Jun 15, 2021
Martin Goodson

How are Koans supposed to work?

Zen Koans are infamous for their cutting dialogues and confusing narratives. In this article we examine the principles behind them, and how we can integrate this practice into our daily lives.

Elise Bauer


by https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/cinnamon_toast/

Most people who have read anything about Zen Buddhism will have come across the subject of Koans, a word that literally means a public case that is related to case law. 

These cases were public edicts in China that were based on general law and operated like case law does in our courts today. When a law was passed by the Emperor it contained a general principle but how that principle would operate throughout the country and in all circumstances was a matter for the courts to decide. 

The whole subject of Koans and how they work came up in a talk I gave at a recent retreat (sesshin). On the relationship between a general principle and how it operates in individual cases I gave the following example.

Let’s say that it had been established as a general rule that on retreat only one slice of toast would be consumed at breakfast. The following day one member of the retreat is seen with two slices of toast. When confronted by the retreat leader the member makes the point that while everybody else is having a bowl of cereal and then one slice of toast he is not having any cereal so the first slice is the equivalent of the bowl of cereal whilst the second slice is the ‘one slice allowed’. The retreat leader says that a slice of toast is a slice of toast not a bowl of cereal. However, our two-slicer, not to be cowed by this apparently simple observation points out that the principle of ‘equivalence’ has already been established in Zen temples for centuries. 

He points out that the Buddha, in the Vinaya - the rules for the ordained Sangha - forbade monks to eat after mid-day. However, when Buddhism entered China, monks (both female and male) had to work doing physical labour. They found it very difficult to do this on just one meal a day. Looking into the Vinaya rules it was noted that although food was prohibited after noon, medicine was not. So a ‘medicine meal’ was quickly established. This was a cold plate of food that was to be taken as ‘medicine’ and not as food at a regular meal. To emphasise that it was medicine the ‘food’ could not  be cooked. Hence, says our ‘two-slicer’, in the same way the first slice is in fact a bowl of cereal and not the one slice allowed, which was in fact the top slice on the plate. 

Now, in case law, such judgements are made by the courts as to how a general principle made by the authority shall be interpreted in practice and Koans have the same relationship to the Buddha’s general principles given in the teachings. One example is, for instance, the question as to how  the teaching of The Middle Way - the way that avoids the extremes - is given through the stories of the sayings and actions of the Zen masters of long ago. Thus, Master Hogen, when about to give the daily sermon, indicated that two monks should roll up the window blind. As they did so, he commented: “One of them has it, the other not.” By so doing, he creates division in the minds of the monks. How to respond in accordance with The Middle Way? The Koan of Two Monks Rolling up the Blind calls on the student to open his discerning Dharma Eye to give the answer. In this way this ‘Eye’ can be used in all situations in life allowing the student to live and respond in accord with this principle.

Records of Koan cases, such as The Mumonkan and The Blue-Cliff Record give the briefest of accounts of such encounters. For example:

A monk asked Master Joshu “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”

Master Joshu replied: “MU!” (Mu = “No!”)

Not much to go on or sink one’s teeth into, it would seem.

During the 1980s and 90s I remember hearing Soko Morinaga Roshi giving teisho (a sermon by a Zen master), on the 48 Koan cases of the Mumonkan. Joshu’s ‘MU’ being one of them. What really struck me was how he was able to bring the sparse Koan to life. He usually started by giving a potted biography of the Zen master concerned and also usually said something about the setting too. What impressed me was how he had taken the case and created a whole landscape out of it that really brought it to life. It was as if his imagination had been able to re-animate a long dead corpse that could now stand up before the audience and talk to us. He would often punctuate his account by putting us, the audience, into the position of the one who must respond. 

“How would you respond?” he would ask us. For a moment I was there in the Koan with whichever Zen master was just now demanding a response. This imaginative leap impressed me deeply. 

My own training under Ven. Myokyo-ni had opened to me the power of the Heart (citta), to bring to life whatever it was given into. From the ironing to the sanzen room (interview room), I could see that something that every child knows gets lost as we grow up and must be re-discovered in spiritual practice. Whatever I give my heart to comes alive. This really is child’s play because it is what I did as a child. In the family garden with my friends over several days we would create from scratch elaborate stories that we enacted and lived in for the duration of our summer holidays. A child can turn into a horse or a lorry or make a cardboard cylinder from a roll of foil into a spaceship or a ray gun. 

This same capacity to ‘bring to life’ also became apparent in the monthly Dharma talks we would give to our teacher as practise for giving more public talks on Zen Buddhist training and Buddhist studies. We were given a theme and a month to prepare a 15 minute talk. This process of pondering on the subject and creating a coherent talk inevitably stirred up the Heart and quite often led to small (and sometimes not so small) insights. I realised later that the arising of insight was itself a result of this ‘being given into’ by the heart which brought the subject to life.

This brings us to the topic of investigating the Buddha’s teachings, especially through the scriptures and writings of the Zen masters. Scriptures of this kind are often quite difficult, even obscure, but recalling that Master Hakuin also had one of his most profound revelations whilst pondering a difficult verse from The Lotus Sutra makes clear their importance for insight.

Reading scripture is not like reading other forms of literature. It is not about accumulation, and that is the mistake we make with our desire to get more and more information. Instead it is about diving deep into a small amount. This has parallels with the Christian lectio divina and the exegesis of the Torah.

Creating a formal and frequent practice with a particular scripture can be made part of a practice to follow on from zazen practice. A short passage can be read maybe once or twice and quite slowly. We can appreciate the rhythm as well as the meaning of the words.. The attitude of mind is rather like trying to remember someone’s name that is on the tip of the tongue. In the mind’s eye we can picture the face but the name seems just out of reach. This creates an inner quietness, a space in which we are listening closely. If nothing comes forward usually we think that if we stop  it will then come to us and so we then go about our business. Maybe the name surfaces of itself but if it doesn’t then we can repeat the process and just sit waiting to see if it will come up. Again if nothing comes up then we stop go away and perhaps now it will reveal itself when we are not focussing on it. 

Such is also the method  of scriptural contemplation. Quite often this produces small insights which relate a general principle in the scriptures to something that is going on in our own life. This is just the ‘case law’ that we find in the more formal Koan practice and over time can lead to a deeper appreciation of the Wisdom of the Heart as well as the wisdom of the teachings.


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