Koan Confessions #4

Note: See the previous two posts for confessions #1-3 of 8.

Confession #4: Koan Zen is generally more effective at developing the initial breakthrough, especially for non-monastics.

The mu insight turned out to be very familiar. I’d had numerous tastes of it through just-sitting Zen. Just-sitting students, obviously, also have kensho experiences. Now that I’m working with koan students, I’ve seen several who have done just-sitting for decades move through mu and the checking questions with inspiring ease.

What makes koan Zen different is not that koan Zen students alone have kensho. What makes it different is that the koan innovators developed a system for what happens after a person has wedged open the world of enlightenment – they’ve given us more wedges. This is something that Katagiri Roshi, as a just-sitting master, didn’t have in his tool bag. Training before and after breakthrough for a just-sitting practitioner is the same. And in that sameness is the flavor of the just-sitting school.

The koan process, though, is strikingly modern pedagogically while the just-sitting process is not. In my day job, I’m an education administrator. I see in koan training a couple of elements that are in line with contemporary educational best practice, the power of which are supported by lots of research. First, in koan training, the process is upside down. Instead of beginning with an explanation, we begin with a problem and are left largely to our own devices to resolve it. This is known as the “flipped classroom.”

Second, we now know that optimal learning occurs when there are frequent assessments that inform the teacher whether the immediate learning objective has been attained or specifically how the student is off track. For example, the student’s response to “What is mu?” contains a wealth of information that the koan teacher can utilize to help the student wake up. Regular face-to-face encounters between teacher and student provide the opportunity for the many checking questions and miscellaneous koans, serving as what educators call “in-the-moment assessments” or “formative assessments.”

In just-sitting Zen, there are no best-practice standards that define enlightenment or for checking an insight (or nongaining idea) to see if it is really the practical joke of Zen.

Although there are many virtues to the just-sitting non-methodology, this is a major weakness, especially for students (almost all of us) who are not engaged in monastic practice and so do not have the opportunity for frequent formative interaction with teachers and the community.

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

    There is a danger in koan study too: student and teacher may both forget that the much larger point is how you are living. And what you are doing when you encounter the obstacles of koan study. In other words, the teacher is not there to teach you, but there as a spiritual friend who can nudge you back on the path when you stray to one side or the other.

    • doshoport

      Thanks Jeanne,
      I’m not suggesting here that koan study is free from negatives – and thanks for bringing one up so clearly. The realization of any koan in dokusan is just the beginning of practice, not the end.

    • stevehar

      Hi Nancy good point. I’m thinking you and I may have gone to University in the “hero at the front of the room” lecture mode of learning. Lately Flipped classroom, Action based learning, Peer learning seem more 21st Century.
      For example Eric Mazur…

      IN 1990, after seven years of teaching at Harvard, Eric Mazur, now Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics, was delivering clear, polished lectures and demonstrations and getting high student evaluations for his introductory Physics 11 course, populated mainly by premed and engineering students who were successfully solving complicated problems. Then he discovered that his success as a teacher “was a complete illusion, a house of cards.”
      The epiphany came via…see http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/03/twilight-of-the-lecture

  • http://nyoho.com Koun Franz


    To me, the depth of the shikantaza school has always been that there is no experience so great that we would not just let it go and make room for the next, nothing not immediately open to being transcended. I’m struck by your comment that Katagiri-roshi didn’t have these “wedges” in his “tool bag”–I think for many people, completely letting go of a powerful opening and making room for the next moment is exponentially more difficult than finding ways of holding to that experience and its ramifications.

    What is enlightenment, in the context of these posts? Is it an experience? I know in asking that it’s a terrible question to ask, but I get the sense that you are leaning towards enlightenment as something felt, rather than something inescapable. I’d be interested to hear you say more about that.


    • doshoport

      Thank you again for your comments and questions, Koun. It seems to me that you represent the contemporary Soto school’s orthodox position very well (no offense intended!).

      From my limited experience, I’d say that there’s nothing in your first sentence that isn’t also in line with koan work. Well … I might rephrase “not immediately open to being transcended” as “not immediately open to be radically immanented” (although that isn’t recognized as a word – I think it oughta be).

      And my statement wasn’t fair to my late teacher so I apologize. He had the wedge of constant letting go. The koan system adds a powerful context and narrative in which that work can occur, a context and narrative that generally seems lacking outside the monastic context in just-sitting lines, imv.

      What is enlightenment? You devil you! Actualizing the issue at hand, of course – not a particle (experience), not a wave (nonexperience), not both, not neither.

      More technically speaking, the definition of enlightenment is the koan process itself. Sound familiar?!

      Here’s Dogen’s definition from Eiheikoroku 72:
      [Dogen] said: Right now brother monks, is there someone who has attained it?
      At that time a monk arose and made prostrations.
      The teacher [Dogen] said, “This is what it is, only it’s not yet [abiding] there.”
      The monk asked, “What is there to attain?”
      The teacher [Dogen] said, “Truly I know that you have not attained it.”
      Then the teacher [Dogen] said: How is the person who has attained?
      After a pause [Dogen] said: Body and mind are upright and direct, the voice is strong.

      Thanks again for helping me bring what I’m trying to say out more clearly, I hope,

      • http://nyoho.com Koun Franz


        I confess, I’m a bit uncomfortable “representing the contemporary Soto school’s orthodox position.” Of course, I’d like to think I take a wide view of things, but also, I’m not sure what is specifically contemporary about it. As you know, Dogen spoke of “enlightenment” in two very different ways. One was as awakening (悟), something bigger-than-life, experienced, momentary. The other, which I would say is really the foundation of much of his teaching, was verification (証), as in practice-verification, or “practice and enlightenment are one and the same.” I’m very interested in any attempt to try to rectify these two enlightenments–I think you’re working toward that end in your most recent post. That’s exciting. But I also think it’s legitimate to understand them as two separate things, two different faces of the practice–not opposed, necessarily, but also not synonymous. I think it’s very, very difficult to talk about things like “kensho,” “openings,” or “verification by a teacher” without falling into the language of awakening (which is why I asked the horrible question). Even just as an exercise, I’m interested in hearing further how we can frame koan study in terms of practice-verification.

        Thank you. This is fun.