Our Treeleaf Sangha is about to begin dancing - and living - the 100 Koans of the treasured “BOOK OF EQUANIMITY”. So, it’s a good time to look at some all too common MISUNDERSTANDINGS, NARROW VIEWS, BIASES, SECTARIAN DOGMAS, “MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY-isms”, PARTIAL TRUTHS and PREJUDICES that plague discussion of Koan Practice in the modern Zen world.
In doing so, my purpose is not to impose my own sectarian dogma and “my way or the highway-ism” in place of others. In fact, my central point is that there are MANY excellent Paths of Koan Practice, that the Koans belong to all of us. There are MANY good paths up and down the mountainless-mountain.
Discussion of these topics can be surprisingly sensitive to many Zen folks, a bit like challenging any religious talisman, such as Christians discussing “the one true way to believe in Jesus”. (Zen folks can get fired up too when faced with challenges to their own religious sacred cows, although usually in an understated Buddhist way). In fact, there are many right ways to believe in Jesus suited to different believers, just as there are several right ways to practice Koans suited to different practitioners. Thus, most of the following misunderstandings arise from the belief that there is only one right way to enter the Koans, when in fact there has always been more than one way to skin “Nanzan’s cat”.
A few of the common misunderstandings and biases still prevalent arise from the fact that some of the earliest and most popular books on Zen first published in the West, such as the writings by D.T. Suzuki, the “Three Pillars of Zen” and others (including even many current authors), present a certain view and personal approach to the Koans and Koan Practice which (while surely rich and fruitful for such practitioners) seem to characterize various other approaches as less authentic. Those writings often leave the false impression that the views expressed by the authors have correctly represented the one traditional path to Practice with Koans … or even the oldest, most mainstream, or necessarily most fruitful and powerful use of Koans as encountered throughout Zen Buddhist history and for all practitioners.
It simply was not so.
Better said, there have been several ancient, traditional Paths of Koan Practice, each fruitful and boundlessly powerful to those on that Path.
Before beginning discussion, let me underline again that I am not and never will be critical of the ways of Koan Practice expressed by those authors or other Koan practioners, Teachers and Students, undertaking the Koans in personal ways they find powerful, fruitful Practice for their own needs. Wonderful! I support each and all to find and express the Path suitable for their own walking. My point is merely to challenge various wide spread suppositions, narrow sectarian views and a common lack of awareness of Zen Buddhist history regarding the development of Koan Practice that lead to “my way or the highway-ism”. Throughout our history, there have been several enlightening ways of dancing the Koans, and my 'finger wagging' is directed only at those folks who would assert that they stand as guardian of the one and exclusive truly authentic, traditional, most powerful, original, legitimate enlightening way of Koan Practice.
So, what are some of the common misunderstandings, biases, prejudices etc. about Koan Practice? I will discuss these in my talk today, including:
I - The first misunderstanding, believed by many, is that the one truly enlightening, and most ancient or original, way to Practice with Koans is through what is sometimes called “Koan Introspection Zazen”, including the “Kanhua” or “Wa’to” methods of Koan introspection. Although a wondrous way for its practitioners beyond any question of when it developed in history, it is not the only or oldest way. (Likewise, neither is Dogen’s way the “oldest way”, nor the way for all practitioners).
II - Another misunderstanding is the assertion that Dogen (and the Japanese Soto Tradtion overall) did/do not treasure Koans and, what’s more, did/do not cherish “Enlightenment,” including but not limited to so-called 'KENSHO' momentless-moments of Seeing One's Nature. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Whether Dogen treasured “Koan Introspection Zazen” practice for his students is another matter, and the historical record appears to indicate probably not. However, even here, nobody "owns" Dogen any more than anyone "owns" Jesus, and people are free to believe as their religious heart guides them.
III - It is also possibly a misunderstanding that the only or most vital way to express one’s penetration of a Koan is necessarily through a verbal or non-verbal exchange in the dokusan/sanzen room consisting of behavior such as throwing down one’s stick on the ground, drawing a circle in the air, blowing out a candle, MUUUUing, or quoting a line from a classic poem. There is a time for such and, in fact, Dogen could throw down his stick with the best of ‘em. However, many teachers will tell you (not only Soto Zen teachers, but of all stripes) that … while perhaps a good way for many practitioners … such is not the only, or perhaps even the most vital way to express understanding of the Koans, For example, for perhaps the majority of modern Zen teachers today, Koans are truly realized (meaning, to make real and bring to life) in and though actual life, such that it is not so much what one says or does not say in a room … but how one lives, embodying the Teachings and Perspectives contained in the Koans in all one’s life.
IV - The next misunderstanding (actually professed in many books on Zen, but certainly a minority view among Zen Teachers modern or old) is that the Koans must be completely divorced from core Mahayana Buddhist perspectives and Teachings of the Sutras and Commentaries, and are beyond all intellectually graspable logic and ideas of Buddhist philosophy. In such views, the only legitimate way to approach a Koan is not to think about what the Koan means, but rather, to simply throw oneself into the Koan, or even a single phrase or word of the Koan, completely abandoning intellectual reflection and thinking about what particular Buddhist teaching or philosophical perspective is being presented in the Koan. While certainly a good way for many practioners, others may find it divorced from reality in more ways than one!
V - Another partial misunderstanding of the Koans is that, the stranger the behavior or more mysterious the language used, and thus the harder to understand … the more profound the Koan must be as Koans were never meant to be understood in ordinary fashion. In fact, the Koans were generally much much clearer to Buddhist hearers hundreds of years ago, persons familiar with the now forgotten inside jokes, poetic references, Chinese slang and dialect that fills the Koans. The Koans are often rendered unclear simply due to cultural and language differences, the separation of the centuries, and our wilful refusal to think about and study the traditional Buddhist Teachings the Koan is seeking to express. The Koans were not as impenetrable to the monks and educated Buddhists of the past who were very familiar with the philosophy and perspectives of Mahayana Buddhism they stood for. The logic of the Koans often seems strange because the perspectives of Mahayana Buddhism are “strange” to the unaccustomed reader (not strange at all to the initiated). Of course, in that sense ... yes, the Koans are "not understood in our normal reasoning fashion" and transcend many normal ways of experiencing things.
VI – Another misunderstanding is that the Koans must be responded to instantaneously and spontaneously or the response is not valuable. While perhaps true for some, others may believe that sometimes in life we are spontaneous, and sometimes we let things sink slowly into the bones.
VII – Another misunderstanding is that the stories actually happened to real historical figures. In fact, most may have been written centuries after the events depicted, are the product of authors trying to present highly idealized and paradigmatic imagined examples of Zen Master behavior, exist in various conflicting versions of the story, or are only partially traceable to the people and times they describe. (This misunderstanding is perhaps the least important for, as with any work of fiction, the story is “real” if real and precious to the reader).
Today’s talk is a little longer than usual (35 minutes), and pardon my voice due to a head cold.
PODCAST AUDIO FILE HERE: