Zen:     Koans

Walk straight on a narrow mountain path that has ninety nine curves.

Unique to Zen is the study of spiritual conundrums called koans. These are compact gems of poetry, enlightenment, humor and all–consuming action rolled into one. One of the great koans is well known in the West: “What is the sound of one hand?” This isn’t wordplay – ultimately it’s an entry point into the pure spiritual realm.

What makes it a koan and not just a riddle is that the resolution is existential rather than intellectual. It presents a situation that is impossible for ordinary logic to penetrate, and only yields when we shift to the extra–ordinary logic of the Zen Dimension. How do you walk straight on a narrow mountain path that has ninety nine curves? If you walk straight, you will fall off the path. If you walk in a curve, you are not walking straight. You can’t resolve such a question with the thinking mind any more than you can drive a car to the moon. You have to leap into the Zen Dimension; then the koan opens up like a curtain rising for a play to begin.

The word “koan” literally means “public case”. Like legal precedents, each illuminates a particular critical point. Quite often the case is a conversation between an ancient Chinese monk and his teacher. These conversations aren’t ordinary chit–chat – the participants are pushing each other to plunge into the realm of enlightenment.

A monk earnestly asks his teacher, “What is Buddha?” The teacher replies, “The God of Fire is calling for fire.”

What is the monk really asking here? “What is Buddha?” is a common question in koans because it goes to the heart of the spiritual quest. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, spent six years meditating and engaging in extreme ascetic practices until he resolved the ultimate questions of life. The characters in the koan stories are urgently seeking the essence of what Buddha found, so they bring up the matter as clearly and as directly as they can with their teachers. “Who am I?” “What is this life truly about?” “How can there be such suffering in this world?” All this is wrapped up in the one question, “What is Buddha?”

Zen is about waking up in our own life, within our own circumstances. It’s not about becoming someone else, not about turning into what we think Buddha is or was. We all have basic life principles and difficulties in common, so we can learn by seeing how others deal with those difficulties, but ultimately we have to see our own way. Our own life is absolutely unique, and the essence of this unique life is what we call “Buddha”. How can the old teacher help the monk realize this? “The God of Fire is calling for fire”. Again, impossible for ordinary logic. What does the God of Fire have to do with Buddha? There is no linear connection between them. The teacher sets up this barrier for the monk, trapping him in his own thinking mind, and only when he leaps free of the ordinary thought process can he see his teacher’s point: you are the God of Fire – fire is your domain, you are the consummate master of it. Why are you asking for it from someone else?

We spend a large amount of time enclosed within our heads, almost like in a box. Here we go over our narratives about how we like or dislike our life, think about what we need to do at work or at home, or just daydream about the past and the future. This is also where we do our problem solving. We imagine different scenarios, weigh the projected outcomes of different actions and decide which one to take. This is where we use ordinary logic, and it works most of the time. However, it is useless for resolving the deepest questions in life. These questions require a different way of viewing our life and its issues. To find this different way we have to get out of our habitual problem–solving box, and this is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires unusual effort and circumstances to spur us on.

The koan provides the unusual circumstances. Koans are called “the barriers set up by the Zen masters of old” by Master Mumon Ekai, who compiled an important collection of them called “The Gateless Gate” in the thirteenth century. The barrier resists all your usual mental and emotional efforts, and won’t yield until you’ve finally given up on all these schemes and either leap or fall exhausted into the Zen Dimension. Then you realize that what seemed to be a barrier was just your own refusal to see what is right in front of you.

In formal Zen study there are hundreds of koans. As we work through these spiritual gems we become familiar with the Zen Dimension and integrate it into more and more aspects of our daily life. It’s not enough to see the resolution once or twice, like understanding a concept or a formula. It’s more like learning a musical instrument – we have to practice it over and over to be able to make it sing.

The great spiritual teachings are like fingers pointing to the moon. The teaching itself isn’t the Truth – it can only point to the Truth. And each tradition points from a different angle. If we keep an open mind we can use all these fingers to triangulate in on the Truth and see the center they all point to. But if we get stuck on the “fingers”, on the specific terminology and cultural contexts of the teachings, we can miss the main point entirely.

Koans, on the other hand, give us a way to bypass this problem. They work outside the conceptual realm, putting us in direct contact with reality in a way that bypasses all interpretations of correct and incorrect. They aren’t metaphors or similes and they don’t point to the moon – they put you right on its surface.

Published: 07/30/2014
Updated: 08/07/2014


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