A Story about Koans and Stories on the Solstice

A Story about Koans and Stories on the Solstice December 22, 2011

Sunset on planet Earth at Latitude:N 45° 6′ 17.1126″ Longitude:W 93° 1′ 40.0865″ (White Bear, MN) at 4:35 on the Solstice, with the sun setting at 237 degrees SW (the last according to the compass app on my iPhone so subject to user error).

This is the longest night of the year and a night we humans – at least our relatives who moved significantly north and south from the equator – have probably told some long stories on this night and got a long delicious sleep too.

Stories have been on my mind lately, informed by the koan process, and recently we kicked it around in the teacher group I meet with once or twice a month.

As a koan student moves through the Mu series, the Miscellaneous Koans, and into the Gateless Gate and other collections, there’s an increasing depth and subtlety to the stories that convey the koan, the truth-happening point.

Koans, of course, are not stories although they are embedded stories, carried by stories, lived through stories. To work through a koan, we’re called to enter the koan completely and make it alive by embodying all the various aspects of it.

Another set of stories that have piqued my interest lately are our self-told stories, our stories of betrayal and suffering, fear and inadequacy, joy and possibility. One important application from koan work is how to live these self-told stories and the possibility to be free within the story.

“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 distance ourself from ourself and so betray our life. When we touch the fire of suffering of the stories, identify with the story, we sometimes get burned. So what is right?

One way is to enter the story fully, as a participant and creator. Then the story is not happening to us. We are free within the confines of the predicament of our lives, right within the “He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me” of it all (as the Dhammapada has it) as we might be a koan.

This being the koan, being the self-told story, is a bit different than identifying with the story. When we say we are identifying with a personal story, it seems to me that we are taking a passive position and allowing the story to have it’s way with us. “You insulted me!” And then losing our freedom of response so losing our temper, for example.

The koan way is more affirmative. Whatever has happened in the life story is a passage and we have the great opportunity to respond, for example, receiving the “You-bald-ass-bitch” comment of an angry kid and play. “I am a bald ass bitch so please treat me kindly.”

We then get to write the next line of the story. We can also invite other characters 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.

May we all – stories telling stories – sleep well.


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