that specific portion of the fabric of our spiritual culture called Zen. It’s a thread – and taken out of the context of the larger weave of the fabric of practice it has neither meaning nor potential to effect transformation.

    In other words, a koan taken out of the context of practice falls back into the ownership of all culturally-based stories such as folk-lore and fairy tales. I suppose in a funny sort of way, if we take a koan out of context it makes Lin-chi, Hakuin, and Dogen the Brothers Grimm, doesn’t it.

    Now truth in lending, I present myself as a koan dropout simply because most teachers I have worked with have accepted answers from me that my professors in Children’s Literature and Myths of Mankind (ok this was in the 70′s) would have drummed me out of the class. It doesn’t concern me who gets to use koans. It concerns me more that the teacher of either ilk is self-aware enough of their own limited understanding which says a lot more about their holding back than about the student. And there are too few of those to actually make koan work – study or introspection – the pivotal training that will bring on the next Axial Age.

    BTW – and this may get your hackles in an twist – I have the same feelings about “counsellors” thinking they can act as “psychologists.” I put both in quotes for good reason because for all of us the real practice is in knowing the boundaries of our competence.

    • Lynette Genju Monteiro

      “Koans as part of that specific portion of the fabric of our spiritual culture called Zen.”

      Koans are a part of that specific portion of the fabric of our spiritual culture called Zen which we pull out to weave into our own personal story of transformation.

  • doshoport


    Nicely, nicely put! Especially the qualifiers!

    Just curious, with the teachers you worked with, even if they accepted something that wasn’t so clear, couldn’t you keep working it?

    I think of the famous story of Dogen and Rujing having a little fight after Dogen’s enlightenment, “Don’t approve of me so quickly!” said the young punk.

    I have the same thing about Zen teachers acting as counselors or psychologists without the training so no hackles at all – for the moment.

    Thanks for your comments.


  • Stephen Slottow

    Well, Robert Aitken called koans the “folklore of Zen.”

    I tried to make a point similar to one of yours in a Monkey Mind comment, where I said that 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.

  • doshoport

    Nicely said too Stephen!

  • Lynette Genju Monteiro


    Not continuing was likely a confluence of my own spiritual immaturity, my oh-so-human need to “be the one in a koan study”, my preconceptions of what a koan study/experience is and some unknowable factors in the teacher’s own development. Now I say that with massive hesitation because it reminds me of a story about a conversation between Gregory Bateson and someone else (Winnicott?). Bateson was asked, “Where’s the relationship between you and me? In you? In me?” Bateson pointed to the space between the two of them. So in answer to your posed “koan” about my relationship with my koan teachers, I would point to the space between.

    iow, it’s not just that koans are relational; we have to localize where in that relational space the waters are frighteningly deep and dive in there. Right there. And there probably wasn’t that clarity of vision in those relationships.

    Zen teachers, counsellors, psychologists, chaplains… we all walk a little piece of Hell where we are in service, don’t we? :-)

  • doshoport

    Well, thank you for your thoughtful response, Genju. Nice found koan with Old Bateson too.

    Dive in and … it’s also good to know where the button is (see below for something forwarded to me today on this point):

    You know where the button is

    During yoga teacher training one of the teachers shared this story:

    There was a research experiment done with two groups of people. In the first group, people were shown into a room and asked to sit at a table with a chair in front of it. The only other thing in the room besides the walls, floor, ceiling and door was an unlabeled button. Participants – one at a time – went into the room. They were told that something would happen. They didn’t know what the something was.

    The lab guy walks out, the door clicks shut and immediately loud, raucous music is piped in. The participant sat there. And sat there. Sometimes they’d look around. They’d cover their ears, and…for as long as the music went, they took it.

    The lab guy comes in, ushers the subject out. The experiment is over.

    “Why didn’t you push the button?”

    “I don’t know. You didn’t tell me what it was for. I wasn’t sure I should touch it.”

    “What if I told you it would have turned the music off?”

    “Well, I’d have pushed it right away, of course!”

    Participant after participant, same story.

    Second group. As they’re ushered in, each person is told the purpose of the button.

    Each time the music started up, the subject stood up, walked over to the wall, and pushed the button. Without fail, every time.

    “Why’d you push the button?”

    “Why wouldn’t I? You told me what it was for!”


    Our teacher explained that beginner yoga students needed reminders, “you can take a break whenever you need.” “Come out of any posture and rest whenever.” “You can leave the class at anytime to use the restroom.” Later on, years into practice, a practitioner will know what she’s needing and come out on her own. Later still, she’ll know there’s no separation between herself and the music, but that’s many years in.

    We were reminded to let students know – especially beginner students – where the button is.

  • Oreb

    With fences put up like this the zen tradition kind of dies IMO. If your studies have given you insight greater than that of others, show it in how you act, talk and spar (I’m a great fan of Dosho so I mean this generally) – especially when it comes to the koans themselves. Not many koans involve a master saying the questioner lacks proper qualification, though the questioner might get beaten up for sure. Better a broken bone or humbled by superior insight than told to respect the bureaucracy. Also, the Harada-Yasutani curriculum though beautiful the parts I’ve seen is not the only way. The Kwan Um school use koans in a freer way, and it seems your grand-teacher John Tarrant too (have studied a little in the two first, not met the latter). Also, to me (I’ll skip the disclaimer hah! :) Dogen seems to be the ultimate in using koans in a way that is neither academic study nor one-pointed presentation.

    So: dazzle (and pleasure) everyone with your superior jazz rather than tell them they should stick to their classical music.

  • doshoport

    Yes, Oreb, I agree. Well, at least about the “how you act” part. That’s the point where all the traditions come together, no?

    As for the different lines and how they work with koan, there seems to be more difference within groups than between, in my experience.

    I’m wondering what you mean about Dogen’s presentation not being one-pointed. Certainly seems so to me. Can you give an example?



    • Oreb

      “I’m wondering what you mean about Dogen’s presentation not being one-pointed. Certainly seems so to me. Can you give an example?”

      A trap! :)

      Do you think e.g. the “One Bright Pearl” chapter from the Shobogenzo is the same way of presenting the koan as you would in dokusan? To me it seems Dogen moves freely between numerous levels and approaches – obviously with a deep familiarity with the “bodily” (embodied?) way of presenting it – but not in the academic meta way but intimate. The jazz metaphor is great. Couldn’t others do this too?

      You could start a whole “well raising my finger thus I present the whole Shobogenzo and all the sutras too so there …” fight of course.

      But what do I know. Also english is not my first language so I probably screw up the nuances quite a bit, hope I don’t offend. Thank you for all that you do Dosho.

  • Nonin Chowaney

    Oh Dosho, I’m sorry that I thought that I, who’ve merely been practicing Shikantaza for over thirty years and have been studying and speaking about our koan literature for almost the same amount of time, came across in our exchange as someone equal to you, who’s been introspecting koans and has arrived at the truer and deeper meaning, which has obviously eluded we poor souls who have not engaged in the deep training that you have. From here on out, when I speak about a koan, I’ll suggest that listeners contact you for the truer and deeper meaning, and when I write about them, I’ll send it to you first for your approval.

    Will that satisfy you?

    Deep bows in reverence,

    Your old friend Nonin

    • doshoport


      Yes that would do nicely. Send money too, please.


  • doshoport


    Hadn’t noticed that English isn’t your first language.

    It be a wonderful day in the dokusan room in either student or teacher seat if we rolled anywhere close to the old boy in one bright pearl!

    The whole “head word” vs. shikantaza business is mostly a distraction and has little or no use in Zen practice, as I see it.



  • Stephen Slottow

    In koan study in the Rinzai and Harada-Yasutani lines, close work with the teacher is important. I finally ran down a quote which has been nagging at the corners of my mind and which puts this very succinctly. It’s from Janwillem van de Wetering’s The Empty Mirror (p.53 in my copy). The place is Daitokuji and the teacher is Oda Sesso, I think.

    ‘Yes,” I said, ‘that’s what I want. Insight.’
    The master looked at me kindly.
    ‘Insight, by itself, is of no significance either. I want you to SHOW me your insight.’

  • doshoport

    Thanks again, Stephen, that puts it succinctly. I also think of an old story, maybe of Aitken Roshi’s of some old master, maybe Oda Sesso, insisting that he had never passed mu – although of course he’d done the whole Rinzai system. That’s the spirit, I’d say.


  • Stephen Slottow

    Aitken Roshi told that story about Maezumi Roshi.

    • doshoport

      Ah, well, the memory isn’t so good. After all, the mind is a terrible thing to waste.

  • http://Treeleaf,BlueMountain Taigu

    It seems to me, Dosho , that you are going down a track that would be similar to a path I could walk on but choose not too: “how many fabric did you dye? How many kesa have you sewn?” After all, in my lineage, sewing and sitting are seen as one.
    Nobody owns Zen, Dosho. An much like you I would say I am trying to make sense of this beautiful mess called life. Your choice to spice up your original training with Koans is yours. Gives me the impression that somehow you still think that there is something to get and you know, deep down, that the real thing can only be lived not owned.

    Of course we work with koans. Life. People. Situations as well as stories. As well as the greatest koan, shikantaza, the womb and mother of all.

    The space in between people is indeed the only possible space.
    When one wakes up to Koku, getting hold of one s nose is easy and joyful.
    Yours, mine. Clowns.

    So this bunch of huffy and puffy Soto trained priests will do what they always do.
    Without your permission or blessing.
    Anyway you have got mine for doing everything you do ( and everything you write, for I am a silent reader of your prose and admirer of your journey), because it is your life, and I have to right to measure it with mine.

    By the way send me money too. I realised I am too cheap! You could also send a robe sewn with you bare hands. It is cold here, countless sentient beings would gladly accept it.

    Thank you anyway.



    • doshoport

      Dear Rev. Taigu,

      Good to hear from you. I agree of course that no one owns Zen. Please forgive me if I somehow communicated that I thought someone did, especially me!

      After Katagiri Roshi died, I looked around for another shikantaza teacher to play with but didn’t find anybody that interested me. I then picked up the koan bug and have been in and out of it for 20 years. Even back when Roshi was alive, the traditionalist view of shikantaza and koan being different and never the ‘twane shall meet didn’t seem right to me. My continued training and teaching in both shikantaza and koan, shikantaza as koan (as old Katagiri emphasized), etc., has just been a lot of fun.

      I’ve also sewn a few kesa, I believe in almost the same style as you and yours … and our lineages are entangled at least in that way. Of course, we share the same destiny. Passing koans is much like each stitch on the robe. There’s a lot of ‘em so being obsessed with counting reveals something about us. Counting the breath is a similar thing, it seems to me. Haughtiness about how many times we’ve counted breaths to 10 can become a big joke on ourselves! Same with koan. There’s finger traps built into the process to expose our greediness.

      Now, dear venerable, if sewing and sitting are one, why not sitting and koan?

      As for counting and measuring the passage of koans, I quote here from somebody who left a comment over on the Sweeping Zen version of this blog that really captures the spirit of the process well, I think:

      “Having been through a bit more than half of the Harada-Yasutani koan syllabus ‘face to face’ with one none too generous teacher, my feelings are this: Pure shikantaza or fierce koan training— they are both equally right. In the koan training I’ve had, the dokusan process of constant rejection of one’s demonstrations by a good teacher, does have a burnishing quality. Having that rejection several time a week, being forced to struggle and go ever deeper over a period of days, weeks, even months while working on a single koan, ain’t a bad thing for practice. On the negative side, for varying periods of time depending on the complex teacher\student dynamic, is the ego edifying ‘Gold Star Syndrome’—– passed another koan and boy aren’t I special that reeks to high heaven. The point being that it is the passing of the koans themselves that brings the deep, usually well hidden, arrogance right to the surface. And then it’s exposed, again and again. And you eat the humility of that exposure morning, noon and night. That’s training.
      The irony here for me is that I’ve known so many strong Soto practitioners who don’t suffer from that arrogance. Who practice with a simple dedication, attention, devotion, purity and love— at the non-gaining\ non-attaining zero point of shikantaza. And that Empty Field, where there’s nothing to get at all, is the destination for either discipline, merely by different roads. What’s the point of it all anyway, if not love and a tender heart?”

      Palms together,


  • http://Treeleaf,BlueMountain Taigu

    a mistake, on should read : I have no right to measure.

    Tank you for correcting it.



    • doshoport

      Don’t think I can edit your earlier comment … and didn’t notice it until you pointed it out!

  • Jundo Cohen


    Oh, Dosho. Dosho wrote:

    In koan introspection, face-to-face presentation of the koan point, the truth happening point, is the point. …

    Now from the depths of your Pure Shikantaza you might well have seen through the koan but without the presentation of the koan in face-to-face meeting, who’s to know? Who’s to verify?

    In my view, when a student really really really REALLY ‘grocks’ a koan, it is not simply a matter of a moment’s phrase (or silence) in a room, a gesture, a shout, a facial expression, some wise written words … though it may be any and all of that. I salute anyone who wishes to express the Koans and their understanding this way … but I am really not so interested in a moment’s interaction in a small room (no matter how much it expresses what is beyond time or place or dimension).

    Rather, in my viewless view, what is much more vital (I am sure for you too, Dosho) is the “total” package of how the person seems to be applying, internalizing, externalizing and no-inside-outside-izing the Wisdom and Compassion of the Koan (and all Buddhist Teachings) where the “rubber meets the road” of their day to day life. If they “grocked” it … it is obvious they “grocked” it … through their words and actions.

    When the student understands the teacher (usually) knows … and moreover, when the student understands the student knows. Really really REALLY knows …beyond all thought of teacher vs. student. How does the teacher know? Much as a doctor just knows when his patient is healing and feeling right just by observing the student’s attitude to life, vigorous actions and healthy complexion (no blood test in Zen, I am afraid, but the doctor nonetheless knows what’s in the marrow). How does the student know? Much as a patient knows when he is cured of illness and returned to health, his fever broken. One knows.

    It is not a matter of the ways, methods and interpretations of any one school or lineage within a school.

    Gassho, Jundo

    • doshoport

      Dear Rev. Jundo,

      Yes, certainly how we live is the point. Not only for ourselves, but for the many beings and the truth itself. The usual Soto criticism of koan Zen as misguidedly focused on kensho experience or presentation in the sanzen/dokusan room (although these are legitimate criticisms and reflect a shadow side of the practice), doesn’t fit with my experience – generally. All of the koans are about actualizing the fundamental point. Living the dream.

      In your criticisms of work in the room, I think you underestimate the power of face-to-face meeting for application in daily life. In the student seat, there have been quite a few times that a little thing like a gesture made a big difference for me long term.

      I do agree that when a koan is thoroughly grokked, it does not depend on verification from anybody because the person is verified by the 10,000 things. But then why not meet with a teacher and play? Dogen did with Rujing, after all, and so many of our ancestors also so why not half-baked potatoes like us? Well … me at least.

      There is another point here too. Sometimes the most thoroughly grokked answer isn’t accepted as “correct.” Really funny. Sometimes the koan student has to be willing to be somewhat shallow and let go of hubris to meet the ancients with a particular koan. The old masters had great senses of humor!

      So the point, it seems to me, is to see eye to eye with the ancients, not necessarily be right or most enlightened and in this way, the koan system cultivates flexibility, nonself, and letting go of even the viewless view. Sometimes rolling in form, sometimes rolling in emptiness.

      Didn’t the old boy say, “When our body mind is not yet fully permeated by the Dharma, we feel that the Dharma is already sufficient. If the Dharma fills our body mind, we feel that something is missing.”



  • http://JustThis( alan

    So could we say “Koan study” is about KNOWLEDGE and “koan Introspection” is about INCARNATION?

    Just a thought from a REALLY don’t know mind!


    • doshoport


      Thank you. An interesting point, taking the conversation into more Christian terminology, perhaps, but a fitting translation, it seems to me.


  • Harry

    Funny, the whole Soto/Rinzai/shikantaza/koan thing is sort of like a koan.

    Interesting to see what people are presenting on it.

    Regards to all,


  • Carol

    Hi Dosho — Talking about sewing reminded me of a sewing koan that goes something like this:

    A monk was sitting and sewing. A second monk came along and asked, “What’s it like?” The sewing monk replied, “One stitch follows another.” The second monk said, “Ah! So that’s how it is for you.” The sewing monk said, “Yes, how is it for you?” The second monk replied, “With each stitch the whole world is ablaze.”

    My old teacher gave me that koan when I was suddenly moved to start sewing about six months after I took up koan introspection with him. One reason I love that koan is because both monks seem genuinely interested in and appreciative of how it is for the other one.

    • doshoport


      That’s a new one for me! Thanks.


  • Harry

    Hi Folks,

    The sewing koan is in Shinji Shobogenzo. No. 93, Book 1 of the Nishijima translation:

    When Master Somitsu was sewing, Master Tozan asked: What are you doing?

    Master Somitsu said: I am sewing.

    Master Tozan said: How is your sewing?

    Master Somitsu said: In sewing, almost every stitch is the same.

    Master Tozan said: Even though we have been traveling together for twenty years, is this all you can say? Doesn’t anything else come into it?

    Master Somitsu said: What do you think, Acarya?

    Master Tozan said: The whole earth seems to burst into flames.



    • doshoport

      Thanks! I see it now in Daido’s version – pretty much the same but has “Each stitch follows the other” similar to Carol’s.

      A wonderful life koan, me thinks.


  • Jack Cram

    Hi Dosho,

    You commented:

    “This mode of interpretation, btw, may be largely a Western invention as a Japanese-trained priest once told me. Kind of literary interpretation, I think he said, which he’d never heard in a dharma talk in Japan.”

    I’m a it confused by this because I always assumed the style of commenting on Koans in the Soto tradition came from Dogen himself. Certainly much of Shobogenzo is Dogen commenting Koans. Or am I missing something here?


    • doshoport

      Hi Jack,

      Thanks for the question. Not sure what my friend meant but as he made the comment after I gave a talk on the Wild Fox Koan, he seem to see something different in how I presented the koan and how Dogen might have! There is, of course, quite a different style in Dogen that is inimitable, imv. Still, the suggestion was there was an American-style talk similar to literary commentary that this priest, fluent in Japanese and having spent many years there, hadn’t heard.

      I just ask him and report back.


  • Steve Har

    Wow is what there is to exclaim regarding this dharma thread.

    Like listening to mountain climbers discussing tall peaks, long treks, reliable/unreliable maps, tools treks into the ontological space between no longer and not yet.

    Katagiri said about mountain climbers [RTS 106]…”Let us imagine you are climbing up a mountain cliff. That situation is just like being on the verge of life and death. There is no way to escape, you cannot complain. If you are there, all you have to do is be there. If you act instinctively, you could die. If you are nervous, you could die. Should you depend on the intellect, you could also die. So you have to depend on the mountain, your mind and all circumstances. You have to watch carefully and understand. Your consciousness must be clear and know what is going on there. Then, after using your best understanding, your body and mind should depend on just one step. This is action. This is the process of one step without being nervous about what will happen in the next moment, or thinking about when you will reach the peak, or how far down the bottom is, or who is climbing, or how much farther you can keep going like this, or that…”.

    Who wants to make a spectator scorecards for mountain climbers except by sharing autobiographical journals. Can you compare/contrast in a 400 word essay:
    -Peter Matthiessen searching for Snow Leopards after the death of his wife, and
    -Wade Davis spinning fresh stories from “Into the Silence” prompted by Charlie Rose [ search for Wade Davis] Both are ordinary/extraordinary. What do you notice?

    Carol’s sewing koan is welcome down-to-earth appreciative inquiry with 2 provocative propositions. 1st Monk “Ah! So that’s how it is for you?” 2nd monk: “Yes, how is it for you?” Proposition 1: One needle stitch follows another; Proposition 2: with each stitch the whole world blazes.” Perfect.

    Bateson [Steps to an Ecology of Mind p 185] says this is the zone of play a crucial step in the discovery of map-territory relations. In primary process [ordinary real life] map and territory are equated; in secondary process [reflection], they can be discriminated. In play they are both equated and discriminated.

    So I’m thinking most of the heat of confusion is map and territory error. But in any case what did each of these mountain climber monks see that s/he expressed by bowing? Seeing, expressing and bowing seems to be the fundamental point. Who has words of comment? Please do. The equal question is – who can listen from Silence.

    Personally, these days, I’m sitting restless and long to move, in words I have too many categories full up with muddle-headed clarity. Seems worth the effort, however. Time to get to work and wash my dinner dishes.

    I might watch Charlie Rose again before bed – how he asks Wade Davis such transparent questions! Two dharma bums, is also, a wow…. is a kind of TV dokusan. Makes you want to see Dosho and Jundo live on Web TV. Wonder who has more transparent questions about which mountains.

    • doshoport

      Thanks, Steve, what a summary!

  • 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 an attempt to claim superiority and to claim these stories as “our turf,” no matter how hard one issues disclaimers that this is not so.

    Hands palm-to-palm,


    • doshoport

      Dear Rev. Nonin,

      I respect and honor your long practice of shikantaza and I respect and honor the Soto tradition of shikantaza. The deep settled heart of the Soto school is a rare jewel, unsurpassed, in my experience, in all the schools of the buddhadharma that I’ve encountered on my willy nilly journey.

      I apologize for my inelegant words if I’ve led you to believe that I think otherwise. Perhaps we can agree that it isn’t about deep/shallow or better/worse but just different – in some ways. Each flowering of the dharma has it’s specialty and so there is no need to rank or argue about high and low.

      Although I agree that all who speak about a koan do so from their understanding, I hope that you can find it in your big heart to allow for some efficacy in koan introspection and some respect for the koan introspection process.

      Those who have gone through koan introspection have had their actualization of the koan verified by a teacher who has had it verified, etc., entangling their eyebrows (done differently in nonkoan Soto – but still done – gassho, for example in Roshi’s manner), as it were, with those of the teachers in the past who appear in the koan and with those who have responded to the koan and whose responses are kept alive in dokusan room.

      This experience informs their views and comments. This view might be different sometimes from someone who has thoroughly done shikantaza without the koan introspection process. In the koan tradition, there are quite ingenious methods for actualizing a koan that may well not be discovered by oneself (I didn’t) – like learning to play a piano without a teacher. So, of course, there will sometimes be different perspectives.

      Granted, most commentaries on koans by people who have undergone koan introspection don’t directly express these methods as they are treasures best discovered rather than being told and so koan commentaries are mostly quite useless for a koan student.

      “Disclaimer” seems to strong. I suggest caution for all of us (me too) and, yes, I do think that those who haven’t been trained in koan introspection would best represent the dharma, being humble and self-effacing, by acknowledging that there may be other perspectives on a koan that they have not yet manifested.

      This is true for me. My odd, this-and-that approach to study, has left me with one foot in both worlds, being home in neither “pure” expressions.

      You should hear what I tell my koan friends about their practice forms!

      I look forward to sitting in your room with you and talking until you throw me out about all this sometime soon.

      With love and respect,


  • Nonin Chowaney


    Who gets to comment on a koan? Anyone who wants to!

    Many years ago, Katagiri-roshi spent about a year on Wednesday nights going through every koan in the Blue Cliff Record and commenting on them. You and I were both there for most of these talks. He never practiced koan introspection and when he gave these talks, he never apologized for not having done so. I once asked him what he did when he came across a koan that meant nothing to him. He said that he read it over and over and read the commentaries accompanying it it until something came up, and then, he talked about that. He trusted his own understanding when it came up from a deep place, and so do I.

    I certainly do respect koan introspection as a practice, and I certainly respect “different strokes for different folks.” However, what has not been said directly but lies behind both your and James’s comments on this subject are the following, “No one can truly understand a koan in its deepest sense without practicing koan introspection, “Koan commentaries by those who do not practice koan introspection are useless,” and “One has to have one’s understand of a koan verified by others who share that understanding before it has true merit.” I say “no, not necessarily so” to all of the above.

    You speak of an “unbroken line” of those who have penetrated to the bottom of a particular koan and have verified the understanding of those who come after them. As you know, from studying our own dharma lineage and those of others, that there are gaps in them, and that understanding can jump these gaps if one person’s meshes with another’s, even if they are separated by centuries. Responses to the “public cases (koans)” are kept alive not only in the dokusan room but also in the everyday lives of Zen Buddhist practitioners through the centuries. You’ll probably disagree, but for me the practice of koan introspection as it is done today is a relatively new phenomenon [a (very) few hundred years?]. Our Zen Buddhist practices go all the way back a couple of thousands of years and change. We are all on the same page if we ground ourselves in what is essential, and dokusan rooms, although they are extremely valuable parts of a valuable practice are not the be all and end all as a means of meshing ourselves with the practices and understanding of the Buddhas and ancestors.

    You continue to say that koan introspection is the truest way to penetrate and understand a koan on the deepest level is the truest way to penetrate it. This has not been my experience. No way is the “one true way.”

    You say, “I do think that those who haven’t been trained in koan introspection would best represent the dharma, being humble and self-effacing, by acknowledging that there may be other perspectives on a koan that they have not yet manifested.” Yes, of course; I agree. However, I think that those who have been trained in koan introspection would best represent the dharma by being humble and self-effacing, and by acknowledging that understanding can always be deepened, that there may be other perspectives on a koan that they have not yet manifested, and that no one has the last word on anything.

    Take care and be well, old friend!

    Nine bows,


    • doshoport


      I see that we disagree about a number of points. It also seems to me that in part you’re having a private conversation that I’d like to bow out of.

      I continue to wonder how this might be a more fruitful dialogue and suspect that this medium has worn itself out.



  • Judy

    Excellent discussion.
    I would go even further to say that since all of Life is a koan, we all cannot help but practice “koan introspection” throughout our lives.
    There is wisdom, profundity and deep insight *everywhere*, in everyone and everything.
    No person, place, practice, method or tradition has a monopoly. (not even zen!) (gasp!)
    Makes me think of Suzuki-roshi – “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few”..

  • doshoport

    Good to hear from you, Judy, and thanks for your expansive comment!


  • Jiryu

    To add another perspective to the question of who has the authority to comment, we should note that there are a number of dedicated scholars who have given their lives to the single-minded study of the Buddhadharma who would argue strongly that no one without extensive training in Classical or Buddhist Chinese language can really weigh in on the Zen commentarial tradition with any legitimacy.
    I don’t necessarily agree, but I find it at least as compelling a basis for authority as any of the other training programs around.
    If we were all really being honest with ourselves and committed to not selling short the Dharma, we’d need to borrow some absolute humility from Shinran, and the entirety of our Dharma talks should be nothing but disclaimer.

    • doshoport


      Ah, yes, an angle I hadn’t considered.

      But “…as compelling a basis…” really? We gotta talk.



  • chris

    i chanced upon this thread looking up the second case in the mumonkon (sp?). (today is -6/24/12)

    wow. liked it, the thread. thank you, and…

    the good and bad effect of life circs is but the reflection of your own mind. i could say “one’s”. but i don’t. why?

    who is the enlightened one not subject to causality?

    does buddha mean “transcended one” or “awakened one”?

    does it apply abstractly or to this body and that?

    this psyche and that?

    no comic book heroes here.

    that does not negate the possibility of comic book heroes, merely the presence of them in this experience (presently) (one could clarify till the cows came home.)

    dug all correspondence.

    noticed the limits toward the end. only because the life cycle of the public dialogue was, ha, made public. was the life cycle of each koan correctly recorded? maybe not, if questions are still asked at this date.

    with all respect and appreciation,

  • chris

    that was rather off the cuff….
    obviously this thread doesn’t deal specifically wit the fox, but obviously that’s what i’m turning here.

    anyway, this thread helped a heap.