On Sunday I wrote about the origin, use, and variety of koan, a tool in Zen Buddhism to aid in meditation and increase awareness. Tomorrow I would like to discuss my own interpretation of the koan presented in my post, and the reason why I’ve wanted to delay it is to allow readers to sit with the koan themselves and come to their own understandings without the influence or bias of my own interpretations. Today however I would like to discuss a matter very important to understanding koan and avoiding the pitfalls that many who are discovering this concept for the first time or who have not really had much opportunity to investigate koan may fall into.
Remember that koan first began as written records of conversations between teachers and their students. They were exchanges that revealed some insight for the students to interpret. Over time they evolved into what we now can consider ‘Zen riddles’, meaning that they have been boiled down to the essence of these conversations; mainly reducing koan to the very basic questions of understanding that students would have posed or that teachers would have asked in order to test our progress through meditation. The process would often be that the student would be assigned a koan by their teacher. The student would then spend their time ‘sitting with’ the koan, using meditation to actively and passively gain an insight and understanding. When the student felt ready, the student would return to approach the teacher and present the result. One word, a sentence, an entire treatise, the length of the response and indeed even the content of the response did not actually matter to the teacher. If the teacher was unsure, the teacher could ask the student further questions to test the depth and extent of the student’s understanding. Consider this practice much like the Socratic Method, investigating truth through questioning. If the teacher was satisfied with the student’s understanding (again, notice I did not say response but understanding), the teacher would give the student another koan to meditate on. If the teacher was unsatisfied, the student would be instructed to repeat the process with the same koan. This process of posing a question, sitting with it, responding, and investigating can very loosely and misleadingly be considered koan study.
The reason why I say this can be misleading and why I am hesitant to define the process as such is because the word study carries such a heavy implication to most of us. When we ‘study’ something we want there to be an eventual ultimate ‘understanding’. We want to become ‘experts’ or at the very least, receive some recognition for the extent of our work. Whether it is a publication to our credit, a degree, or the recognition of our peers, when we ‘study’ it is almost always with the assumption that there is an end. We ‘studied’ this or that in college or we ‘studied’ that in Europe or I read a ‘study’ of that topic on the plane and now let me show you how much more I know than you. There is, fortunately and unfortunately, no end to koan study. It is a continued process that is both temporary and permanent. The sense of enlightenment and awareness we cultivate through it is something that we will be able to carry with us for the rest of our lives. It will aid our decision making and our ability to handle disappointment. But our understanding is very often a reflection of our very temporary place in time. The same question, posed to the same person, but at different times and stages in that person’s life, could yield very different responses. Are either of these responses more or less valid? Do we judge the content of the response? No. We understand that the act of understanding is the ultimate goal itself. We recognize that we seek different things in life and koan are an opportunity to discover what that is for us at that very moment.
Consider the common scenario many teachers give us to explain the duality of personalities. A glass is presented to the class with a certain amount of water contained within. The teacher will ask ‘is the glass half empty or half full?’ We understand that the objective of this exercise is to determine those of us who are optimists and see the glass as half full and those of us who are pessimists who see the glass as half empty. We will all have an answer. But the answer could change the next day if you find you just won the lottery or if your significant other has left you for the plumber. It doesn’t make the response of yesterday more or less correct. And there may be a time when you are so weary of the world and so tired of black and white and have seen the rise and fall of fortune and fame that when posed this question you realize ‘the glass is too big to hold the water’. Or, and this’ll really bake your noodle, ‘the water is not in the right glass’.
What I commonly see happen to people who are introduced to the concept of koan is they try too hard to seek ‘the answer’. They approach the koan not as the act and reward of understanding itself, but as an obstacle to enlightenment. They must conquer the koan. Beat it to the ground. Finish them. There are from all the ancient texts still in current circulation, more than 400 koan. If you were to read each one and come to a conclusion with each, would you be so much more enlightened and aware than anyone who had never read them to begin with? While doing some research for Sunday’s post I came across a website that boiled my blood much more than I thought it would. It was a site supposedly dedicated to the art and practice of Zen Buddhism and Zen meditation but it purportedly advertised that the site ‘held the secrets to Zen Buddhism enlightenment’. I was certainly intrigued. It framed koan as riddles that teachers used to stump and confuse students to keep them in the dark. They were tolls to be paid along the path to enlightenment. The writer called them ‘purposefully confusing’ but ‘ultimately easy to answer’. Masters knew the meaning of each and every koan and kept them secret but that this site knew how to ‘decode’ each one. Using the ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping’ example, the site says
‘The answer is quite simple. How do you clap with both your hands? Try this movement again, but with one arm and one hand only. That’s it. That’s the sound of one hand clapping.’
Oh my! How simple! Who knew the secret to enlightenment was so deceptive? Who knew if you simply paid this website you could get their series of ebooks on how to ‘deal with koan’. Here, it says, these are the answers to all the koan that you can now present to overwhelm your teacher. Understanding and awareness for only $19.95.
The koan have never been about the answer. They have always been about the question. These are the few absolutes we can say with certainty when it comes to meditation. They have been about allowing us the opportunity to have something to sit with long enough without judgement or frustration to learn something fundamental about ourselves. The koan is not the meat, it is the bone with which we sharpen our teeth. So many of the questions we face do in fact have ultimate answers. We can go through our lives answering the questions and never think to question our answers. We always ask ourselves, ‘what will make me happy’. And we think we know the answer. We have careers to fulfill professional ambition. We purchase material things to comfort us. We seek love to surround us. But these things can crumble. They may not. We might be able to have these things for our entire lives. But if we don’t, and we are still unhappy, and we lose our way, can we answer…’what is happiness?’ That’s the fun of it all. That’s the exciting freeing realization that ‘I do not have to answer everything’. There is no expectation. There is no judgement. There is just us and the world and our understanding of it so by God, we should have the best damn understanding of at least ourselves. I throw you a koan, I throw you a bone, it’s not about what meat is left in it. It’s not about finding the right spot or some secret little bit or scrap of meat to be extracted. It’s just about sharpening your teeth. Now, is that concept really so radical?