Koan Confessions #2 and #3

Note: This is the second of a series that I call my koan confessions. It is a “coming out” of sorts in that I share my views about just-sitting Zen and koan Zen (labels I prefer to Rinzai and Soto because there’s so much variation within Rinzai and Soto that the terms don’t distinguish sufficiently).

Specifically, I’m taking a stand in favor of kensho – something that is frowned upon these days in many just-sitting lineages. I confess that this is the most controversial of my confessions.

This and other views expressed here may be familiar to regular readers, so please forgive the redundancy and drama. #2 starts off where #1 left off so it’ll make the most sense if you read #1, “No,” first. It can be found by scrolling to the previous post or clicking here.

Comments are welcome.

Confession #2: Yes, kensho is an important moment in the Zen-life process.

Kensho is actualizing the fundamental point and is neither ugly nor evil. Koan Zen insists on kensho as the pre-requisite for the practice-enlightenment life project. If we haven’t even tasted the appetizer, what is it that we’ll actualize? Might just be practicing delusion.

Further, to enact zazen as the ritual of enlightenment, as is vogue these days in some just-sitting circles, is fine – “You are making the initial, partial excursions about the frontiers, but are still somewhat deficient in the vital path of total emancipation,” as Dogen said.

And despite his current reputation, I believe that Katagiri Roshi would agree (if that matters to you). In Returning to Silence, p.108 (yes, like in the number of delusions), he says, “The experience of enlightenment is important for us, but it is not enough. Again and again that enlightenment must become more profound, until it penetrates our skin, muscle, and bone.”

Koan introspection begins with the student taking up a breakthrough koan and then making the breakthrough more and more profound.

Most commonly the first koan is the Mu koan (“Does a dog have buddha nature?” “Mu” or “No”). “What is the sound of the single hand?” Or “Who hears?” also do nicely.

Some students work for years on this first koan. Often this work is frustrating, humiliating and exasperating as our old issues come into play. “I’m not good enough.” “I’m not smart enough.” “I’m not dedicated enough.” “Zen sucks.”

One sincere student studying Mu  recently related a conversation to me that he’d had with his wife. He was unhappy with her lack of support for his koan work, “You don’t understand how difficult it is not to get this,” he’d told her, hoping for sympathy. She was not moved.

But my student was right. It is difficult not to get it. It takes quite a strain to not get mu and that strain often boils into a crisis, upsetting a stable and numb life. And that’s part of the point. The simple question, “What is Mu?” can send a Mu student running from the room.

While avoiding Mu, most of us try to understand koans intellectually. Fortunately, though, that won’t do. If koans were simply about speculative thinking, then koan Zen would have little to offer and it would have been wiped off the face of the earth long ago.

Another avoidance tactic is to use metaphorical thinking as if mu koan was a piece of literature to unpack. Fortunately, though, koans are essentially not metaphors. On the other hand, koans also are not about belittling thinking. Understanding helps contextualize this work. However, if we are to satisfy our hunger through Zen practice, something much more intimate and powerful than philosophical understanding or metaphorical thinking is necessary.

If our usual way of resolving problems is not sufficient, what is?

Confession #3: There is no recipe.

One of the virtues of koan introspection is how it calls for us to be creative and free – within the context of the koan at hand.

In my own koan work, lots of zazen has been essential. Sometimes I focus on the key parts of a koan in zazen. Sometimes the koan seems to have a life of it’s own, a virus in the software, and bubbles up from my belly without effort or contrivance. Sometimes I sleep with the koan, calling the koan to heart just as I’m falling to sleep or I roll around with it in the middle of a middle-age sleepless night.

For some people, in the heat of a crisis, mu has become a single word prayer and suddenly the separate world collapses and mu becomes radiantly clear.

In my case, I struggled (on and off and on again with a couple different teachers) with mu for ten years. Then late one night during sesshin, in the heart of silence, a truck came roaring up the road and around the bend about a quarter mile from the monastery. Mu did me and was suddenly vividly clear. I went to the teacher during the next morning’s dokusan, did the customary bows, leapt into seiza and presented mu. He smiled and then calmly started the checking questions. I passed through several but they got funnier and funnier and finally I burst into laughter. In my exhilaration, the whole checking thing seemed hilarious.

After I sobered up, I came back to it.

Restraining the Nevertheless Deluded One: Vine of Obstacles Turns Two
Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
The Way of Tenderness: the Form and Emptiness of Race, Sexuality, and Gender
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
  • http://bodhiarmour.blogspot.com/ Harry

    Great posts, Dosho (this one and the last in particular).

    Congrats, and (not for the first time) ‘see you in Soto Hell’… (if nothing else it’ll be nice to go there and finally meet that Dogen fella) :-)



    • doshoport

      Hanging out in hell with you and Dogen … doesn’t sound like hell at all! Imagine the arguments we would have.
      Good to hear from you,

  • http://nyoho.com Koun Franz


    Thank you for this series. It’s a valuable look into “the other side.”

    My sense, from everything I’ve ever read or heard about koan Zen, is that taking up Mu (or any other koan) with the intensity it deserves requires a kind of hair-on-fire sense of urgency. In your experience, where does that urgency come from? Can someone choose to cultivate it, and if they did choose to do so, what would be the reason? Coming from the “just-sitting” world (we need a better term there, by the way–something’s broken if the just sitting school is just about sitting), I feel that I understand the hair-on-fire urgency of brushing my teeth, or of walking, or of “just sitting.” However, there’s nothing about Mu that gets me worked up, not at all. Put another way, it doesn’t feel to me like something that needs solving.

    Is it mostly about the teacher? How does one light that fire?


    • doshoport

      My short response (may pocket this one for a post) is that there must be some interest, even a little, and then enter the stream of mu and the work with a good teacher will help fan the little flame. Mostly, though, it is through saying “no.”
      Koun, in Dogen study do you find hair-on-fire-ness?
      He’s working this same koan all the time, imv, so that sense of inquiry would be this.

      • http://nyoho.com Koun Franz


        Thank you. Your “short response” makes perfect sense to me. I, too, in talking about entering Zen practice, tell people that they need only find it remotely compelling as a prerequisite. I find koan study and that tradition more than remotely compelling, so maybe that’s enough. I think I understand what you’re saying about “no” as well, and yes, that seems right.

        But from other responses, here and via email, I’m thinking that perhaps I was unskillful in asking what I really wanted to ask. I did not intend to ask a question about arousing bodhi mind, though I see how, in a koan context, that can be related to what I’m asking (that said, it would never occur to me to think that bodhi mind would _necessarily_ be drawn to formal koan study). Instead, I’m trying to get at how someone takes up a particular, traditional koan with the urgency and intensity required to make that a meaningful inquiry. Dogen’s hair was very much on fire, but the central koan of his life, ultimately, was one that grew organically out of his experience; perhaps at one level it’s all the same, but on day one, I don’t think that the genjo koan and mu are the same thing, or even of the same category.

        I’m asking because I suspect that countless people have entered the practice you describe with the same sense of distance that I do, and have somehow found a way in from there. I can almost imagine that if one believes that enlightenment is an experience to be obtained, then one could take on faith that confronting Mu might be the way to do it, then jump in head first. But if one starts out with no such idea, no working assumption that practice (or life) is measured by a series of openings, then how to apply spiritual dedication to this new dedication to Mu? I know as I’m writing this that I’m probably over-conceptualizing koan study, making it too abstract. But for someone with no interest in the question of Mu, how to generate that interest?

        Thank you for these posts.


        • doshoport

          Thank you for your comment and questions, Koun.
          I agree that bodhi mind would not necessarily be drawn to koan study, although it is one path to pursue. The “pursuit” of Mu must simply be the pursuit of what is true, not for an experience even to save yourself or others either, as D-z says in “Points to Watch….” I also think it a misrepresentation of koan work generally to say that it’s about experience chasing. This is something the koan student just has to get over. As long as the practitioner is engaged in such grasping, Mu will not advance and confirm the self, nor will any koan be clarified. The system is designed to tease out, expose, and release all such grasping.
          As such, imv, Genjokoan and Mu are not at all different. Just different words pointing to the investigation of dharma. What is Mu? is What is the issue at hand? What is the hum of the frig, the feel of the key board, the movement of delusion?
          Warm regards

          • http://nyoho.com Koun Franz


            I certainly didn’t mean, in this set of comments at least, to represent the view of the just-sitting school, just my own limitations. Also, for the record, I agree from the start that authentic koan study would/should not be about experience chasing; I only meant to say that experience-chasing mind probably finds an easy attraction to koan study.

            As for whether or not you’re presenting a balanced view, I think you can’t win. As someone in a Soto lineage practicing koans, you find yourself in the position of defending that choice, but if you were a Rinzai guy, there would be nothing to defend in the first place. No doubt plenty of confirmed Soto folks are reading and re-reading your posts looking for the hint that koans are great, but still a step down from shikantaza. You can’t win.

            I would love to have this conversation with you in person. I’ve told you about my one experience of koan study. The koan was presented to me as a problem, but I didn’t see the problem. I felt I was being asked to manufacture one, which made the entire exchange (on my side) feel disingenuous. That’s what I’m struggling with here. The term “self satisfied” came up in an email we both received about this, but to me, if anything, it just felt frustrating. As I’ve said, I find this whole huge side of the tradition genuinely compelling. I just have trouble seeing the door.

            Thank you for this series.


  • http://dalaigrandma.blogspot.com Jeanne Desy

    Koun Franz – For me, knowing how wretchedly miserable I was set my hair on fire. I practiced so intensely in my early years, up to and past kensho; then I began koan work and made myself miserable again.

    I think it’s Gil Fronsdal who has written that we really need to be with our suffering, to see it, to be motivated. For a long time, my motivation was a purely personal desire to suffer (much) less. It has been a lot of work to move int0 wanting to not do harm in the world. To do that, I’ve learned, you need to be aware of what you are doing and saying. And probably do and say less.

  • Gary


  • Oreb

    Thought this was just beautiful (recent talk by John Tarrant):


    Somehow that’s really where shikantaza and koan practice meet. Not a problem to begin with even.

  • Mark Ostrander

    All of a sudden
    a large fish leaps
    out of the water
    catches a bug in mid air
    and than splash
    it’s gone.