The Power of Koan Practice

by John Tarrant

Those who have used koans have described them as a poetic technology for bringing about awakening, a painful but effective gate into the consciousness of the Buddha, an easy method of integrating awakening into everyday life, the most frustrating thing they have ever done, an appalling waste of time, a tyranny perpetrated by Zen masters… Well, you get the idea — about koans, opinions differ.

If it turns out that koans suit you or — to put it in more koan-like language — if koans choose you, then they are a help in living with less fear and more happiness in a quite individual way. Koans are a fairly old form and, coming through East Asia with its reverence for tradition, have been taught in a fashion that hasn’t changed much since the twelfth century. There is nothing wrong with this in itself; however, I have been interested in other modes in which to describe and use them, modes that are true to the koan’s original, innovative spirit and also available to our culture now. This article is a report on a thirty-year experiment in that direction.

Although koans have made it into popular culture as riddles and wisecracks, they aren’t all mystery and strangeness; they are intended to have an outcome, to work, to be effective in relieving unhappiness and, just as importantly, to be amusing. Though they have heroic moments, koans encourage the notion that the comic is truer and more pleasant to live inside than the epic.

Koans seem true to life because they rely on uncertainty, surprise and the imagination. They depend on the inconceivable, which is the largest part of life. At the same time, if koans leap, they take off from a specific place, they depend on the everyday world of the kitchen and the garden and on precise language. In this way they are like art; they encourage you to move beyond your self-imposed limits by offering a fresh view of things you have already seen, or think you have already seen. Through the koans you find freedom by entering life more fully. As Suzuki Roshi said of koans:

From the Buddha’s time to our age, human nature has been nearly the same. We live in the world of time and space, and our life does not go beyond this limit. To live in the world of time and space is like putting a big snake into a small can. The snake will suffer in the small can. It does not know what is going on outside of the can. Because it is in the can, it is so dark he cannot see anything, but he will struggle in the small can. That is what we are doing. The more we struggle, the greater the suffering will be. That kind of practice will not work. Putting yourself in a small can and sitting day after day in a cross-legged position is worse than a waste of time. Do you understand? Sometimes our practice is something like this. We don’t know how much our understanding is limited. That is why you have to study koans. Koans will open up your mind. If you understand your way of life more objectively, you will understand what you are doing.

How koans came about is worth mentioning. Twelve hundred years ago in China, when spiritual teachers became known for a particularly joyful and deep understanding of life, people came to learn, hoping to gain the insight that a teacher had. They left farms, homes and jobs in the bureaucracy to form monastic communities; some traveled a thousand miles on foot. These students worked, studied, meditated and asked questions.

The teachers made a few unusual decisions that kept the process interesting. First of all, they liked doubt and encouraged questions. This is rare in religion and an example of the Zen way of treating what is usually thought of as a problem-in this case, doubt-as a strength. The teachers also decided they would treat all questions as if they were worthwhile, no matter what their content. “Why is my boyfriend leaving?” would be treated as having the same spiritual value as, “What happens when I die?” There was a trust in whatever forces had brought the student to the point of asking, and any question was treated as being about enlightenment, whether the student was aware of it or not. This is a generous view but it didn’t always have comforting results, because the teachers made yet a third decision. Instead of giving kind advice, or step-by-step instructions, the teachers responded to the students as if they were capable of coming to a complete understanding in that moment. A teacher’s words often made no rational sense, yet possessed a compelling quality. Sometimes a student who had been stuck and unhappy would be suddenly full of joy. More often, the words would work away in the mind, drawing the student out of a limiting view he or she held.

Some exchanges became famous and were written down. They came to be known as koans-the word means “public case”— and there was a mania for collecting them. One well-known teacher forbade his students to write down what he said because he thought they were recording his comments as a substitute for the more necessary and dangerous task of letting them work on the mind. One student adapted by wearing paper clothing to lectures, and the notes he jotted down secretly on his sleeves were passed around.

Soldiers, housewives, farmers and merchants used koans to find freedom within the often difficult conditions of their times. The method was simply to immerse yourself in the saying and see how it changed your view of reality; to let it teach you by interacting with the immediate circumstances of your life and your mind.

In one instance, when Genghis Khan’s troops swept through China in the twelfth century, provincial governors went to the Khan and became senior ministers. They lived out on the steppes with him, hoping to persuade him to rule the cities rather than burning them and converting them into horse pasture. It would be hard not to feel unprepared for, and perhaps terrified of, such a task, and one of the ministers asked his teacher for advice. The most helpful thing the teacher could think of was to make a collection of koans and poems that he called The Book of Serenity. When this book arrived on the steppes, the story goes, the ministers sat up together all night in a yurt, reading the koans aloud.

I took up koan practice when I was meditating outdoors in the rainforests and hills in Queensland, Australia, about thirty years ago. Koans seemed to fit my mind the way it was, as opposed to the way I wished it were. Most meditation instructions employ an engineering metaphor and my mind was not very efficient at being an engine. In the engineering model, everything is nicely laid out in stages. Meditation instructions were intended to be a map of escape routes from the mind’s prison, but I knew that I was often reading that map with an inmate’s consciousness. I might think I was taking down the prison walls, when I was really just doing interior design to make my cell more comfy. Some sort of leap was needed. “Hmm,” I thought, “traditional meditation training makes sense, the steps follow-one, two, three, four-it is rational, it’s serious, it knows where it wants to go. Obviously it won’t work for me.”

A koan, though, seemed to be a brief art form that, regardless of your opinions about it, rearranged the world. In the koan universe a creative leap isn’t “one, two, three, four, six”; it is more like “one, two, three, four, rhinoceros.” It doesn’t allow the sanity defense and doesn’t discriminate against those with attention deficit.

Somewhere I had read that it was bad to take up koans without a teacher at hand. But if you followed that advice in Australia you would have been limited to playing cricket in the bush with the kangaroos. There were no teachers to be found. So I chose a koan and started to keep it company. Since I didn’t know how to work with it, I just spent about six years with it day and night. There was no instruction manual, I didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t know what the outcome would look like, and there was no one to ask. There was a nakedness about this approach that seemed right. My meditation wasn’t contaminated by my prejudices. A year or so ago, when I visited him in the hospice, the Zen poet Philip Whalen told me, “They want me to die in stages. I can’t be bothered with that.” It seemed to me that he thought the same thing about his journey into the deep dark: why take your opinions with you?

With koans, whatever you thought, the koan would take it away. “What is Buddha?” someone asked. “Three pounds of flax,” said the teacher. Another teacher said, “This very heart and mind is Buddha.” Someone checked his answer by asking him again, “What is Buddha?” and he answered, “Not mind, not Buddha.” The koans took away what you believed but they didn’t put something else in its place. “What is Buddha?” asked yet another student, and the teacher said, “Dried shit stick.” This teacher had gained enlightenment when his leg was caught and broken in an iron gate, so perhaps this wasn’t shock therapy after all, but just an attempt to broaden the student’s range of appreciation of life’s offerings.

The theory, if there is one, that underlies koans is based on classical Buddhism but extends it. From the misty beginnings of the way, the Buddhist idea about transformation is that suffering comes from your own thinking. As Montaigne said, “No one is injured but by himself.” So far, so good. If you want to be free from suffering, it follows, you have to remove your delusions. Original Buddhism was essentially mind training. “Stay calm, don’t panic, no need to go shopping, keep away from influences that might trouble the mind,” was the idea. Yogic concentration techniques were taught: “Pay attention to your breathing and if your mind wanders bring it back to your breathing, no matter what, no matter if you feel happy or sad or go out of your mind with boredom,” is a good example. Concentration methods are still the foundation practice. Anyone who has ever spent an hour in silence can find that such concentration is refreshing and healing.

There were also traditional prescriptions to induce detachment. They contained helpful suggestions along the lines of, “Imagine your girlfriend is ugly and repulsive.” One would have thought this would pose a marketing problem. But times are usually hard and if you have had enough civil war and poverty it’s amazing what you will be willing to try. From the koan point of view, though, the difficulty here wasn’t marketing; it was accuracy and effectiveness. If you don’t perceive your girl as ugly, that’s not a problem, and to make it one feels like straining.

With the koan, you get to listen to the mind’s conversation before trying to change it. Even without adding evaluations of beauty, the internal conversation is always happening and it defines the world you live in and who you are. And when you do listen, it’s hard not to be amused, because, while the conversation has an immense variety, it has only one real interest, which is, “What about Little Me?”

“Little Me” is like an employee you hired to take care of the garden. Then he began to do a little bookkeeping, and then he decided whom you should marry and what job you should take. This out-of-control employee also took on the job of spiritual practice, turning it towards his own ends. The koan’s job is to interrupt the conversation in such a way as to allow you to see through it, even to enjoy it. The less you believe your internal conversation, though, the less you need your employee, Little Me. You will still exist and eat and think and so on but life will be very much expanded. If your girlfriend looks beautiful to you, she’s just beautiful and that’s all there is to it. It’s not in the realm of right and wrong.

The first Buddhist stories were very grand. They went along the lines of: “Something terrible happened to me. My children were eaten by tigers and I went mad. Then I met the Buddha and he said come along with me and I did: I practiced meditation until suddenly one day the lamp of wanting and fearing blew out. That was it. No more being born and wanting stuff. I couldn’t be more thrilled.”

The imagination has a soft spot for such epic stories, but they all have the same ending, which is the part I never quite believe. It’s not that I disbelieve the freedom, or that there can be a heroic and demanding quality to the quest for enlightenment. It’s just that such a story pushes the texture of life out of the way, and the texture is the field in which we experience freedom. The end of the story, when the main character sees the light, is not actually the high moment. Such moments are not the story; they are just what allows the story to happen. At the end of the story people get married and have children or get divorced or the children go to college-it’s the heaven of the ordinary which goes on and on until death stops it. It has its own beauty, but it is not grand.

The koans certainly touch on the epic, but they also offer an alternative that is at least as helpful: the comic. They undercut their otherwise-similar stories by introducing a sense of the ridiculous. People get enlightened in the bathroom, or when a pot breaks in the kitchen, or in a brothel or for no good reason. The seriousness of the epic consciousness requires a lot of the “What about poor Little Me?” attitude, and the koans offer compassion, not by taking you away from pain, but by taking you through pain to freedom and even amusement, as the following dialogue shows.

“What if it’s a disaster?” asked a student plaintively.

“That’s it too,” said the teacher.

How you work with a koan is largely up to you, though it doesn’t hurt to know how other people have done it. As an example, a koan consisting of the single, common word “No” was introduced about 1200 years ago. Enough people found it helpful that it became, hands down, the most often used-the gate through which almost everyone could pass. No has the advantage of being simple, portable and enduring. It’s easy to remember. It can’t be burned or lost, it can’t be stolen or thrown away. You have to come to terms with it, to be able to hear it and say it with relish, in order to hear and say, “Yes.” This koan is embedded in a brief dialogue.

Someone asked a teacher, “Does a dog have buddhanature?”

And the teacher said, “No.”

It isn’t always clear what a question means, or what sort of answer would satisfy it, but that is often true of someone else’s burning issue. When you ask a question, you are usually looking for an answer about what color to paint your cell walls. What makes your question a koan is when it takes you farther than you intended, beyond the walls, beyond the range of what is already known, to the edge of the unknown. If you refuse the answers made up of what you can already conceive of, your question just might lead you all the way home.

In this koan, the answer, No, was a surprise — something to make you look twice and find out for yourself. When I worked on this koan, I just took the question as summing up all my own uncertainties and doubts, whatever incomprehension about life’s difficulties gave me pain. I concentrated on the response, the No.

It can be painful to say “No,” as if you are refusing an offer from the universe. “No” can also come with a thrill of freedom. Both of these “No”‘s are still in the realm of Yes and No, the realm of things you already understand. On the other hand, the koan No begins an initiation passage into the place beyond the known.

In my own practice, I just made up how to work with this koan, but that’s always true of art and life. At first I tried to use the koan to stabilize the world, to get away from the world, to make things calm. This was another form of the prison wall painting project; that Little Me bloke was fond of calm and control. This approach didn’t work — I found that the koan ignored interior decoration in favor of demolition.

A koan defeats the interior decoration project by bringing up the painful condition that project is trying to address. If competition, envy and the mind of comparison are large in your makeup, the koan won’t point this out gently; instead you will feel it in every bone of your body. You will be in an agony of comparison and even despair. Until, gradually, you won’t. And it is the same for all issues-grief, paranoia, whatever you have in your heart. It is as if the koan were saying, “Look, this is how you deal with things; do you like to do it this way?” Yet the koan is impartial, it doesn’t mind; it just shows you how you operate. It doesn’t shirk or judge the darkness of being human. At the same time it opens for you another possibility: what it would be like, and who you would be, if you didn’t operate that way. This is why the koan can be so freeing.

In the end I stopped trying to achieve calm and even enlightenment in favor of discovering the world through the koan. I just let the koan into whatever was happening. As I dropped the idea that what was happening was unworthy of the koan or that the koan wouldn’t fit a secular context, I found that the koan made no distinction between secular and sacred, or calm mind and agitation, or even between my life and the life of the forest.

Here is an example of how someone else — a student I interviewed for a book I’m writing — worked with the same koan. In Japanese the koan is Mu, and she actually used it in that form, because in those days we didn’t think that you could get enlightened in English. I’ve retranslated back into “No.”

No was an incredible process for me. It took a year and a half. I kept a journal and had major dreams. Over and over again I came to my teacher and said, “It’s this,” or, “It’s that.” For a long time the teacher rejected my answers and this made me confident, since I didn’t really believe them myself. No pushed other thoughts away. Familiar places looked like I had never seen them before. This happened in flashes at first, and then became more consistent. I found that I could survive frustration and the continual, tormenting “I don’t know.”

I hit a dry place. “Why continue?” I thought. “I’m no good at this anyway. Why did I ever think that I could be included in this?” It was an important thing to go through the dry place, and it helped that I was encouraged to sit through it and value it. I realized that if I would just pay attention, little things would open up, little snatches. I was sorting seeds, as in the fairy tale.

Then, in a retreat, we did walking meditation out into the parking lot. I said to myself, “This is a regal procession.” I noticed the guy in front had a black silk shirt on; it had a dull finish. Redwood branches parted in front of my eyes and then there was that thing that’s hard to describe, the nothingness, that wham of past, present, future gone — no separation between past and present. There is no self, absolutely none. The redwoods parted and it was whitish and granular, particulate, like seeing between the atoms. Who knows how long it lasted, but I found myself still walking when I arrived back, and my immediate thought was, “Wait, I have to be left with some word,” and it was like, O.K., if you insist on going back to this small world and having a word, even after everything has been shown to you, this is what you get: “No other.”

Later, still working with No, I was at a retreat in the redwoods again and walked into a first floor bathroom. Though it was cleaned regularly, that bathroom always had the fragrance of pee. No became that whole fragrance and essence of pee. I wasn’t drawn or repelled; there was just nothing else in the whole world. I didn’t have to live with the fragrance of pee but did have to live with that discovery-no attraction, no repulsion, not doing, not picking and choosing. I used the tools at hand, in this case the pee. “What other tools,” I thought, “would I use?” After that I could answer the teacher’s questions.

So this narrative includes an account of a moment of light. If your mind clears at an identifiable point the way this woman’s did, that’s fine. As a very old teacher said to me once, “Don’t worry, you couldn’t help it.” It’s not an end to the story, though perhaps it’s a kind of beginning. Some years on, after many more koans, she assessed the process.

Through the koans I stopped trying to improve myself. The koan had made me more interested in my actual life, and less interested in an ideal or spiritual life. There’s a sense of staying with things, and of commitment, as in my marriage, but at the same time there’s not that fear of what would happen if something didn’t work. And if I’m thinking something is not working it’s probably not working. When I rest in what I don’t know, I stick up for myself.

The koan universe is not normative or prescriptive. It’s not fundamentalist. Since all of the stories you tell about life, even ones about enlightenment, are just stories, there is no doctrine, just method, which is judged by effectiveness and, perhaps, by beauty. The method trusts the basic, loving possibility in humans as well as the uncertainty that everything rests on.

Two teachers are on a picnic. One of them points to the ground and says, “This is the top of the mountain of heaven.”

The other says, “True, but a pity.”

Other places are heaven too. And isn’t it just as interesting if it’s not heaven? The koans don’t tell us to feel kind, but when the delusions are no longer running the show, it’s easy to love. Then the kindness of life naturally extends into places where you wouldn’t expect it.

A student asked, “Where will you go when you die?”

“I’ll go straight to hell,” said the teacher.

“A good enlightened teacher like you, Master, how could that be?”

“If I don’t, who will teach you?”

When I stop laughing at a koan, I can be struck by wonder.

“What is the blown hair sword?” asked a teacher, referring to the sword that cuts delusion, so sharp that a hair blown across it falls in two.

Then he answered his own set-up line:

“Each branch of coral holds up the moon.”

I find this koan almost dangerously beautiful. It’s true, but a pity.

 

This article was published in Shambhala Sun Magazine in May 2003