koan konundrums

Koans are interesting, I suppose.  I finally figured that trying to understand how they work is like being pregnant and wanting to know what it’s going to feel like to deliver the baby.  (You gentlemen out there will have to find a gender appropriate metaphor, I fear.)  In my dark and shady past, I was a freelance writer and wrote a cover article on the journey from discovering we were pregnant to discovering Frank was to blame for the pain and agony of delivery.  Truth be known, the article was a itself a cover.  What I really wanted was to know what delivery was going to be like.  So, I approached it with my usual researcher’s mind.  I read, consulted mothers and mothers-to-be, and in that process, discovered that the territory of delivering babies was shrouded in mysterious terminology and enough mystic rites to baffle the Greeks.

Koans, I realize, are like that too.  No point in asking anyone because it’s just not given to language.  When I read up on how to work with a koan, it seemed one part obsession, one part indoctrination, one part self-hypnosis – all guaranteed to result in a mental repetitive strain injury.  The usual injunction is to repeat the koan (Mu, for example) in every moment.  I tried that.  The only thing that happened was an overwhelming urge for alfalfa sprouts and a tendency to lie down when I thought it was going to rain.  Clearly simple repetition was not quite all there was to koan work.

I did try for a while with a Zen teacher and that broke through a couple of things.  I could be coy here and say you have to go through it yourself.  But the truth is, it wouldn’t be coy; I really don’t know what it was I went through.  I figured out Mu (actually, vice versa), went on to a couple of others and then got stymied on the subtle sound of the single hand.  Figuring I was just too intellectual for the deeper and more nuance awakening, I returned to my ham-fisted practice which became rather comforting.  Besides, it’s good for a narcissist to fail once in a while.

Over the years however, having stopped trying to find koans, it seems koans have found me.  Somewhere in the middle of Rohatsu, some time after roshi posed the question, “What is the difference between a Chaplain and a Psychologist?” the mystery of how a koan works unravelled.  It’s not about repetition.  It’s definitely not about obsessing. It is most definitely not about knowing.

It turns out that the question she posed is not a koan (but you knew that already).  It is simply the ground on which a koan can act.  The critical point is which koan can bring to bear sufficient weight to crack open the question so that the question in turn can drive the koan deeper.  If I get it – which I don’t claim I do – there is a moment when the koan and life itself mesh.  The koan is a way of noticing life itself as it is unfolding.  So, it’s not “say Mu now”  “say Mu NOW” ad nauseam.  It’s a felt realization of Mu in this breath, this movement, this thought.  (OK, words are inadequate so you’ll have to deliver this baby on your own.)

Anyway, I put together this little video that says it better.  Are these lights red or blue?  Speak and I’ll send you my copy of Deepak’s book, Buddha.  Don’t speak and you get the graphic novel version!

4 thoughts on “koan konundrums

  1. As you might expect, ZM Seung Sahn had quite a different approach to koans (kong-ans). He would present a case in interview, then the student would respond. Then he’d present another case, etc. And that was it. He didn’t want people drilling into a kong-an, obsessing on mu, trying to penetrate hidden meaning or symbolism or somesuch. Kong-ans were, for him: how is it, just now?

    He stressed the importance of not separating kong-an practice from daily life. Each moment presents us with a new “case” – a unique combination of situation, condition, relationship, and function. How do we respond the the urgencies of the moment? That’s the kong-an.

    I’m probably misrepresenting him in a million different ways, but that was my sense of the training.

    • That’s certainly the sense of the moment when it “clicked” for me, Barry. To repeat a koan or probe at it intellectually (and I may be misrepresenting what was asked of me) seemed to separate the koan from the ongoing experience of life as it is.

      I just notice myself saying: Oh, here it is. (It sounds more dualistic than it feels.)

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