November 1, 2012

What Are Koans & Why Are They Important?

Within each moment there is time and energy, space and solid, creation and erosion.

As I stroll down the sidewalk, I remember from time to time some of the basic principles of quantum-physics and smile at the profundity of what is taking place around me—the smallness of the known, the paradigm shifts in human logic and the sciences that are yet to happen, and the overarching unknown quality of infinity that courses through all things. Then I think, “Well, the universe is doing a pretty good job.” (It’s quite easy for me and most of us to trust in the universe when we are handed a promotion or a tightly wrapped gift from Macy’s. However, the real question is, where is this mind when it comes across loss, tragedy, or misfortune?)

A 17th century Japanese Zen master named Shido Munan was known for his ability to remain in the open mind. He could move with life and death, happiness and grief, as they entered into his experience moment after moment. The master didn’t have any ideas about what was right or wrong, so he lived life as it was: passing through the immediate experience of the fluctuations and articulations of vastness. One day some of his pupils approached him and asked a series of questions about the difficulty involved in reaching satori (a breakthrough into the free and present mind):

One pupil asked, “What is satori?”

The master said, “It is the original Mind.”

The pupil asked, “What is the original Mind?”

The master responded, “Not one thing.”

The pupil asked again, “What is this ‘not one thing’?”

The master closed his mouth and said nothing.

“What is the original Mind?” Well, in typical Zen fashion, the master points to what he means through his action: close your mouth, stop your babbling and come back to the now—the original mind is here in this mind and this experience. The above interaction has played out many times in the history of Zen dialogue.

For example, a Chinese master a few hundred years before was asked, “What is the treasure in the bag?” The master responded, “Keep your mouth closed!”

That’s fairly straightforward advice from a free mind. Though it may feel similar to an American football coach screaming, “Shut up, Cupcake, and focus!” it isn’t. The master is pointing right at the direct mind without muddying it up with words or emotion. If Zen is all about one’s direct experience, then it is up to you to go there.

Shido Munan simply points: meditate, practice mindfulness, be here now, and anytime you question, “What is Mind?” or “Who am I?,” you have lost touch with that sense of being within the original Mind. But we are humans and part of our grinding nature, part of what has made us the top dog on the food chain, is our rampant, questioning mind. If we are top dog on this rock, and if peace is buried within the fabric of this fluctuating mind of ours, then we need a bone to gnaw and occasionally break ourselves upon, and that bone is the Zen device called koan.

A koan is a phrase, dialogue, or saying that a practitioner uses to break down the shell of his or her identity.[i] The koan serves as a surgical tool used to cut into and then break through the mind of the practitioner. In the past and today, monks and lay practitioners alike sit and arduously contemplate the meaning of these sayings, conversations, and problems for months and years at a time. The idea is to imprint and unravel the openness of Zen psychology in the mind of the prospective practitioner. In other words, when the problem within the koan is experienced, the freedom of the master’s spontaneous, open mind is unraveled in this mind.

A modern Zen teacher living in northern California describes koans like this, “Koans don’t support the interior decoration project; they demolish the walls.”

The imagery sums up the essential function of koans—from a closed cell in which everything is conceptual, fixed, definable and linear, to the sudden realization of vastness, impermanence and interconnectedness.

Koans aren’t just puzzles that your mind figures out suddenly and proclaims, “Aha! the answer is three!” They wait for you to open enough to allow the space necessary for them to enter into your depths—the inner regions beyond knowing. Koans don’t just come in through the front door and sit on the kitchen table, they seep into the structural integrity of the home we have built—our identity or ego. You don’t really know where they will settle or how they might flip a once tightly held belief. They appear in meditation, accompany us to the grocery store, curse at the parking ticket with us, laugh with us, and cry with us. They can be as simple as, “there is nothing I dislike” to the historical interactions of the forces of nature/prolific Zen masters, such as master Yun-men:

“Someone asked Master Yun-men, ‘What is Zen?'”

The Master replied, “That’s it!”

The questioner went on, “What is the Way?”

The master responded, “Okay!”

When I bring a koan into my life I like to sit with it and witness how it enters my mind and flows through my body, and then I just see what happens. I notice my formed ideas of how I should be or how the world should be for that matter, and I become more aware of the way in which I follow my narrow consciousness instead of being with what is here. Things, thoughts, memories begin to invert and fall back on themselves. “Oh that was so horrible” turns into not really having an idea of whether it was terrible or not. An old demon becomes an opportunity, and a riveting hike through a British Columbian rainforest isn’t much different than my finger.

As as my borders begin to fall apart, the breaking down of the who that I think I am, I bump into a real closeness with the life that is here. Opening my eyes, I might find that the potted orchid in the corner of the room is the most beautiful thing in the world, but so are the veins in my forearm and the sound of wind and fog pushing themselves against the window. When I begin to forget who I am, the koan settles in my mind.

One of my favorite koans runs, “If you turn things around, you are like the Buddha.”

The koan is straight-forward and direct: turn things around, be Buddhas. Within the now, there is nothing standing in our way. An awakened individual, a Buddha, a master turns things around until there is simply nothing left—no borders, no sense of direction or distinction between east and west, not even a mental map to use as a tool to formulate ideas about who we think we are and what we should do. There are no walls or obstructions to block the flow of what naturally comes and what naturally goes; rather, all that remains is wide-open space. The practice of turning things around flips my mental fortresses upside down and allows me to enter into an entirely new way of living. That is the heart of this koan. Some can invert their entire lives in an instant, embracing space and all things as one. And others, like me, root into practice and turn over the myriad internal walls one at a time.

I remember sitting with “turn things around” out on the bluffs by Santa Barbara. The monarch butterflies were on their annual migration up the coast meandering through the eucalyptus trees, landing on sun-dipped branches and dodging spider webs. Their lives played out in this way among the shifting breeze, and so did the life I was experiencing. Under the same sun, family cancer scares, car accidents, financial troubles, laughter, the loss of a loved one, the Golden Gate Bridge, foggy mornings and starry nights, dirty dishes, football games and my thoughts unfolded along the path: the substances and the moments comprising this migration or journey on which I had somehow embarked.

Nothing had changed; life was still made of calming sun streaks and challenging, sticky webs, and I was increasingly here to greet the inexhaustible fluctuations between the two, while learning to seize up less. There was a quality, an intimacy growing that I could only experience through my presence. Attempting to convey my experience to others manifested in the form of evocative words and slicing hand gestures—missing the mark, yet refreshing and humorous at times. If you turn things around, you are like the Buddha.

I also remember speaking to an elder Zen teacher over green tea and Mexican cuisine (a prototypical California-style meal) about his more than 30 years of Zen practice. He said, “The real question is, what will you do when the man raises his middle finger, or the woman is screaming? Where is your Zen practice then?”

He smiled, with a look of seriousness. The aromas, the sound of dishes clattering and people chatting, melded with his words and gave them a texture of sorts, a practical significance that went hand-in-hand with what it means to live mindfully. There was life in these words, an echoing that reverberated throughout the room and harkened back to ancient times. His question is a deeply Buddhist one—where is your practice when times are hard, when suddenly you meet a giant, over-powering wave?

For me, and for the sake of this piece, turning things around and transforming into the vast ocean seemed like an appropriate answer. When we can take a contentious, seething moment or an unrelenting desire and invert it on itself, then this is Buddha’s practice. The elderly Zen teacher’s words continue to ring out today, too, emanating from the brown table on which I write, the flock of parrots that has made its home a few blocks from mine, and the truck climbing up the steep grade below the fire escape. There wasn’t a perfect answer for the teacher’s words at that moment, only a spontaneous nod, an acceptance of not having the answers and being comfortable with that. Challenges will come, and so will middle fingers, but Buddha’s practice remains Buddha’s practice. Inhabiting the now and remaining centered through what comes is turning things around.

Through the koan, I notice how the sum of my narrow perspectives forms the comfortable walls within which I enclose myself, causing me to lose touch with what is here. When I attempt to turn things around within my mind, I work to blow down the walls and step into fresh, open space, allowing life to unfold just as it is. And this is what I ask you to look into, to attempt when the time comes or when it just feels right. Each maneuver, each crumbling of our barriers brings us closer to a clear vision of reality and the selfless, balanced characteristics that come with such a view. This represents the ultimate freedom—one that is necessary for a transformation of heart and mind.

Here is another short exploration of one of my first koans, Sengcan’s “picking and choosing”:

“The great Way is not difficult
If you just don’t pick and choose”

~ Sengcan

The open mind is one that is like a metaphorical sky—vast to the point of laughter—clear and accepting of the various storm (thought) systems and cloud formations appearing and disappearing below. There isn’t a notion to change anything, just a witnessing and a being that flow with the naturalness of the moment. It could be an interesting experience to step into the realm of openness, putting down picking and choosing, likes and dislikes, and leaving the life of small storm systems to inhabit largeness. There might be something luscious about stepping into what is occurring as it is. For me, picking and choosing implies a kind of limitation of sorts between what is—reality—and what the mind desires to see and strives to attain. There can be resistance, aversion, defensiveness, manipulation and a sheep-like tendency to follow others, streaming out of a decision made from the unexamined, ego-based mind, without us ever realizing it. And there is conflict here too, one in which an infinitesimally small subject mentally pushes against a perceived outer, infinite object, when in reality, they are both part of an overarching oneness. Stepping into this oneness might come from the simple, mindful practice of being okay with what is: cancer, chocolate, deceased pets, work, sandy toes, soaring hawks.

The koan written above originates from an old spiritual master named Sengcan, an almost mythical figure or wild-man who roamed China’s wilderness sometime between the first and sixth centuries. It’s fun to watch scholars try to pin Sengcan down to a certain place or time, as if he meant to be a reclusive hermit for eternity, not to be a nuisance, but to be more like a continually surviving and humorous teaching or practical joke. As if within his leaping into the shadows of the unknown is a hidden and yet straightforward message: “Stop trying to find me through history! Put down your discerning mind and step into the moment right now… Oh, how nice it is to meet you!” In the Zen tradition he is viewed as one of the founding patriarchs, and for the sake of this piece, we’ll let him rest there for now.

When I bring Sengcan’s koan, “The great Way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose,” into this life I am often struck by its ability to break down my internal walls, allowing more of the texture of life to seep into my awareness. Something that may have dissuaded me before becomes an opportunity to enjoy the moment in a new way, and I am able to expand from the fortress of the who that I think I am.

I also notice how things begin to have a spacious quality or lightness to them when I don’t have the urge to pick or choose my opinions about how the moment should be. It’s not that the external event, the world, or even the universe is different—how could that ever be possible? It’s my interaction with what is and my perception of what is that has changed.[1]

There is also a joyful sense of playfulness wrapped within Sengcan’s words: when faced with a decision between cake or pie, I might decide in that moment, “redwood!”, blowing up my small mind and opening a door towards a kind of internal freedom or vastness I would otherwise not have been able to experience. Maybe this opening of the mind is the lusciousness, the thusness of life I have often read about in books, unfurling into this direct experience of the world and the moment, here, now.

Not picking and choosing includes all things, entering into the realms I fear and keep at bay, the real storms that block me from knowing my own sky-like nature. Sickness, being alone, past grievances, anger and grief, and the greatest teacher of all, death, are all intimate parts of the totality of experience that I choose to ignore and fend off. Allowing the koan to settle in these instances removes a kind of seething, underlying resistance that slithers below my perception of the world. When this subtle uneasiness is removed, then what is, is free to be as it is, and it takes on a natural brilliance on its own, without having to fit into my narrow, prescribed view of how things should be. And so, there might be a transformative experience waiting to be directly realized within not picking and choosing.

[i] In Japanese, the term koan translates as “public case.”


Editor: Brianna Bemel


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