13 July 2010

The Small Joy of Koan Work

When we hear about koan work it is often in the context of sesshin, where the order of the day is to dive deep, burrow long, press on, strive harder – you know the drill. And if we’ve read The Three Pillars, we’ve been amazed and astounded at the nothing-short-of-miraculous accounts of the sundering of heaven and earth as some unsuspecting “N.N. – [pick your everyday bourgeois profession]” breaks through to kensho in the strangest way and place possible.

Depending on our disposition we may find such talk intriguing or off-putting, and it is easy to see how some folk go in for koan practice and others not so much.

But what gets me most about koan practice, what I find myself utterly humbled by and grateful for, is not the earthmoving and the pyrotechnics. It is that small, barely perceptible, instant when, despite all the demonstrations of the koan I’ve rehearsed in my head on the mat, despite whatever depths of the Dharma I think the koan is teaching me, despite whatever I think about myself and the teacher and the practice, the koan comes alive in the dokusan room, and – I’m struggling to find the right words here, so bear with me – I am the koan in a way I could never have anticipated yet which is so right that nothing else could possibly be going on just then and I don’t even know it at the time but only notice it afterwards and even then just barely. This certainly doesn’t happen all the time, or even much of the time, really. And when it does, it isn’t all that dramatic (onlookers, and even the teacher I suppose, would find nothing remarkable). But when it does, I walk out of the dokusan room ever more disposed to press on with practice, because I have had a small sip from a source that I again know is nothing other than what I myself am when everything else is set to the side. And I would drink deeper.

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