What are Koans?
Zen koans are not easy to pin down. According to Wikipedia, “A kōan is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen practice to provoke the ‘great doubt’ and test a student’s progress in Zen practice.” While this is not incorrect, it’s also not very interesting or descriptive of what koans do. Koans are kind of like puzzles, but not exactly; a bit like riddles, but not really. They are more like Liquid Plumr for the mind, dissolving the clogs that keep us from touching life deeply.
Rather than showing us the way to a life that’s better than the one we already have or to a self that’s better than the one we already have, koans help us to become more intimate with the life and self we already have (yes, this one). They have a way of turning things on their head, of pulling the rug out from under us, of tossing us head over heels and ass over teakettle. When we fall into the world of a koan, our usual way of doing life might fade into the background, leaving us with the freedom to create something new. We might find delight in things we used to think were problems and take up radical new activities like cooking or mowing the lawn regularly.
Whether we realize it or not, we all live by the stories we tell ourselves, and koans have a truly splendid knack for showing us what those stories are and offering us a way out of them. When we step out of our stories about the world, our lives get bigger and more mysterious and we find out that we are capable of far more than we ever could have imagined. We may find ourselves splashing in rain puddles, laughing until we fall over, or falling in love with the faces of strangers on a bus. When we are not confined by a conceivable plan for the universe, we leave ourselves open to be surprised. There’s no telling what might happen next.
But koans aren’t just something for our mind to toy around with. They want to be everywhere and our minds, our bodies, the world, and places we can’t see all belong to everywhere. When we spend time with a koan, it might show up in conversations with friends and strangers; it might whisper from the trees or come honking from a car horn; it might visit in the form of a dream, a memory or an old song. We may forget the koan, but it will not forget us. Koans don’t just open us up to a new way of thinking, but a new way of being. And with that kind of discovery can come important implications for the way we act in the world. If we do not see the people around us as separate from ourselves, how will our behavior toward them change? If we suddenly cannot find fault with anything, how will we conduct a business meeting, a symphony, or a marriage? What if we look at an enemy one day and find his face beautiful?
Working with Koans (an anecdotal report)
Koans challenge us by dancing around outside our usual way of understanding the world (often I feel as though they are taunting me). When I first meet a koan I might laugh, get frustrated, or feel nothing at all. I don’t know why. I might find myself trying to pull the koan into my current conception of the universe, but they never fit in there. Once I give up on that, I usually try busting out of my small world and into what I think is the koan’s world. But that doesn’t seem to work either because at that point I’m still limited by my conception of the universe and therefore all of my escape strategies will be limited as well: rather than escaping my tiny house, I just end up in another room.
It seems to be helpful to notice tension when it arises. Usually where I find discomfort is where the koan is touching me, showing me how I keep myself locked out of my own life. My usual way of dealing with discomfort is to quiet it, to mitigate or avoid or outsmart it any way I can. But I’ve spent years doing that and in the end it seems to tangle things up rather than smoothing them out. Unfortunately for me (haha!), the koan path suggests a paradoxical alternative to getting rid of difficulty: to just step into it. There is trust involved here, because often whatever discomfort I am experiencing will intensify if I cease holding it at bay. If what I think I’m looking for is less pain, not more, this can seem counter-intuitive. But this allowing and intensification seems to be a necessary step, almost as though the koan is waiting for a demonstration of my full commitment before it will unfold completely.
The previous paragraphs may have been misleading and I should clarify about my koan practice: really there is nothing for me to do with a koan but hang out with it. I don’t know how to activate them or make them open or get them to do whatever kind of magic it is that they do, so mostly I just enjoy myself while I wait. And wait. I go do other things like work and sleep and assume that the koan will notify me when it’s ready to get me involved, like a good home contractor. I find that when I allow the koan to take over the process, interesting things begin happening. I might find myself feeling deep joy or sorrow, vividly remembering events or people that I haven’t thought about in years, or having strange dreams. Suddenly, it seems as though a hidden trap door has opened and I find myself in a much larger world. It’s not that I’m in a different world than the one I started out in, but somehow I notice the width, the depth, and the closeness of reality more closely. This shift might happen at any time–while I’m meditating, washing dishes, having an argument–but it does seem to have something to do with my forgetting about the process altogether.
My old ways of understanding the world–my rules about how I or others should be, about what is possible or probable or a good idea–no longer apply. There is a feeling of fondness and intimacy with everything around me. Often I cannot remember the problems I thought I had, and when I do remember them it seems silly that I considered them problems. I couldn’t have gotten myself here because I couldn’t previously have conceived of a world outside my own conception (sort of a Catch-22 there, eh?). Although I might hope that a koan will help me in a particular area–for example, having better self-esteem or less anger or being more compassionate–they always have their own agenda that is far deeper and more satisfying than my own. It is always unexpected and always wonderful. And while what I’ve always thought I wanted was to be whisked away to some more interesting and logical world, it turns out that what I was really looking for is just to be brought closer to this one.
Some koans for you, my friends!
There are lots of wonderful koans out there.
You can find some with commentaries by me at the It’s Alive! blog.
You can find more at my teacher John Tarrant’s Zenosaurus blog.
And you can find all kinds of writings in general and specific about koans at Pacific Zen Institute’s website.
Photo credits go to Byron Young for the lighthouse innards at the top of this page and Roger Jordan (www.rogerjordanart.com) for the lovely white camellia picture