The method of immersing yourself in a great question is more ancient than Buddhism
This seems to arise naturally in some people when they turn to spiritual things. It is a method that faces human ignorance squarely and at the same time has faith that remedy for suffering exists, and that a sincere effort will reveal that remedy.
Koan work in a formal sense has its origins in China during the early Tang dynasty (7th-9th centuries A.D.) when sayings of former and current masters were first circulated and used in meditation. In the Song dynasty (10th-13th centuries) these stories were collected into anthologies which formed the basis of a curriculum. The tradition then crossed to Japan and Korea. In Japan the Soto koan curriculum fell gradually into abeyance, though I have heard stories of it continuing into the last century.
The Rinzai tradition has been revitalized from time to time by grand masters who had awakening experiences and a strong inner connection to the koans. One of these figures was Hakuin Ekaku, who in the 18th century emphasized transformative enlightenment experiences and life-long deepening of wisdom. Hakuin and his immediate successors put the koans into a specific order and formalized a system that gave you a way to navigate past the point where most spiritual guidance stops. This for me was the amazing feature of koan work. The first shift into freedom was explored and tested in depth through checking questions. And then for those who wished, years of deepening and embodiment were possible.
Two lines came down from Hakuin: the Inzan and Kosen lines. The latter was known for its emphasis on subtlety in the work, which meant, among other things, lots of checking questions for koans. Much of American koan work comes through that line. Koans came to the West in a peculiar way, however, since one of the notable figures in the process was Daiun Harada, who worked with Dokutan Toyota, a prominent Rinzai master of the late 19th century.
This was a time of innovation and adaptation in Zen as in other aspects of Japanese life. Harada began as a Soto monk who wanted to revive the lost Soto koan tradition. He sought this end, though, by dropping Rinzai koan work into (primarily) Soto forms. The Japanese Soto powers were not interested so Harada, along with his successor Hakuun Yasutani, and his successor Koun Yamada, started and developed a separate school, referred to as the Three Treasures. In its emphasis on kensho (initial insight or awakening) and koan work as the heart of Zen this line became in its inner core a special branch of Rinzai, but Harada did revive some of the lost Soto koan curriculum and kept a Soto sense of ceremony.
Harada’s students were prominent in bringing koan work to the West. We use The Book of Serenity today because of him. Also, an emphasis on the importance of a large initial opening came from him, though in practice Koun Yamada, the poster child for big kenshos, did not himself require this.
In matters of ceremony at Pacific Zen Institute we are developing hybrid forms that include Western archetypes and music. This is a departure from Harada’s school but, we feel, in line with both his syncretist spirit and the context we inhabit.
One other koan influence is Soen Nakagawa, the Rinzai master and haiku poet. He was interested in the West and in the arts, spoke good English, taught in the West and had close friendships and connections with the Three Treasures line. He was Koun Yamada’s high school roommate and they were classmates at Tokyo Imperial University. He was in the Myoshinji tradition of Rinzai Zen which is in the Inzan line. We are linked to him through an interest in the arts. Nakagawa’s line of Rinzai Zen also had a flexible attitude to the koans; he was more inclined to take them out of order and to improvise koans. So his influence is manifest in our practice and curriculum in this way, as well.
The first book of koans we use is a Rinzai miscellany in the Hakuin style. In keeping with that style, it has additional koans thrown in as a way of innovating or introducing new koans, or making koan work connect to local circumstances. Some of the miscellaneous koans are ones I invented; they occurred to me and they offer proof of the concept that the koan tradition is alive and well today. I have seen the way they come alive in my own and students’ lives.
The Five Ranks of Dongshan and the sixteen Refuge Vows are done as Hakuin did them, but a little material from Harada is added. We are rooted in the Rinzai way of seeing the world, but we have continued evolving and are probably best understood now as leaning towards the old Chinese Linji style.
Our curriculum is as follows:
Initial koan to open the body reality—we use a range of koans for this purpose, according to need and affinity. Examples are: Examples are:
Huineng’s What is your original face before your parents were born?
Linji’s The true person with no rank
Zhaozhou’s When times of great difficulty visit us, how shallow we meet them? “Welcome.”
When this koan starts to open up there is an extensive process of exploration using checking questions to make the view clear and to teach the language of koans. What is the sound of one hand? is included in this process. The final koan in the checking process is, What is the source?
Miscellaneous Koans. By tradition the first koan in the miscellaneous collection is Stop the sound of that distant temple bell. These koans include a lot of explorations of emptiness.
Then, koans from the following collections according to need and affinity,
- The Gateless Barrier (Wumenguan or Mumonkan)
- The Blue Cliff Record (Piyen lu)
- The Book of Serenity
- The Five Ranks of Dongshan
- The Sixteen Bodhisattava Vows
- Entangling Vines
Following the completion of this curriculum senior people usually work on other books.
- The Record of Linji
- The Kido Koans
- The Record of Zhaozhou
- Master Yunmen
The first koan was by tradition called a Dharmakaya koan because through it the body of reality is revealed. The point of undergoing the rest of the koans is to discover subtleties not seen initially, and also to find out how insight actually transforms our lives. Yamada Koun called this process the development of character. I think of it as realizing, in your ongoing life, the idea that insight is always embodied. Insight has consequences and is inhabited anew by every student, every day.
The curriculum teaches a language that is useful for describing the world more accurately. There is also an emphasis on embodying koans physically. Some koans will take you into deep places over time. Some koans deal with the reversals of emptiness and form. Other koans may also be deep but you may respond to them quickly, out of a knowing that does not reside in everyday awareness.
It is important to bear with the feelings of risk, failure, and inadequacy that sometimes appear in koan work. Koans draw out resistance and the resistance always has the flavor of the particular koan that drew it out. Personally, I had to get over the need to be right and to impress my teacher, and risk offering the understanding I had.
The curriculum is a map of the path and finishing it was a good thing for me.
What was happening wasn’t always clear at the time but the course changed my consciousness in a lot of ways, not towards perfection but towards the ability to rely on emptiness. The fact that I wasn’t a particularly good student or that my teacher had many limitations wasn’t as crucial as the smelting process I was undergoing.
When I was in despair over a koan I found it helpful to remember that the koan (and koan work itself) was an old gift from a great teacher. The interesting hypothesis was that the old masters knew what they were doing. The hypothesis that there was something wrong with the koan made my life small and dull. If I don’t know and can rest in that, the koan is likely to lead me somewhere I have never been.
Over and over again, Zen is not about having the answer but about moving in the darkness of what is unknown and uncertain and trusting both your moves and the darkness that opens as you enter it.
—John Tarrant Roshi