THE ZEN PRACTICE OF KOAN INTROSPECTION
A Dharma Talk
at Empty Moon Zen‘s
Inaugural Zoom Sesshin
20 March 2021
Maureen Myokan Weinhardt
Senior Dharma Teacher
Empty Moon Zen
Elder Ting asked Lin Chi, “What is the great meaning of the Buddhist Teaching?”
Chi came down off his meditation seat, grabbed and held Ting, gave him a slap, and then pushed him away. Ting stood there motionless. A monk standing by said, “Elder Ting, why do you not bow?” Just as Ting bowed, he suddenly was greatly enlightened.
Case 32 from the Blue Cliff Record: Elder Ting Stands Motionless.
Hello. My name is Mo Weinhardt, and I’m a Senior Dharma Teacher with Empty Moon Zen. Today, we’re going to explore koan practice together.
I wonder – how many times have we been Elder Ting in our lives? That we asked about or sought something of tremendous personal importance, and were stunned motionless by something we did not expect? Why on earth did Lin Chi grab, slap, and push him like that?! Is that how Zen teachers are supposed to behave, pushing elders around??
Welcome to the mysterious and often confounding world of koans.
If you’ve never heard of koan introspection or studied koans before, the word comes from the Chinese gong-an, which translates as “public case,” as in a legal document. Koans are a variety of documented questions or interactions between Zen masters and students over the centuries that each point to something important along the Zen way. They’re typically presented as short stories or anecdotes that some understand as “particularly thorny questions.” I myself am drawn to Robert Aitken’s suggestion that a koan is a “matter to be made clear” — a tool that helps us see through delusion, and experience the fundamental truth of form and emptiness — not one, not two.
Koan introspection, contrary to some popular beliefs, has deep roots in Soto Zen as well as the Rinzai tradition. In my experience koan study is a profound complement to zazen, or seated meditation. These practices deeply enhance one another, and allow us to sit with a question or story that in many ways takes on a life and character of its own.
The quote from Hashimoto Eko Roshi that James presented as a koan on Thursday evening in the opening words to this sesshin is a short and sweet example of this: Sit down. Become Buddha.
By dropping a koan in the mind and just letting it be, surprising thoughts, feelings, and associations come up. We are invited to play with it, to turn it over and around and upside down in order to experience the words from every conceivable perspective.
Sit down. Become Buddha.
Often a koan will begin to simmer in my consciousness, quietly bubbling in the backburner of my mind. Much like a great soup or broth, over some indeterminate amount of time the excess evaporates; flavors meld, insights flash, and this short, unassuming anecdote — or in the case of Thursday’s koan, a declarative invitation — somehow manages to permeate my practice.
We often say that we’re working with a koan, but the truth is that koans actually work on us. The most helpful thing we can do is get out of our own way; stop trying to control it or figure out some kind of “answer” with our intellect — and instead, to surrender. Surrender to groundless ground; to a fundamental stance of not knowing. Holding the koan with openness, curiosity, and patience.
Sounds nice, right? Easier said than done. To be honest, it frequently doesn’t go that way at all. Sometimes, the simmering broth analogy feels like complete bullshit. Koan practice includes the entire beautiful, terrible mess — including the full spectrum of our own reactions and emotions. Sometimes there are no insights; only a cement wall of seemingly impenetrable stuckness that I just bang my head against over and over and over. Koans often (& intentionally) make no sense to the rational mind. This regularly drives people bananas. It is far more complex than the notion of some delightful insight soup; koan study is also frustration. Anger. Heartbreak. Self-doubt. Discouragement. Defeat. It is intimacy with all of this and more.
Much like zazen, to practice koans is to practice with the very vicissitudes of our minds — and that ain’t always pleasant. But Zen has never been about being comfortable, or taking the easy way out; if anything, it is a practice of becoming more comfortable with, or at least more curious about, our discomfort. Our dis-ease. That which makes us suffer, again and again and again.
Koans are entry points into the vital, dynamic experience of just this. But don’t be fooled — the words itself are not it. Wumen Huikai, the early 13th-century Zen Master who compiled and commentated The Gateless Gate (also known as the Mumonkan in Japanese) — a central work used in Empty Moon’s Harada-Yasutani koan curriculum — Wumen put it succinctly in one of his verses:
“Words do not convey the fact… Attached to words, your life is lost; blocked by phrases, you are bewildered.”
Words. Are. Not. It. And yet, as practitioners, teachers and students, we use a stupid amount of them in order to try to learn from one another and express our understanding. (This dharma talk is an hilarious example of exactly that). The words are like millions of fingers, all pointing to the moon — but be careful not to mistake the fingers for being the moon.
There’s a stark difference between the knowledge of something, and the experience of something. In fact, it is the distance between heaven and earth.
It reminds me of a scene from the movie Good Will Hunting, where a therapist named Sean, played by Robin Williams, is talking to this cocky, arrogant young genius named Will, played by Matt Damon. The surrounding context of the movie doesn’t matter here; what matters is what Sean says to Will while sitting on a park bench together one afternoon after a hurtful confrontation. To paraphrase, he says:
“Will, If I asked you about art you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations… But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.
You’re a tough kid. I ask you about war, and you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more into the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap and watched him gasp his last breath, looking to you for help.
And if I asked you about love you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a person and been totally vulnerable, knowing they could level you with their eyes.”
The difference between knowledge and experience is the distance between heaven and earth. And koan introspection is an explicit invitation into a direct experience of not one, not two.
The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor lays it out beautifully: “We must each drink the water for ourselves and know whether it is cool or warm.”
All of these myriad ‘matters to be made clear’ invite us into sincere intimacy. Not intellectual knowledge, but a genuine encounter with the Dharma. Words and concepts cannot hope to encapsulate a lived experience of boundlessness.
Sit down. Become Buddha.
Importantly, Koan study should not happen in a vacuum, but through engaging with our teachers and truly showing up in dokusan.
When a student and teacher come together, eyebrows to eyebrows, genuinely meet one another and “tussle”, in a sense — this is profoundly illuminating. This opportunity to play directly with form and emptiness, to bump, poke, and prod one another’s understanding of the fundamental matter — this is precious.
As Zen students, we are often told to seek out Zen teachers — to “show them how our mind works and ask for their teaching,” as it says in the chant, Days Like Lightning by Taego Bou. And this is precisely what koan practice enables. Even if it might appear as though you’re interacting with a teacher in dokusan, in truth, you’re face to face with a reflection of yourself. What do you notice? What is revealed?
I have had the privilege of practicing koan introspection with many teachers who have supported my practice along the way — most notably, for the last 12 years with our guiding teacher, James Myoun Ford Roshi. In this time I have learned many lessons — some invigorating, some painful — 3 of which I’d like to share with you today.
The first lesson is resilience. Particularly as a younger Mo, (though this is still true today), I wanted to “get things right”. I’m not a fan of making mistakes – who is? Koans, however, do not work like that. They are meant to help us cut through delusion, and break free of dualistic thinking.
This practice is not about checking the boxes and seeing how many cases we can pass and collect under our belts. In fact, it has been my regular and ongoing failure to pass koans over the years, getting stuck in all sorts of infuriating places and ways, that has helped disabuse me of the ridiculous notion that I need to be perfect – my clinging to feeling smart, or clever, or any number of other adjectives that I’ve used to prop myself up over the years.
I have discovered great liberation through my failures — a true freedom to fail, falling flat on my face again and again. (I know, I’m really selling the whole koan thing, aren’t I?)
Really though, this is a practice where holding the case with open hands is far more potent than trying to find “the answer”. In fact, I’ve often found that I can’t find responses — they have to find me, and I have to be open to being found. The koan needs time to work me over. Resilience doesn’t come easily. It comes from our egos getting knocked down repeatedly, and having the determination to continue standing back up, taking the next small step. It’s embracing the journey instead of obsessing over some imagined destination of attainment or enlightenment. It’s learning to appreciate the struggle, because it’s the struggle that brings growth and meaning to what we do.
The second lesson I’ve learned has been how to see my blindspots a bit more clearly. Koan practice regularly reveals where I’m stuck, things I’m taking for granted, assumptions I’m making, or what in my life I’m clinging to or avoiding. These stories bring me nose to nose with my own ego; with my knowing, rational, emotional mind that constantly wants certainty and validation.
In my experience, Zen is not about overcoming or overpowering the ego — it never goes away, nor does it need to. The goal is to see through the ego, so it doesn’t slip by unseen, quietly pulling the strings. Koan practice is a tool that helps draw these blindspots out into the light of awareness, that we might do something when we notice old habits of thought or action arising.
For me, I mentioned one of these blindspots in my first lesson about resilience — I hadn’t realized how much feeling smart and doing things right had been a foundational part of my identity and self-image until I came face-to-face with it through practice. Slowly, slowly, the combination of zazen and koan study has helped to smooth out some of my (very) rough edges, over time eroding the foundations of my dualistic mind — breaking down the barriers I’ve constructed between self and other, helping them to become a little less solid and a little more porous. Helping me to become a little more open-hearted.
Sit down. Become Buddha.
The third lesson I’ll share here is playfulness. Learning to work with teachers, to dance more freely between the relative and the absolute, to experiment, fail forward, trust myself, and have fun with my approach to koans (and also to life) — this has been invaluable. How often have we been like Elder Ting, stiff, motionless, and unable to respond to the unexpected? Too tightly wound, or stuck in our heads trying to think our way out? Playfulness comes from loosening up, meeting the moment, whatever it might bring, and not being consumed by the need to “get it right”.
Koans provide a unique training ground for strengthening these skills, continually poking and prodding our evolving understanding of the fundamental matter so we might better see through delusion in the midst of activity.
Whether or not you choose to engage in formal koan practice, the true ‘matter to be made clear’ comes down to the stuff of our ordinary, extraordinary, everyday lives. Sometimes those matters are gentle invitations; sometimes they are cold slaps to the face.
Either way, our practice is ever before us: to pay attention; to bow; to turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
Just this is the Buddha appearing to us, finding ways to free us from our own attachments — the very ones that have made us suffer, again and again and again. But words alone can only take us so far.
Elder Ting asked Lin Chi, “What is the great meaning of the Buddhist Teaching?”
Chi came down off his meditation seat, grabbed and held Ting, gave him a slap, and then pushed him away. Ting stood there motionless. A monk standing by said, “Elder Ting, why do you not bow?”
Bodhisattvas, why don’t we bow.