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.

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