Into the Depths

The Koan:

In the sea,

ten thousand feet down,
there’s a single stone.
I’ll pick it up without wetting my hands.


The sweetness in the path of using a koan is that it assumes we can change. If it really is possible, in this life, to have a complete and liberating shift in the way you come at things, that’s an amazing thing to consider. If you understand that an awakening really is possible, then the rest comes down merely to questions of method. And that’s the kindness of the path: the old master says, “Sometimes it seems crazy to think it, but transformation really does happen. So try it out. Go at it. And here’s a method for you.”

Koans offer a kind of imaginative mindfulness; they bring attention to reality beneath the level of our usual thoughts about life. Then you can notice what it’s like without those usual thoughts about an issue—death, love, work, children, marmalade. If you have an unanswerable question, the koan is designed to open it.

This koan brings images and sensations with it. There’s water, earth, depth, sinking, light from above, pressure, breath, moving in the dark, finding, meeting, meeting yourself, rising up, shallowness, an impossible feat, getting immersed, and being untouched.

You can keep company with the koan day and night, without any need to assess or measure your state of mind. Sitting, walking, talking, typing, cooking—they are all in the sea, ten thousand feet down.

The koan is something alive that you interact with. You might repeat the koan to yourself continually and notice its presence wherever you look. It might shorten to “in the sea” or to “a stone,” or it might become an image, a sound, a slight movement of the world, an alteration in your view. When you are connected with a great koan, whatever happens in the mind is something the koan is showing you.

If your view is unforgiving, the koan might show you this by drenching you in it. If your mind attacks itself, the koan will show you the dreamlike quality of bitterness and grief. You learn that you can endure your own mind states. Then you might have epiphanies, a waking up that leaves you laughing for months, or you might simply notice that your life is changing and that when you reach for them, your habits of thought have gone missing. The world you inhabit is up to you. The koan takes away our belief in empty worlds.

And here is the real point: the koan can surprise you. There is nothing wrong with fear, disappointment, and the rest of the pains of life, but they are predictable and the koan is not. You could sink down beneath any unhappiness you have know. In the sea ten thousand feet down lies a stone. With the koan, you can move with ease in the deeps of your own life.