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Thread: Koan practice in our lineage

  1. #1

    Koan practice in our lineage

    I've searched the boards and didn't find anything that matched this topic.

    In any case, how are koans used in our lineage? I don't have firsthand knowledge of their use at all. I've just read that koans are practiced and are "passed" and so on in the Rinzai school. But what about our school?

  2. #2

    Re: Koan practice in our lineage

    Hi Cyril,

    Big topic, full of much misunderstanding and misinformation.

    In a nutshell ... Koans are very much prized and appreciated in the Soto tradition.

    DOGEN LOVED KOANS, as do all Soto teachers. Dogen loved Koans, taught Koans, spoke about Koans in most of his talks. Dogen's writings are chock full of Koans. His most famous works such as Shobogenzo are wall to wall Koans. All Soto teachers love and teach through Koans, me too (I just spoke of a couple of classics at our last monthly Zazenkai).

    However, we do not hold Koans in mind during Zazen ... or anything else in mind, for that matter, during Zazen

    With regard to the typical Rinzai practice (also found in some mixed Soto-Rinzai Lineages such as those derived from Maezumi Roshi) of holding a Koan, or a phrase or word of a Koan, in mind during Zazen on the cushion as an object of one pointed focus (for example, sitting while absorbed in "mu mu mu") ... raising a "Great Doubt" and such in order to attain a blasting "Kensho" ... or simply to pierce the Koan during Zazen ... no, that was not Dogen's way. "Silent Illumination/Just Sitting" was the Soto practice in China at and around the time of Dogen, and the practice Dogen encouraged.

    As Prof. Steve Heine, one of the best Dogenologists out there, wrote in his classic "Dogen and the Koan Tradition":

    In several passages of his writings Dogen explicitly refutes the use of koans ... When Dogen does deal in his writings with the issue of the meaning and importance of the koan, he seems to prefer the doctrine of genjokoan (spontaneous manifestation of the koan in concrete activities) to the Rinzai approach known as kanna-zen (introspecting the koan), which involves examining and contemplating kosoku- koan (old sayings or paradigmatic cases) included in koan collections


    In other words, in our Soto Way, all of life-reality is the BIG KOAN, the "Genjo-Koan", the koan ever manifesting right before our eyes and our eyes too! Koans are manifesting in 10,000 ways in life each moment. The classic Koans also carry lessons and tastes of Wisdom and Compassion which are good to "grock"** and make our own (just not --during-- seated Zazen itself, when we don't try to focus or ponder anything in particular ... Koans or anything else). Also, in Soto, there is generally no set series of Koans that must be "passed" as a curriculum.

    We also teach and approach and pierce the traditional Koan stories, but as expressions of Zen philosophy and logic (which is more a a Zenny "Anti-logic logic" ... usually very different from ordinary, common sense logic ... but not illogical when pierced). If you would like to see how I handle several Koans in that way, watch this talk from our last Zazenkai (the talk is here, near the start) ...

    http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/7457622

    I often say that we do not bring Koans into our Zazen, but that, following seated Zazen, we do read right through a Koan with Zazen mind!

    So, it is a Koan itself how this rumor started that Soto folks don't Koan.

    Here are a couple of threads that you should also look at ...

    viewtopic.php?f=2&t=1704
    viewtopic.php?f=2&t=1729&start=0&st=0&sk=t&sd=a

    Gassho, Jundo

    ** Grock (from the Urban Dictionary) ... understand,appreciate actively and profoundly, fully comprehend; also, to think about, listen to, play, or contemplate something or someone with full love and understanding, even ecstacy ... To thoroughly understand something through the metaphorical process of drinking it in.

  3. #3

    Re: Koan practice in our lineage

    Thank you so much!! I've had this question for a long time, and especially after looking at the recommended book list (and seeing a couple koan collections), it reminded me to ask it.

  4. #4

    Re: Koan practice in our lineage

    I'm currently reading a book on koans called "Bring me the Rhinoceros" by John Tarrant, Roshi. I don't understand the koans and I have no idea how to "work on them", but they gnaw at me and keep forcing themselves into my thoughts. I'm not sure what to make of it, but they've got my curiosity going.

  5. #5

    Re: Koan practice in our lineage

    Maybe the "gnawing" is the working on them. I've started watching Taigu's talks on the Oxherding pictures (which I really enjoy so far... thank you Taigu!), and he mentions that perspective.. I hope I don't mess this up, but to paraphrase, he says that we just let it bloom. We let these sutras and readings bloom in us, as opposed to consciously trying to deduce the meaning.

    And that, for me, is the hardest thing because I am so used to consciously troubleshooting or fixing things. At the same time, it's really fun to explore things that way.

  6. #6
    Stephanie
    Guest

    Re: Koan practice in our lineage

    Yes, well said, cyril.

    One of the first things I encountered that had to do with Zen was a book of koans. I didn't understand any of them, but found that many of them made me laugh and stirred my imagination in ways I couldn't explain.

    The way I've found that koans have worked on me over the years is the same way that music, poetry, and literature does. You read something at one point in your life, and it either doesn't make much sense or doesn't resonate that much with you, but then, years later, a phrase or line or section pops up in your head and you realize that you get it now, because you've experienced something that allowed you to understand. The quiet, sad songs you couldn't get as a teenager, the poems that sounded alien, suddenly, one day, come back to you because you've had some heartache or accomplishment or moment of freedom that this person framed so well in that song, poem, etc. And you understand. I love those moments, they're like the moments in a symphony where a building tension is resolved with perfect harmony.

    I don't know that I could 'pass' koans in a Rinzai sense, or if my understanding of them is the 'correct' one... but there are a lot of koans I didn't understand when I first read them that make perfect sense now, that are poignant and touching in ways I never imagined they could be. To the point I don't understand how some people talk about how koans work by short-circuiting the rational mind with some irrational or illogical conundrum. That's not what they are at all, IMO--they're poetry, and speak as clearly and directly as possible to things realized and encountered on the Zen path. They're like roadsigns... not in the sense of marking your getting ever closer to some distant goal, but rather just markers that show you're crossing some territory that another Zen practitioner crossed before.

  7. #7
    Treeleaf Unsui Dosho's Avatar
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    Re: Koan practice in our lineage

    Thanks Stephanie (and everyone else!) for this thread...really helped put koans into some perspective for me.

    G, D

  8. #8

    Re: Koan practice in our lineage

    Quote Originally Posted by Stephanie
    One of the first things I encountered that had to do with Zen was a book of koans. I didn't understand any of them, but found that many of them made me laugh and stirred my imagination in ways I couldn't explain.

    The way I've found that koans have worked on me over the years is the same way that music, poetry, and literature does. You read something at one point in your life, and it either doesn't make much sense or doesn't resonate that much with you, but then, years later, a phrase or line or section pops up in your head and you realize that you get it now, because you've experienced something that allowed you to understand. [..]
    Sometimes I see koans as a joke. A joke that made you laugh when you read it or heard it. But if you take a joke or a koan and try to break it apart with some logic or scientific process as if it were a frog to be dissected, then you miss the point of it the joke or koan.

  9. #9

    Re: Koan practice in our lineage

    Quote Originally Posted by Stephanie
    Yes, well said, cyril.

    They're like roadsigns... not in the sense of marking your getting ever closer to some distant goal, but rather just markers that show you're crossing some territory that another Zen practitioner crossed before.
    Koans as a roadmap! I never thought about them like that before but it makes a lot of sense and gives new life to them for me.

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