Regular readers will know that a few weeks ago I wrote a series of posts on some tips on and benefits of meditation in the form of yin yoga. Two days ago I wrote a post about the philosophical conundrum of ‘what makes a sandwich a sandwich’. While these two topics might seem completely unrelated, you’ll find that they are both actually very important in Zen Buddhism. ‘What makes a sandwich a sandwich’, being a question that really has no true definitive answer, is a critical tool in meditation through Zen. This could actually be considered a modern, 21st century version of what the Japanese call koan, the Chinese call gong’an, and what the Western world calls Zen riddles. You may have come across a few of these already without realizing their connection to Zen Buddhism. For example, you may have posed the question or been asked yourself, ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ Another of course, is ‘if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ Now to be fair not all koan are sound related. But this is perhaps the best gateway into the more intricate and involved koan and certainly in Western culture, the most popular.
The word koan is actually derived from the Chinese gong’an, which means ‘public record’. The gong’an were stylized, abbreviated, purposefully written renditions of ‘conversations’ between Buddhist teachers and their disciples. Someone somewhere along the line began to realize that perhaps recording the wise sayings of their masters would benefit generations to come, so these gong’an were in fact available to the general masses to use and reflect and further develop their own understanding. Think Socrates’s Dialogues mixed with Aesop’s Fables. Aside from posterity, the act of writing down these hyper-stylized and edited encounter-dialogues of masters and disciples also helped Chinese Buddhism spread to Japan. Through the study of these texts the Chinese and Japanese were able to learn much of each other’s language and translate their works for each other. The Japanese monks wanted to be able to capture these ‘flashes of enlightenment’ in much the same way as their Chinese counterparts so they used the structure of the gong’an to create their own koan which have remained relevant to this day.
Koan are of course now much more than ancient translation guides or low-tech Twitter feeds. I want you to completely trash and disregard the Western misnomer of ‘Zen riddle‘ because it sets up a very false expectation and understanding. The koan are questions, yes, and they are often very vague, inscrutable, and seemingly paradoxical and unanswerable. But you must understand that while a ‘riddle’ implies a deceptive question with a clever answer, the koan are not meant to be answered. At least, not completely. The objective when a Zen teacher gives a student a koan is not to have the student ‘find the answer’. We do not ‘answer’ koan. We sit with them. We quiet our minds, we let go of judgement and preconception, we breathe, we let go of judgement, and we allow ourselves to move with the koan in our mind to where it takes us. See if we become too attached to the act of ‘answering’, we lose the benefit and practice of meditation. We are not tasked with answering the question. We are tasked with using it to guide our reflection and understanding. After enough time has passed, the teacher will ask us where we ended up. Our ‘answer’, so to speak. What we actually say is not as important as how well we understand it. How deeply we went into our own understanding of our reality in order to come up with whatever it is we came up with. There could be further questions asked and posed to test our conviction and understanding but ultimately, any answer goes so far as we can prove we have truly reflected on it. If the teacher is satisfied that we have stripped off the burden of answering and judgement, we are given another koan. If not, we return, unflustered, unmoved, unconcerned, and start again. A good example of this separation of the relationship between question and answer is the example of the koan ‘what is the nature of Buddha?’ asked to the Zen master Shouchou. His response was ‘three pounds of flax’. (This is a reflection of the nature of Buddha, and that if we can find it in anything, we can find it in everything.)
There are many collections of koan available today. The Gateless Gate, The Book of Equanimity, The Blue Cliff Record, and Mana Shogobenzo were all compiled in the early 1000s but are still available in modern translation. These compilations hold hundreds of koan to ponder but if you do not want to spring for some ancient wisdom, let me share a few pearls for free.
As stated before, we have ‘what is the sound of two hands clapping’ and ‘if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound’. You may also consider ‘does a dog have Buddha nature (and to translate further, you can extend it to ‘does a dog have a soul’). Not all koan are questions. For example, your head could totally wrestle with the violent and prophetic ‘when you meet the Buddha, kill him’. As mentioned before, most originated as conversations. For example:
Dizang asked Xiushan, “Where do you come from?”
Xiushan said, “From the South.”
Dizang said, “How is Buddhism in the South these days?”
Xiushan said, “There is extensive discussion””
Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?”
Xiushan said, “What can you do about the world?”
Dizang said, “What do you call the world?”
Even the modern world can provide us with enlightenment.
“What are you doing,” asked the professor.
“Programming a computer to play randomly,” said the student.
The professor said, “what does it mean to program the computer randomly?”
The student said, “I do not want it to have preconceived notions of how to play.”
The teacher then closed his eyes.
“Why do you close your eyes?’ asked the student.
The teacher replied, “So that the room will be empty.”
The koan itself is not as important as the lesson we learn from sitting with it for long enough. I would like to give these writings at least a day or two for people to have a chance to read them and sit with them for a while before I write my own reflections and thoughts. I would like for you all to give it an honest attempt to sit with these and try to reflect and ‘answer’ what it is the koan appears to ask of you. I do not want to write my own too soon because I do not want it to influence your own process. It is okay that these lack context or detail. It is for you to decide what understanding to establish and where to take it.
I will write my own reflections from much time spent sitting with these koan in two days.
I want to give you these koan because I think, at least I know for myself personally, I have been too attached to ‘answering questions’ these past few days. I think we all have. Sometimes the burden of the writer is to believe we are tasked with questions we must answer. We speak for our minds, our hearts, and sometimes some of us speak for generations. We have the words and the phrases and the ability so we put it on ourselves to answer so much. Some questions don’t need to be answered, just understood for why we ask. I don’t need to know why Beautiful left me. But if I can sit with that question without distress or sadness or frustration, what wonderful revelations about love and relationships and my worth and my desires await! If I am not afraid to ask myself ‘why am I so lonely’ I could perhaps get to the nature of loneliness and instead understand what companionship truly is. And if I don’t find the answer, I shouldn’t be so upset or frustrated. I should not judge that at this point in my life I do not yet have the understanding of full enlightenment.
In our every day lives we are so caught up with thinking of questions as obstacles to our understanding. Things that must be reconciled. We confuse ourselves to think that a life of no questions is one of success. Every day we have a set of questions that we must answer in order to sleep well at night. But some questions don’t need answers. Just the honesty to acknowledge they remain. Just the awareness to know what they are. And the bravery not to answer them. The courage to remain stumped.