Zen koans are totally frustrating and make me feel stupid. It’s as if everyone gets this but me. Am I missing something?
Most definitely not! You have everything you need if you’re willing to get a little closer to the koan to find its gem. Even anger at a koan, when realized, becomes most intimate.
Before dismissing them out of hand, consider koans as good medicine, maybe bitter at first, but medicine that goes right to the dis-ease. Koans are perfectly crafted to loosen our grip on the usual narrow way of meeting new things with the thinking mind by trying to match up reality to what we already know. The first step is to notice and embrace your resistance — frustration that we can’t “understand” it rationally, noticing limiting ideas about our own capacity, or the fantasies about what other people are doing. We can notice our karmic patterns when confronted by something that doesn’t make immediate sense. When we can notice and put aside this resistance, we can take a step closer and be curious about the koan — the seemingly bizarre exchanges between teacher and student, the poetic imagery, and our own intuition. We should meet the koan as an important messenger that has something to say to us, but we have to be patient and listen closely to its spiritual language.
The Rinzai tradition of Zen has honed a specific method of koan work that progresses through a series. Traditionally, this is privately negotiated by the student as they bring their understanding over and over again to the teacher, usually to be met with a “try again” until an authentic response emerges. The Soto tradition, however, has evolved a more organic dynamic engagement with koans that includes a wide variety of entry gates. Not only is the teacher your guide, but the sangha and the whole of your life come together to discover an authentic response.
These are my recommendations to new students of koans. Start with one.
Eight koan gates of eight thousand:
(1) If you’re going to argue with a koan, argue wholeheartedly!
Don’t take anything for granted. Notice what drives you crazy about the exchange. What’s so confusing? What triggers you? Once you do this, you may notice you’ve become more intimately entangled and can take up these points one by one. Do not be satisfied by easy answers or the answers of others. Sit with these reactions and find out what matters to you underneath these arguments of yours.
(2) Open up all your senses in the koan.
What is the taste of this koan? What is its sound? Does it have a smell? Walk into it with your whole body in the present moment. Hmmm, taste the salty ocean, there’s a cool breeze on my skin and I hear a bell in the distance. Stay there for a while, notice what comes up. It doesn’t have to make sense. Forget about what the koan means.
(3) What is the one word of phrase that stands out to you?
In the Rinzai tradition, they talk about the “head” of a koan — what has the most salient energy, like “Mu” in the first classical exchange on whether a dog has Buddha nature or not. Take this word or phrase out and carry it around with you in everyday life. See what arrives. Tape it to your bathroom mirror. Bring it into your chanting service. Do some free writing about it. Relax. Be curious. Listen.
(4) How does this koan meet your life right now?
What does this koan have to say about the questions you are grappling with? How does Joshu or Nansen help you with the argument you are having with an old friend. How does the old fox meet your questions about your career or sorrow over the country’s political conflict? Is there something here that addresses your suffering or the suffering of the world? How?
(5) What is your felt sense of the koan?
A felt sense is a direct present moment knowing in the body through the language of sensation and impulse. A koan may have a felt sense of being heavy in the heart area, flowing in the breath, or chilling down the spine. As you enter more deeply into the koan, you may notice this shift or change over time. Listening to the body’s wisdom means directing the attention away from reliance on thought and sensing directly what arises as you hold the koan present.
(6) What personal stories are triggered by the koan?
Don’t judge — just notice if you remember a time when you were slapped or were ill, or when you asked what you thought was a dumb question. Remember that experience. Do you see the dharma in it? You can check this out by looking again at the koan for ways these experiences resonate with it or not. Come away with more questions than you started with.
(7) Reread the koan from the perspective of all the characters and all objects as elements of yourself.
Be the dumfounded student, be the wise teacher, be the loyal dog, be the wily fox, be the open oryoki bowl, be Mu. Give yourself a change to see it from different angles and notice what emerges from this that informs your original assumptions. Where do you gravitate more readily? What is opaque?
(8) What are the basic Buddhist teachings embedded in this koan?
As all teachings interconnect, and all koans point to the clarification of emptiness (the view) and form (embodiment), there is no one right answer. However, sometimes an important specific teaching pops out at us, one we are clarifying for ourselves — like the teaching on anicca (impermanence), or maybe dana paramita (perfection of giving), or the Four Noble Truths. Trust what comes up even if it doesn’t make sense at first.
Most importantly, whatever emerges from koan work, stay with it without judgment. Trust your experience. Dig deeper and don’t settle for that land of conclusions where we fall asleep. Koans are like paintings or dreams in that they should never be reduced to one answer, though in any one moment there is only one answer that is authentic. They must be experienced and continually lived out, realized in our walk and talk. When practitioners take any one of the above gates, I notice a shift from self doubt to joy and interest with each new koan. Even joy in one’s stubbornness is a remarkable shift. It’s not a matter of being Zen smart — it’s a matter of just being yourself right where you are in your practice and a willingness to show up. We “solve” the koan in the same way we solve this life.
With palms together,