On Zen Koans

On Zen Koans March 31, 2007

An old friend who is a UU minister, an old hand at Buddhist meditation mainly within the Vipassana tradition, and has slowly become a meditation teacher, wrote me with an interesting question. A colleague of hers, someone in a similar situation, who leads a meditation program in a women’s prison asked about how appropriate it was to respond to people’s questions about koans.

Koans as you may know are a unique spiritual discipline within the Zen tradition. They are usually framed as curious questions, or seemingly enigmatic anecdotes. Most famous of these here in the West is probably the master Hakuin’s question “What is the sound of the single hand?” often framed as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Another is the brief anecdote how a student of the Way comes to master Zhaozhaou and asks, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” to which the ancient worthy responds, “No.”

Once one begins a Buddhist meditation practice here in the West it appears inevitably one will encounter koans. Therefore it’s not weird that these incarcerated women will have heard of koans and begun to wonder what they are and how they might be useful. And from there to ask how to begin and under what circumstances?

The rub is there are very few people competent to teach with them in the “classical” way, that is as a specific spiritual discipline, particularly in the manner developed in Japan with its set of many hundreds of cases, each to be explored together intimately with a teacher as a means of directly intuiting one’s true nature and then ever more deepening that experience. Even among those who have been formally authorized as Zen teachers and priests, those qualified to teach in this manner are very few, a small subset of the whole. In fact a distinction has begun to emerge of studying under the guidance of a Zen teacher who isn’t a formally acknowledged koan master as “koan study,” generally accomplished through reading as well as in discussions with the teacher and in small groups. And the term “koan introspection” being reserved for the practice with a koan master.

So, what to say?

You might say: Don’t worry about it, work with what you have. The real practice is presence. So, the call to “sit down, shut up, and pay attention” or its more traditional formulation, “sit down and become Buddha” (now there’s a koan don’t you think?) is really all you need. Koans can be something extra, a false hope that something out there will give one the fix. Here’s a secret: One doesn’t need either koan introspection or even koan study to get what one needs.

But, if the desire is more than idle curiosity, or putting off the real work; if one suspects this practice might truly be one’s own, then what? The truth is we’re all in prisons of one sort or another. These women are simply in a more obvious version of our common condition. A suitable teacher is almost always too far away, retreats are too costly in time if not money, life keeps pushing in, the constraints are all around, and it seems impossible to formally take on koans as the burning question of our lives.

And still the desire continues. The stories compel. They hint, the wink, a finger curls and draws one in. Then, if it’s the hunger for knowing who we really are, well then prison shouldn’t be the limitation. Actually prison won’t be. Nor, for that matter, should the absence of a formally qualified teacher.

My primary Zen teacher John Tarrant is the author of one of my favorite Zen books, Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul and the Spiritual Life. It is dense, dark, lyrical and all about the fundamental matter that is our lives. But most people who know of John are more taken with something else he wrote: Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans to Bring You Joy. (Click here for some blurbs.) He chooses a completely different style for this book than is found in Light Inside the Dark. It’s all about invitation. In some ways Rhinoceros is an invitation to formal and traditional practice. But that’s not immediately obvious because it is also an invitation to take up the practice right where you are, as who you are, here, and now.

And that’s where I think we should find a response to the question.

Begin where you are.

The problem only comes when people think they’ve got it, whether they’re the student or the person introducing the practice. To get the best possible out of this discipline one needs to take one’s answers to a teacher who has formally walked the way and who has been authorized to guide people on this way.

But that’s not always possible.

What is always possible is the practice. So, take up the practice, ask the question, which ever of them resonates with your heart, calls you to deep inquiry, and invites you to the mystery.

That’s my response.

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