09 April 2012

Coming to Terms with Koan Work

I've been around Zen long enough to know that what one group or lineage or center means by "koan work" is not at all necessarily what another group or lineage or center means.  I've also been around Zen long enough to know that what our lineage calls "koan work" is pretty much in conformity with what is traditionally meant by the term:  Passing mu may take years.  One gets further koans one at a time.  One doesn't just chat about them, and one certainly doesn't do them in a discussion group.  Embodiment and demonstration is required, and, failing that, one may be held on a koan for a long, long time.

It didn't take me long to realize that, in and of itself, passing koans reflected nothing much about the depth of one's insight.  Clever and bright – or simply tenacious – people will soon enough sniff out a lot of the lingo, the recurring topoi, the steps in the dance.  That just means that they are clever or bright or tenacious.  I was told by my teacher that a patent asshole can make his or her way through the koan curriculum and emerge at the end every bit the patent asshole he or she was going in. 

It also didn't take me long to see what an incredibly transformative, ego-reducing process koan work could be for some people.  It can be a training tool par excellence, a furnace for ego-smelting, a fire for reducing attachments to a fine heap of ash to be blown away in the wind, a pond in which the claymation self loses its shape and levels out and blends effortlessly into the bed at the bottom.

I find myself in conversations now and then with people who are having difficulty finding their feet with the idea of koan work.  Our lineage, following Yasutani, has traditionally made a biggish to-do about koans, seeing in them better medicine than anything quietistic, "deadwood" Zen could offer.  Good medicine is disease-specific, however, and some people present with quite different symptoms from the rest of the lot.  Moreover, as the disease and the medicine "cure each other," if taken too long, the medicine can itself become toxic and lead to new diseases and pathologies.

I tell these folks a few things:
1. "Do not think you will necessarily be aware of your own enlightenment." (Dōgen)  Your take on what koan work is or isn't doing for you may be (no, probably is) rather beside the point.   I have found myself suddenly seeing more deeply into a koan years after I passed it.  Koans can be so many little seeds of insight that will leaf and bloom when you least expect them to.  Or not.

2. Koans may be the stuff of Zen, but don't forget to be a Buddhist along the way.  If a practice is not conducive to seeing into the truth of dukkha, its cause, its end and the path to its end; if a practice is not built on (or skirts) the foundation of the precepts; and if a practice does not from the very outset begin to give rise to the very first pāramitā, giving (dāna), it should be considered suspect, at least for that person and at least at this time.  If the heart does not soften, I don't care what anyone says: it's not what this is all about.  Period.

3. Finally, don't sweat it.  If you don't feel drawn to koan work, don't do it.  "The gateway to freedom is zazen samadhi," all right, but there are all kinds of ways to do one's zazen.  If in the future, koan work seems like something you could use, then pick it up again.

4. Don't listen to me.  Find yourself a solid teacher you can trust and who – above all else – actually embodies and lives the stuff in #2 above.  He or she will know what to tell you.

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