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1. Zen Koan Practice Introduction: Who Hears this Sound

Koan study and Everyday Zen

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Mar 13, 2001
In topics: General Topics in Buddhism, Koan Studies
This is an introduction to Koan Study. Zoketsu discusses the history of Koans and their relationship to Zen practice in the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen. He recommends Dogen’s Genjo Koan as a guide in making this very life our central koan.
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Koan Practice Introduction: Who Hears this Sound Koan study and Everyday Zen By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | March 13, 2001 

Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager

  Last week I talked about concentrating on the breath in meditation practice – following, discriminating, vivifying, and questioning the breath.  That last step of sitting with the breath with a questioning spirit begins at first with mechanically asking with each breath, “What is it?” After that, we sit with the breath with a spirit of inquiry, without thinking about it or saying any words.  This is an example of koan practice.  Since koan practice is, I think, more or less unique to Zen, in all world religious practice, I thought that I would say more about it.   The word “koan,” like so many other Zen words, comes from ordinary, Chinese vocabulary, rather than from technical, Buddhist vocabulary.  The word koan, meaning “public case,” was a legal term.  A koan was a case that could be used as a legal precedent, because it was public and paradigmatic.  There is a great irony in the Zen context, not because a koan is being used as a lynchpin in a subtle argument of discrimination of one thing from another, as a legal case would be used, but in exactly the opposite way, as a device to thrust us beyond discrimination to an experience of oneness.  No doubt the old Chinese Zen fellows were quite aware of this irony, and they delighted in it.   Zen koans were public records of a particular sort.  Since the beginning, Zen proclaimed a declaration of independence from Buddhism.  The earliest formula for the definition of Zen included phrases like, “Beyond words and letters,” or “It is an existential truth pointing directly to the human heart.” Zen did not have the aid of any normative doctrine, and it was beyond all forms of piety, including Buddhism.  Therefore, it made no sense at all to quote scripture as a way to advance or justify religious understanding.   Instead, it made sense that the everyday lives of the masters themselves would come to represent – rather than scripture – religious truth and authority.  Their sayings and doings began to circulate, at first probably as rumors and wild tales.  Later they were written down in the highly literary world of the Chinese Tang dynasty.  In the end, they constituted a new, Buddhist literary tradition, done with a pithy, shorthand, and baffling style. There were many, many collected books of these stories.  All of them were called Transmission of the Lamp.  There were many different ones with similar titles.  They were strung together pseudo-biographies and had a fake style of old Chinese histories.  These brief biographical texts were always seen, I think, as religious teaching documents, rather than actual biographies.  Little anecdotes were lifted and circulated in the monasteries.  Eventually these stories found their way into dharma talks and were repeated by teachers. Buddhist in their fundamental thrust, this meditation practice was influenced quite a bit by Daoist thought and practice, which from the beginning, in the earliest texts of Daoism, loved paradox. For example, some random lines from the Tao te Ching:  “Therefore, the master acts without doing anything.”  “He does without doing.”  “She teaches without opening her mouth.”  “Things arise, and she lets them come.  Things disappear, and she lets them go.” So that kind of paradoxical style became a kind of conditioning factor in the development of Zen meditation practice.  Traditional Buddhist meditation is, in effect, a combination of two different practices called “stopping” and “seeing.”  Stopping, or calming meditation, focused the mind on a meditation object, so you could calm the mind and enrich it.  Once you did that, which is a long process of getting the mind really clear and focused, next the practitioner was supposed to take this developed, concentrated mind and turn it toward introspection, until you could see the impermanence and non-conceptual characteristics of reality.  This would take many, many lifetimes to do. In Zen meditation, the whole thing was collapsed into one practice and was highly intensified.  The practice called for the powerful focusing of the mind on an object, not for the purpose of calming and enriching, but for the purpose of immediately seeing directly into the object and through the object;  seeing not only through the object, but through all objective reality; seeing the mind itself and how the mind functions to create an objective world of suffering.   You see how easily and naturally Zen meditation would have been applied to the new koan literature that was developing along side of it.  The stories grew more and more simple and stripped down as they were used as this meditation object.  Meditators would work with the stories, not as literature or articles of doctrinal understanding, but as seeing the stories, rather than understanding them as ideas.  So you could see into them and the reality of the mind itself, thus releasing the mind from the compulsions and the sufferings that would be a consequence of grasping and false conceptions. D.T. Suzuki, the Japanese Zen scholar, first introduced this koan literature to the West.  He presented koans as puzzles designed to subvert the logical mind, causing the practitioner to flip the mind into a new way of thinking and being.  But most people who now work with koans do not emphasize, as Suzuki did, their irrationality.  It’s not so much that the stories are meant to short-circuit the rational mind, as they are pointing to a more intuitive kind of experience based on the feeling of being itself, rather than on thinking about being. Koans don’t in and of themselves obviate logic.  People can talk about koans that require a high, logical accomplishment, even though it may be a different style than the one we are used to.   There were lots of ways of working with this material, depending on what master or lineage you were studying with. It wasn’t until the 18th century in Japan, that the system of koan study that most Westerners are familiar with, was devised by the Japanese Rinzai monk Hakuin.  It’s a great system, full of jokes and pantomime. It emphasizes making the stories of the Ancients personal and immediate, almost physically so, giving up all abstraction and focus on doctrine.  The system teaches that if it’s not your own, it doesn’t count.  If you can’t show it, and you can only explain it, then it isn’t really yours.  This makes for some pretty lively religion.  These stories have baffled and frustrated Zen students, and we can imagine merry Zen masters ringing their little bells as a Zen student leaves the interview room in abject defeat.    The other thing I consider not to be so great about the system is that it systematized the koans into a set curriculum.  There are different set curricula, but basically they all had this idea of a whole curriculum of koans.  The student would go from one koan to another, in progression over many years study, advancing towards some goal that became more and more, I suppose, enticing. The goal of completion in this very long course of study would apparently mean that the student would be sanctioned as an officially enlightened teacher and then ready to take on students as a master.   But, of course, there were then, and still are, people who could, because of their great talents, complete the course of study of koans and still manage to remain totally deficient in the practical, human wisdom that it takes to be a spiritual mentor and guide – not to mention just getting through the day without getting into trouble!  So there were then, and still are, brilliant koan practitioners who couldn’t get it together in their lives.   This has been the main criticism of the koan system.  In other words, to what extent does it really produce wise practitioners, or to what extent is it a highly sophisticated religio-aesthetic game that fosters competition, arrogance, and corruption?  To evaluate this question, we have to ask, “What is the experience of enlightenment or satori that seems to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?”  Satori is a spiritual opening, an authentic and personal realization of the oneness of things, the non-difference within difference of self and other.  The experience of satori is not something that comes at the end of koan study.  Usually it comes toward the beginning with the passing of the first koan.   Satori is, no doubt, a major experience.  Also, I think it’s a crucial experience.  Probably it is the essential religious experience, but also it is a momentary experience, by no means final and decisive.  It’s a glimpse, not a steady gaze.  It certainly does not exhaust the range of religious experience, which must include things like ethical conduct, wise and accurate expression, kindness, empathy, self-knowledge, personal integrity, and healthy doses of courage, attitude, and common sense.  In fact, it is also said by traditional Zen teachers that satori is just a good beginning to spiritual practice.  It is the opening of the door.  It’s not the end.  It’s not the culmination.   On the other hand, it is probably true that working systematically with koans over a long time might help to develop some of these other qualities that I am speaking about.  Koan work does take persistence; it does take self-confidence; it does take self-surrender; it does take imagination; it does take courage.  But it is clear that working with koans over a long period of time is no guarantee that these qualities will be present in the person in their lives, outside the context of the koan practice, outside the meditation hall.  So I personally think that this marvelous system of religious cultivation is useful.   It is really a lot of fun – at least that is what I have found in my limited experience of it – but I don’t think it is fundamental or necessary.    What about the actual technique of meditating on a koan?  In a more down-to-earth way, it would be like this: you would establish your strong meditation practice, calm your mind, still your thoughts, focus yourself, and then hold the koan out in front of you.  The best way to do this is to memorize it and then reduce it to something very simple.  Case One of Mumonkam is great, because it is already as reduced as you could get: one syllable [mu], which is easy to hold with each breath.  So you sit with a very intense focus, breathing into the one word, until it loses all sense and all meaning.  You get tired of all speculation and thinking about it.  You even lose all sense that the word mu is an object separate from yourself.  You try to stay with it and identify with it, all during a retreat, all day and all night long.  You give up expecting any results and being clever.  You have to burn through your desire for success and your fear of failure.  You even have to get rid of the person who might desire and fear,  just sitting with  mu, mu, mu,” or whatever koan it is that you are working with until, as Master Mumon says, “it becomes clear to you.”  In the classical, Hakuin system, you are doing this practice in the context of lengthy meditation retreats.  You are making frequent, intense trips to the teacher’s room with your inevitably feeble answer to the koan.   [Laughter]  But these many trips are very important, because the teacher – either on purpose or by mistake – gives you hints, and the hints will help a great deal.  When you finally do come in, and your answer is accepted, you will be really happy.  Master Mumon was not exaggerating when he said, “Joy of the unexpected discovery.” You could see why a lot of the Chinese Zen masters dismissed the whole idea of an elegant, literary, progressive curriculum of koan study, which seemed to present spiritual awakening as if it were a college course.  They gave their students, instead, a single, endless koan, which they were to meditate on for the course of a lifetime.  Basically, just stay with this one.  They would have koans like, “Who is it?” or “What is it?” or the koan I mentioned at the beginning of this talk and last time, “What is it as the breath?”   Dogen also devised a kind of koan practice that is particularly useful to contemporary practitioners, who might want to work with koans outside the context of regular retreats or daily, temple life.  In other words, people like us.  He called this method Genjo Koan of the Present Moment, as I like to translate it.  He explains this quite thoroughly in the essay that we all know about by that title.  It is a beautiful piece of writing.  It is the first Dogen fascicle that was translated into English, and it conditioned the way that Dogen was received in the West for many years afterward.   In this essay, Dogen says, in effect, that the experience of being itself, moment after moment, is itself a koan.  It ought to be approached that way.  In other words, every moment of time is a koan, because it exists at the intersection of time and eternity.  To be able to experience time in this way, with all its dimension and inconceivability, is to appreciate the practice of the koan in the present moment.  In actual meditation practice, it might mean sitting with a spirit of strong inquiry, without the use of any devices other than just being there.   In the case of daily life practice, it might mean taking personal issues or themes that arise within one’s life as koans for contemplation, rather than as objective issues that one is trying to work through for personal ease or advantage. I personally find the idea of Genjo Koan really useful in that it affords us a way to view our lives as deep, spiritual journeys, rather than as mundane distractions to be transcended.  Fundamentally, koan practice–and Zen practice in general—is not seeing our lives in that way.  It is the recognition that our small lives are only small, because we have made them so, by our conceptualizations of them.  In reality, we don’t know what our lives are.  We can’t say what they are.  They are chimerical containers that hold everything that we could ever wish for or imagine.  They are temporal analogues for the infinite.