Author Topic: Working with Koans  (Read 2022 times)

Offline Dharmakara

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Working with Koans
« on: April 04, 2014, 10:56:48 pm »
Source: Working with Koans by Jacky Sach & Jessica Faust
http://www.netplaces.com/zen/koan-study/working-with-koans.htm

Koans are very frustrating for Westerners, who typically rely on their logical, rational intellect and love definitive answers to any questions. Westerners usually like to think there is only one answer to one question. People with this mindset often have difficulty accepting answers that are not clear-cut, definitive, and rational. Koan study is a frustrating practice that can arouse deep desperation in a student. Zen is a practice of action, and koans are active practice. They are not to be spoken about, or thought about, but are to be done. When you do a koan, you do not talk about it or banter questions and answers back and forth in conversation, as you would in debate.

While discussing a koan, the teacher may impart information that the student misunderstands. The student might then start chasing a path that will never illuminate the truth. So, keep in mind that anything said in these discussions is not the truth itself but an attempt to describe the truth that can be seen through koan study.


Entering Samadhi

In order to undertake koan study, a student must be completely and utterly gripped by Zen. Zen calls to its students, and its students become willing to risk their very existence for the existence of the reality of their true selves. You will be willing to give everything you have to your practice. You must throw yourself at the koan with desperation. You will call your koan with everything that you have.

To start, work on your koan as you sit zazen. Breathe in, and then on the out breath, call your koan with every part of yourself. At the very end of your breath you will eventually find a blank space. The answer to your koan can be found within that blank space. Enter the blank space.

As you move from breath meditation to your first koan, your meditation will become stronger. Initially, you will find with breath meditation that you are able to still your incessant thoughts. Your mind becomes still, and you are fully aware of the present moment. You become able to control your jumping monkey mind, and you will be able to enter samadhi. Samadhi is a state of deep concentration. It is a meditative state, in which you are aware of everything but in which you are also very deep within the meditation. It is in this state of samadhi that you will work on your koan. When samadhi has developed to a satisfactory strength, you are primed for your koan practice.

In koan practice, you want to sleep, eat, dream, and live your koan. You want to actually become one with your koan, so call it with everything that you have. As they say, die on the cushion. You will be reborn, and life will take on new meaning.


Realizing the No-Self

Let's take a look at a koan so you get a flavor of what is ahead for you.

The monks of two halls of a monastery were disputing over a cat. Nansen held the cat up for all to see in one hand and with his other he picked up his sword and said, “Monks, if you can say a word of Zen, I will spare the cat. If you cannot, I will kill it!”

Not one of the monks would answer. So Nansen raised his sword over his head and finally cut the cat in two. That evening, Joshu came back to the monastery and Nansen told him of the story. Joshu immediately took off one of his shoes and put it on his head.

Nansen said, “If you had been there, the cat would have been spared.”


What is meant by this story? It looks like a load of nonsense to most people. However, Joshu was able, by putting his shoe on his head, to show Nansen that he knew of Zen. We cannot understand this koan with our intellect and cannot rationalize our way through its meaning. But a closer look reveals more than initially meets our limited understanding.

“Of the many devices employed by Ego to keep us in power, none is more effective than language. The English languageis so structured that it demands the repeated use of the personal pronoun ‘I’ for grammatical nicety and presumed clarity. This plays into the hands of Ego … for the more we postulate this, the more we are exposed to Ego's never-ending demands.”—Zen Master Philip Kapleau

Nansen and Joshu were both great Zen masters. Nansen asks us to come up with some response that will stop him from killing the cat. As we know from the precepts, killing is abhorrent in Zen, so for Nansen to actually kill a cat must mean that he is trying to impart some extremely important information to the crowd of monks and is willing to do something absolutely awful in order to do so. He waits to see if any of the monks knows anything of Zen and then he kills the cat. The question is: How can you save the cat?

The only way you can answer this question is to be no-self, to kill the self and realize the no-self. The monks were all abiding in their ego-driven small selves, afraid to take a chance, afraid to speak out and be judged by others. Ego raged in the room, and not one monk was a living example of no-self. In order to understand why Joshu put his shoe on his head and satisfied Nansen with an understanding of Zen, one has to work on the koan and give one's whole self to the realization of the koan.

« Last Edit: April 04, 2014, 11:02:36 pm by Dharmakara, Reason: formatting »

Offline former monk john

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #1 on: April 05, 2014, 03:01:38 am »
Soory, but that's a simply horrible story, I daresay the cats life was more important than the stupid monks understanding of zen!!
to me, the signs of a successful practice are happiness and a cessation of suffering, buddhism often gives me this; not all the answers.

Offline Dharmakara

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #2 on: April 05, 2014, 05:47:18 am »
I dare say that you missed the point of the koan.

Offline former monk john

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #3 on: April 05, 2014, 02:15:30 pm »
If you have to kill a cat to prove a point, even metaphorically, then I have no interest in the meaning......
to me, the signs of a successful practice are happiness and a cessation of suffering, buddhism often gives me this; not all the answers.

Offline ZenFred

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #4 on: April 05, 2014, 05:39:24 pm »
Hmmm.. quite a koan within a koan : )

 In a sense John, I agree with you and think you have a valid response.

 I take a less "traditional" interpretation of koans in that there is not just one right answer and shouldn't be used a clear cut test between being enlightened and not. As you said DK, "Westerners usually like to think there is only one answer to one question."  I see that each person encounters the koan, which is why you do in Zazen in order to encounter and not just think about the riddle. And everyone encounters a different truth, or even lack of it, and there cannot be any "cheating" by being given the answer. Sometimes there is no answer is the answer as in "Who am I?".

  In many sanghas, Koans are used by teachers to test students and check their responses as barometers of their level of understanding. This may be helpful if used carefully, it is chiefly important to not consider "right" and "wrong" answers. Wisdom and understanding is in the reception of the listener, for the wisest teacher could talk all day but if no one is listening it is wasted breath.

  So back to this Koan. The "correct" response is a classic zen one that reality as is (often demonstrated through slamming on the table or slapping a student) is what it is. A shoe on the head is a shoe on the head. That's Zen. In this view the cat is used for shock value a beloved tactic by Zen teachers.

  The response I would give this koan is that by saying "If you had been there..." Master Nansen truly demonstrates his lack of understanding. Not only does he not know the right answer but in expecting there is a "right" answer and a "wrong" one, for even killing the cat is Zen, but he carries it a step further by stating an "if, then statement" and Zen is being being beyond all cause and effect. The fact that it involves the death of the animal underlines this fact since the truly enlightened person is beyond all cause and effect, including and especially life and death. In this view, the cat is a symbol of the delusion of causality.

  John, I think your response is valid and you could add to the story is that Joshu (the wise master) told Nansen (the foolish one) that he was going to deepest hell for what he did. Nansen believed that by harming others he could extract the truth. He also believed that his status as a teacher exempted him from karma. As a zen practitioner, he believes karma is empty and this is true, but at the same time you should still follow the precepts with even greater zeal knowing the true nature of karma. Perhaps it was just a story, yes, but even a story about killing a cat needlessly creates bad karma. You could be really shocking and say you all are going to hell for listening to it and not immediately objecting to the cat's demise.

 Which of these responses are right? I think they all hold truth. Which is the most "correct"? I think just asking that question shows a lack of understanding. But that's just how I see koans and perhaps there are some zen centers that would politely ask me to leave for saying that.

-Fred



 

 

Offline Dharmakara

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #5 on: April 06, 2014, 06:26:56 am »
If you have to kill a cat to prove a point, even metaphorically, then I have no interest in the meaning......


Needless to say, a person's interest and any potential benefit would become a mute point if that person is unable (or unwilling) to look beyong words and forms, beyond preconceived views or perceptions thereof, ect. --- for example, there's an excellent examination of Dogen's position as it relates to the action undertaken by Nansen in this story, namely that "while such a view [i.e., the killing of the cat as a means of bringing enlightenment to others] is all right, it would be better not to hold it."

For anyone who might be interested in reading the aforementioned article, it's entitled "Who Is Arguing About the Cat? Moral Action and Englightenment According to Dogen" and can be found here:

http://www.thezensite.com/ZenEssays/DogenStudies/Who_Is_Arguing.htm

As for your personal opinion of this koan, please keep in mind that you are posting such opinions within the Chan/Zen sub-section of the forum. While you are certainly entitled to your opinion, it should be noted that such posts are less than appropriate here, not only because of the sub-section in which you are doing this, but also because of the koan's well-established place throughout the life and history of the tradition itself.

Offline ZenFred

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #6 on: April 06, 2014, 08:08:45 am »

http://www.mro.org/mr/archive/24-2/articles/dogenandkoansdaido.html

Roshi Loori writes of Dogen's view of Koans:

In koan introspection, on the other hand, a student sits with the koan in zazen, letting go of trying to solve or understand it, but rather embodies it as a whole body-and-mind experience. The teacher then tests the student’s direct insight in dokusan, private face-to-face interviews.

Dokusan demands that one directly and dynamically present one’s own understanding. Because of this, it can be said that there is no one answer to a koan. Seeing into a koan requires the embodiment of a certain state of consciousness. It is this direct seeing into a koan that the teacher looks for and tests to determine the clarity of the student’s understanding. And it is this direct understanding that is at the heart of realization.
« Last Edit: April 06, 2014, 08:52:20 am by ZenFred »

Offline ZenFred

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #7 on: April 06, 2014, 08:59:24 am »
So the above quote demonstrates how Dogen was highly critical of traditional method of using koans to establish a master's superior understanding over his students' and how each person must encounter the conflicting nature of the koan and the truth it points to. This view is why soto in general tends not use koans much.

Perhaps I am touching on what I see as a general hypocrisy in Zen. I may post about that in the danger zone. But I think discussing differing views of koans and wrestling with their meanings is well within zen traditions in the spirit of dogen in soto and "dharma combat" in the rinzai school.

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharma_combat

Offline ZenFred

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #8 on: April 25, 2014, 06:28:03 pm »
So I heard a "koan"* today:

 A homeless man told me the story about he got in a motorcycle wreck, splintering his leg and smashing a massive dent into this helmet. The doctors were amazed he survived. He said that he lived only because "Jesus was in his heart."

*As mentioned earlier, I have a wider view of koans and think they can be found in daily life, often by accident, not just in centuries old books. Seung Sahn in his book Wanting Enlightenment is a Mistake tells the story of a toll both attendant giving him a koan saying of a storm "where did this wind come from?"

Offline Dharmakara

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #9 on: April 25, 2014, 06:50:34 pm »
A koan is a paradoxical anecdote or riddle that's used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment. There is no inadequacy of logical reasoning in the above, as logic would dictate that the man is alive because the helmet got dented, not his head itself.

Offline ZenFred

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #10 on: April 26, 2014, 05:31:00 am »
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C5%8Dan
I suppose you are right, it's not a koan  ;D

Here are some other not koans, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacker_koan
My favorite being:
A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on.
Knight, seeing what the student was doing, spoke sternly: "You cannot fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong."
Knight turned the machine off and on.
The machine worked.
« Last Edit: April 26, 2014, 05:39:01 am by ZenFred »

Offline NoEssentialNature

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #11 on: May 19, 2014, 07:27:37 pm »
Soory, but that's a simply horrible story, I daresay the cats life was more important than the stupid monks understanding of zen!!


It is interesting to look at what Dogen wrote about this tale, eg as discussed here http://www.thezensite.com/ZenEssays/DogenStudies/Who_Is_Arguing.htm
In particular, that Dogen seems to say that it would have been better not to cut the cat, that while an enlightened act, it was unskilful.

An interpretation of the killing of the cat goes, maybe the monks were arguing about the acceptability of monks keeping a cat that kills mice. The cat that pounces and swallows a mouse does not intend suffering to the mouse. Were the monks playing with their mouse, their own complicity in causing suffering? Which is dealt with in one pounce, not by playing around.

I worry that the picture of Joshu with a shoe on his head is taken as pantomime. When actually he was making a deadly serious commentary. Which was also funny. We are all in this situation now, we created karma of killing mice by other karma of getting a cat. Trying to resolve the situation by dealing with karma, your causes that have gone out into the world, rather than by dealing with intention, is wearing a shoe on your head, trying to prepare for making progress by focusing on the wrong end.

In response to the 1st post/article:

I get a bit wary of 'undiscussable' koans. If you are really absorbed by the problem, won't it creep into any discussion? And don't all unenlightened Buddhists face the same one koan (awakening), and try to answer it through forming a sangha and, among other things, discussing it?

I read what I think is a very interesting discussion on the origins of koan practice: Opening A Mountain (http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/25064417?uid=3738032&uid=2460338175&uid=2460337935&uid=2&uid=4&uid=83&uid=63&sid=21104043727277). This paints a picture of koan practice as something much more fluid than the modern practice. I saw this as a picture of practice that is about honing the capacity for turning or insightful encounters at all moments. People need to be able to hope for more from Zen than to one day wear a shoe on their head with pride. I feel that would be better served by some blunter talking about koans and koan practice.
« Last Edit: May 19, 2014, 08:04:00 pm by NoEssentialNature »

Offline Dharmakara

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #12 on: May 19, 2014, 07:47:53 pm »
An interpretation of the killing of the cat goes, maybe the monks were arguing about the acceptability of monks keeping a cat that kills mice. The cat that pounces and swallows a mouse does not intend suffering to the mouse. Were the monks playing with their mouse, their own complicity in causing suffering? Which is dealt with in one pounce, not by playing around.

Actually, the general story behind the koan is that the two sides were arguing about who the cat belonged to, kind of reminiscent of the Old Testament story where King Solomon declares that a child should be cut in half because two women were arguing about who the mother of the child really was.

Offline NoEssentialNature

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #13 on: May 19, 2014, 08:01:58 pm »
An interpretation of the killing of the cat goes, maybe the monks were arguing about the acceptability of monks keeping a cat that kills mice. The cat that pounces and swallows a mouse does not intend suffering to the mouse. Were the monks playing with their mouse, their own complicity in causing suffering? Which is dealt with in one pounce, not by playing around.

Actually, the general story behind the koan is that the two sides were arguing about who the cat belonged to, kind of reminiscent of the Old Testament story where King Solomon declares that a child should be cut in half because two women were arguing about who the mother of the child really was.

Yes, and that is an interesting parallel. But it leaves hanging the question of why two halls of people not allowed to own stuff are arguing about who gets the cat. Do both halls have a lot of mice? Or is it the entertainment or affection of the cat? Which guidance/s are they breaking that Nansen takes such extreme measures?

Offline Dharmakara

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Re: Working with Koans
« Reply #14 on: May 19, 2014, 08:17:45 pm »
If I recall correctly, it was affection of the cat, that both sides had claimed the cat for its own --- still see cats in monasteries today, like at Nga Phe Chaung Monastery in Myanmar, though I've heard that senior monks have been attempting to curb the behavior, training cats to jump through hoops, ect.

« Last Edit: May 19, 2014, 08:19:56 pm by Dharmakara, Reason: added video »

 


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