Soto Zen and the Koan of Life

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Zen West belongs to the Soto Zen tradition in the Dharma Cloud lineage which took shape through our founding teacher, Kyogen Carlson, of Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon. The Soto school is very down to earth — rooted in the teachings of the historical Buddha, an individual who lived 2,500 years ago in India and took on the quest to find the answer to the problem of human suffering. The Buddha offered teachings which eventually evolved into three distinct streams — Theravadin, Vajrayana, and Mahayana. The latter translates as the “Great Vehicle,” whose principles inform Zen. The Mahayana is characterized by its investigation of shunyata, equally translated as either emptiness or boundlessness, and the understanding of Buddha, not only as a historical example, but as an all-pervading universal principle and basis of mind. As Zen traveled through China and Japan, it refined a method of practice that offers an intimate way of directly knowing the truth of the Buddha’s insight on human suffering and the freedom from suffering.

The word Zen comes from the word Ch’an in China, and before that, the word dhyana, meaning absorption or meditation, in India. Zen eventually split into two schools. One school is called Rinzai, which uses a series of koans as practice tools. The other, the Soto school, emphasizes seated meditation called zazen or shikantaza (just sitting). In this tradition, zazen itself is the main koan. It is both an expression of the Mahayana ideal of inherent enlightenment and a proposition that we all possess buddhanature. Paradoxically, to manifest this in all our activity, we need to practice to wake up to this basic birthright. The Soto school particularly calls attention to mindful activity in the zendo and intimate learning from what are called forms or rituals that turn the mind’s attention to the present moment. This tradition teaches this mindful practice in daily life — the life of paying bills, taking care of children, visiting a friend who is ill — and waking up in the midst of these joys and challenges, so that we respond from a place of wisdom and compassion.

In truth, the Soto and Rinzai schools are not so separate — it is more a matter of emphasis. At Zen West~Empty Field we engage koans on a number of levels — as general teaching stories, as evocative group exploration, and as individual practice. Our main emphasis regarding koan work is to allow the koan to arise naturally in everyday life.

Koans, originally meaning “public case,” are classical stories, poems or puzzles that present problems that cannot be easily answered by the rational mind, but instead must be lived out and expressed to be understood, like, What is the sound of one hand clapping? and What was your face before your parents were born? They often include intimate exchanges between teachers and students that represent skillful means. They distill particular responses to a particular student addressing his or her block to awakening. To resolve the koan we need to see into the heart of the student and the heart of the teacher, and therefore into our own heart and our own buddhanature.

Investigating a koan means “hanging out” with it for some time — it is more like viewing a painting or experiencing a poem than reading an instruction manual. Koans point to a deeper wisdom and invite us to engage in playfulness and heartfelt personal experience. Zazen together with koan investigation helps us access a different aspect of our consciousness that holds our innate knowing and invites compassion toward and understanding of the human condition.