Note: Here’s the conclusion of my koan confessions, starting with a real confession – I’m a half-baked potato. I encourage you to also view Koun’s comments for Confessions 2 and 3-4, presenting the view of the just-sitting school. I have heard from some off-line that these aren’t really balanced, that I don’t present the virtues of the just-sitting approach or the weaknesses of the koan approach – a fair criticism. I’ll get around to that sometime.
For now, I’ll be around for a little bit but I’m into sesshin soon so if you post a comment and don’t see it published, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I trashed it.
Confession #5: I’m a half-baked potato and the work is never done.
The koans assigned to students following breakthrough are ingeniously designed to break open and break apart the breakthrough by revealing what’s missing, what’s being held, inviting the practitioner to see more and more clearly, and more importantly, to actualize the koan at hand – the infinite aspects of mu – more and more thoroughly.
Koans are also the folklore of Zen, as one koan teacher said. However, within each koan is one or more truth-happening points that distinguish koan from the broader genre of folklore. Furthermore, as a koan student moves through the checking questions for mu, the Miscellaneous Koans, and into the Gateless Gate and other collections, there’s an increasing subtlety in the stories that convey the koan.
Most koans are embedded in stories, carried by stories, lived through stories. To work through a koan, we’re called to enter the koan and make it alive by embodying the central koan points. By becoming the koan we take on the narrative of the koan and include the narrative of the koan in our own life narrative, our self-told stories, including stories of betrayal and suffering, fear and inadequacy, joy and possibility.
One practical and powerful application of koan work is that in living our self-told stories we also find the possibility to be free within our stories, how to be fulfilled in the midst of our hunger.
How? “Turning away and touching,” says the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, “are both wrong for it is like a massive fire.”
When we turn away from our own life stories, even through the development of witness consciousness, we split ourself off from another ourself and so betray ourselves in a very unsatisfying way. When we touch the fire of suffering, we take a passive position and allow the story to have it’s way with us. This partial-identifying with the story leads to burning our finger, misusing the fire.
What is right?
The koan way as I understand it is to enter the story fully, as a participant and a creator, so that the story is neither something that we’re observing from the outside, nor is it something that is happening to us. We are free within the predicaments of our lives, right within the “He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me” (as the Dhammapada has it) of it all, as we might be in a koan.
We then get to go on with our story. We invite all the many beings to create the story together with us, bringing it all to life, not to avoid or repress the sufferings or joys of life but to embody it all. Kensho, then, isn’t something we have, it’s something we do.
Confession #6: Kensho is not magic.
Delusion has a wonderful way of reconstituting so it is the koan student’s responsibility and delightful opportunity to continue enlightening moment after moment, interaction after interaction. It is the koan teacher’s responsibility to collaborate with the student’s innermost request and insist on full aliveness.
In this way, koan Zen is just like just-sitting Zen. It is about practicing enlightenment, or “kensho-ing.” The fruit of both processes is to become a like ripe persimmon, completely willing to fall from the tree and go, “Splat!”
Koan work has been a wonderful gift in my life and I’m very grateful to all the teachers who’ve helped me along the way, especially the Boundless Way crew. However, if you think that realizing a koan will clear your complexion forever, that you’ll never have another conflict with your lover, and that you’ll always feel just the way you imagine an enlightened person feeling, you are very likely to be disappointed.
Confession #7: Koan work isn’t for everyone.
Koan work may be wonderful but that doesn’t mean it is the best practice for you. If you have strong faith that you are exactly Buddha, just-sitting Zen may be more appropriate. Speculative types might do best with following the breath. Whatever type you are, if your life is a mess, it’s better to get your self together before tackling Mu.
On the other hand, if you are a greed type, hungry for it all, or an angry type, desperate for the truth and unwilling to accept what wise people tell you, resolved come hell-or-high water to realize the great matter of birth and death for yourself, then find a koan teacher, someone you can at least tolerate some of the time, and get to work. Our time is limited and the opportunity to play with Buddha in the Zen way will likely slip away.
Confession #8: This work is not about you or me.
The helpless ones of the future depend on us to keep the buddhadharma alive so that they too will have a life raft in the unimaginably difficult times that may lie ahead, with the unfolding of the post-oil world characterized by global warming, financial meltdowns and unknown challenges.
I’ve staked my life on the belief that through spiritual practice can we live lives that take up the most essential concerns, and can report that resolution is possible. That’s the good news of the Buddha’s Third Truth – the cessation of suffering. This also invites what might sound like bad news if you’re looking for a magic cure-all – the Fourth Noble Truth and Eightfold Path.
But I hope you won’t take my word for it or be comforted by a story about koans. They are somebody else’s story, unless they’re realized, digested, and creatively presented for this entire great big blue dumpling world.