Zentraveler on Zen Koans!

My concept of a Zen Koan is a statement to make you think and possibly allow your mind to get closer to the truth…. helping you with higher meditation practices to obtain enlightenment. One of the best examples is: Zen Buddhism can be broken down into two simple words…not necessary so!

A puzzling, often paradoxical statement or story, used in Zen Buddhism as an aid to meditation and a means of gaining spiritual awakening.

A Zen teaching riddle. Classically, koans are attractive paradoxes to be meditated on; their purpose is to help one to enlightenment by temporarily jamming normal cognitive processing so that something more interesting can happen (this practice is associated with Rinzai Zen Buddhism). Defined here because hackers are very fond of the koan form and compose their own koans for humorous and/or enlightening effect.

In Zen Buddhism, a brief paradoxical statement or question used as a discipline in meditation. The effort to solve a koan is designed to exhaust the analytic intellect and the will, leaving the mind open for response on an intuitive level.

There are about 1,700 traditional koans, which are based on anecdotes from ancient Zen masters. They include the well-known example “When both hands are clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.”

(Japanese, a Koan is literally an official document or public notice; a final arbiter of truth or falsehood) Koan are stories, often in the form of questions and answers, set as problems for meditation in the practice of Zen Buddhism, although the problems are not for solving by linear or rational processes.

The mu-koan is the reply mu (meaning nothing) given by the master Joshu in answer to the question whether a dog has the nature of Buddha. Another is the interchange: ‘What is Buddha?’ ‘Three pounds of flax.’

Sometimes referred to as ‘zen riddles’, kōans are brief stories or dialogues from the Ch’an/ zen tradition upon which Zen students focus during their meditation in order to penetrate their meaning. During the late T’ang and early Sung dynasties in China, the Ch’an community experimented with many new teaching methods that would allow masters to directly elicit an experience of awakening (Satori) on the part of their students. These ‘shock Ch’an’ or ‘crazy Ch’an’ techniques included beating, shouting directly into the student’s ear, or giving paradoxical or nonsensical responses to their questions.

Later, during the mid- to late Sung period, stories of master-student encounters that had succeeded, or simple tales of a master’s strange behaviour, circulated within Ch’an circles in the form of ‘sayings of the master’ or ‘transmission of the lamp’ (Chinese, ch’uan teng lu) literature. Examples included the Record of Lin-chi (Chinese, Lin-chi lu) and the Patriarchs’ Hall Anthology (Chin, Tsu t’ang chi).

As students reflected upon these stories, they found that they could use them as helpful devices in their own meditation. In reading the story of a master whose teaching methods had led a student to enlightenment (bodhi), they could ask themselves: what was the master’s mind at that moment? What did the student experience? In other cases not involving the recounting of an enlightenment experience but simply giving an instance of a master’s teaching or even a casual dialogue, the student could try to break through the obstructions in their own mind that kept them from directly experiencing their own nature and seeing their own inherent enlightenment. The formal use of such stories as a teaching device for students is first mentioned in connection with Nan-yüan Hui-yung (d. 930).

IN BRIEF: A paradoxical anecdote or a riddle that has no solution.

Tutor’s tip: The “Cohen” (a member of the Jewish priestly class) pondered the “koan” (a paradox posed to a student of Zen Buddhism to help bring about enlightenment) as he ate his ice cream “cone” (a geometric solid with a circular base tapering to a point opposite.

A Koan is a story, dialogue, question, or statement in the history and lore of Zen Buddhism, generally containing aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding, yet may be accessible to intuition.

In summary
Kōans originate in the sayings and doings of sages and legendary figures, usually those authorized to teach in a lineage that regards Bodhidharma (c. 5th-6th century) as its ancestor. Kōans are said to reflect the enlightened or awakened state of such persons, and sometimes said to confound the habit of discursive thought or shock the mind into awareness. Zen teachers often recite and comment on kōans, and some Zen practitioners concentrate on kōans during meditation. Teachers may probe such students about their kōan practice using “checking questions” to validate an experience of insight (kensho) or awakening. Responses by students have included actions or gestures, “capping phrases” (jakugo), and verses inspired by the kōan.

As used by teachers, monks, and students in training, kōan can refer to a story selected from sutras and historical records, a perplexing element of the story, a concise but critical word or phrase (話頭 huà-tóu) extracted from the story, or to the story appended by poetry and commentary authored by later Zen teachers, sometimes layering commentary upon commentary.

English-speaking non-Zen practitioners sometimes use kōan to refer to an unanswerable question or a meaningless statement. However, in Zen practice, a kōan is not meaningless, and teachers often do expect students to present an appropriate response when asked about a kōan. Even so, a kōan is not a riddle or a puzzle. Appropriate responses to a kōan may vary according to circumstances; different teachers may demand different responses to a given kōan, and a fixed answer cannot be correct in every circumstance. One of the most common recorded comments by a teacher on a disciple’s answer is: “Even though that is true, if you do not know it yourself it does you no good.” The master is looking not for an answer in a specific form, but for evidence that the disciple has actually grasped the state of mind expressed by the kōan itself.

Thus, though there may be so-called “traditional answers” (kenjō 見処 or kenge 見解) to many kōans, these are only preserved as exemplary answers given in the past by various masters during their own training. In reality, any answer could be correct, provided that it conveys proof of personal realization. Kōan training can only be done with a qualified teacher who has the “eye” to see a disciple’s depth of attainment. In the Rinzai Zen school, which uses kōans extensively, the teacher certification process includes an appraisal of proficiency in using that school’s extensive kōan curriculum.

A kōan or part of a kōan may serve as a point of concentration during meditation and other activities, often called “kōan practice” (as distinct from “kōan study”, the study of kōan literature). Generally, a qualified teacher provides instruction in kōan practice to qualified students in private. In the Wumenguan (Mumonkan), public case #1 (“Zhaozhou’s Dog”), Wumen (Mumon) wrote “…concentrate yourself into this ‘Wu’…making your whole body one great inquiry. Day and night work intently at it. Do not attempt nihilistic or dualistic interpretations.”

Arousing this great inquiry, or “Great Doubt” is an essential element of kōan practice. In an attempt to illustrate the enormous concentration required in kōan meditation, Zen Master Wumen further commented: “It is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can’t.”

A kōan may be used as a test of a Zen student’s ability. For monks in formal training, and for some laypersons, a teacher invokes a kōan and demands some definite response from a student during private interviews.

Kōans are presented by teachers to students and other members of the community, often including the teacher’s unique commentary. A kōan may seem to be the subject of a talk or private interview with a student. However, a kōan is said to supersede subject-object duality and thus cannot necessarily be said to be the “subject” of such encounters. The dialog, lecture, or sermon may more resemble performance, ritual duty, or poetry reading.

Before the tradition of meditating on kōans was recorded, Huangbo Xiyun (720-814) and Yun Men (864-949) are both recorded to have uttered the line “Yours is a clear-cut case (chien-cheng kung-an) but I spare you thirty blows”, seeming to pass judgement over students’ feeble expressions of enlightenment. Xuedou Zhongxian (雪竇重顯 980-1052) — the original compiler of the 100 cases that later served as the basis for the Blue Cliff Record — used the term kung-an just once in that collection (according to Foulk) in Case #64.

Subsequent interpreters have influenced the way the term kōan is used. Dōgen Zenji wrote of Genjokōan, which points out that everyday life experiences is the fundamental kōan. Hakuin Ekaku recommended preparing for kōan practice by concentrating on qi breathing and its effect on the body’s center of gravity, called the dantian or “hara” in Japanese — thereby associating kōan practice with pre-existing Taoist and Yogic chakra meditative practices.

The purpose of kōans is for a Zen practitioner to become aware of the difference between themselves, their mind, and their beliefs that influence how they see the world as an aspect of realizing their True nature. Paradoxes tend to arouse the mind for an extended duration as the mind goes around and around trying to resolve the paradox or kōan to an “answer”. This is a lot like a dog chasing its tail and, while it’s chasing, the mind makes itself more visible. Once a Zen practitioner becomes aware of their mind as an independent form, the kōan makes sense and the teaching point is realized.

Zen teachers and practitioners insist that the meaning of a kōan can only be demonstrated in a live experience (after all, only you can witness your own mind and realize its nature). Texts (including kōan collections and encyclopedia articles) cannot convey that meaning. Yet the Zen tradition has produced a great deal of literature, including thousands of kōans and at least dozens of volumes of commentary. Nevertheless, teachers have long alerted students to the danger of confusing the interpretation of a kōan with the realization of a kōan. When teachers say “do not confuse the pointing finger with the moon”, they indicate that awakening is the realization of your True nature — not ability to interpret a kōan with the mind.

Even so, kōans emerge from a literary context, and understanding that context can often remove some — but presumably not all — of the mystery surrounding a kōan. For example, evidence… suggests that when a monk asked Zhaozhou “does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?”, the monk was asking a question that students had asked teachers for generations. The controversy over whether or not all beings have the potential for enlightenment is even older — and, in fact, vigorous controversy still surrounds the matter of Buddha nature.

No amount of interpretation seems to be able to exhaust a kōan, so it’s unlikely that there can be a “definitive” interpretation. Teachers typically warn against over-intellectualizing kōans, but the mysteries of kōans compel some students to place them in their original context — for example, by clarifying metaphors that were likely well-known to monks at the time the kōans originally circulated.

If you are thinking about Buddha, this is thinking and delusion, not awakening. One must destroy preconceptions of the Buddha. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind during an introduction to Zazen, “Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else. Kill the Buddha, because you should resume your own Buddha nature.” Contrariwise, the kōan, similarly to the quote “God is dead”, teaches not to believe everything you hear and to make conclusions for yourself.

“In the beginning a monk first thinks a kōan is an inert object upon which to focus attention; after a long period of consecutive repetition, one realizes that the kōan is also a dynamic activity, the very activity of seeking an answer to the kōan. The kōan is both the object being sought and the relentless seeking itself. In a kōan, the self sees the self not directly but under the guise of the kōan…When one realizes (“makes real”) this identity, then two hands have become one. The practitioner becomes the kōan that he or she is trying to understand. That is the sound of one hand.” — G. Victor Sogen Hori, Tanzan, Subhuti and Tetsugen

The koan is when there is nothing you can do what do you do – A Zen koan – when the mind knows the way and the I of you is full of merit where is enlightenment hiding? ….. adapted from answers.com

So there you have it Koan heads or is it cone heads!

QUOTE: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” — Linji


THINGS YOU MAY WANT TO SAVE: Gold coins and Koans!

ZENTRAVELER SAYS: You ain’t nothing but a Houndog!

From here to Infinity is a relatively short ride! The next leg takes eons and eons as you fly through the Barycentric Dynamical Time Zone! …and on and on and on.

Follow the Zentraveler Blog often for Travel, Health and Zen-like stories and such. Where else can you get a three in one blog for the price of free?


1 Comment

Filed under Blogging, Practical Zen, Uncategorized

One response to “Zentraveler on Zen Koans!

  1. I think Zen can be contrasted with the modern culture of presumption. You might enjoy the short Zen tale I just posted at http://deligentia.wordpress.com/2009/11/10/empty-your-cup/

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