Working with Koans
Koans are very frustrating for Westerners, who typically rely on their logical, rational intellect and love definitive answers to any questions. Westerners usually like to think there is only one answer to one question. People with this mindset often have difficulty accepting answers that are not clear-cut, definitive, and rational. Koan study is a frustrating practice that can arouse deep desperation in a student. Zen is a practice of action, and koans are active practice. They are not to be spoken about, or thought about, but are to be done. When you do a koan, you do not talk about it or banter questions and answers back and forth in conversation, as you would in debate.
While discussing a koan, the teacher may impart information that the student misunderstands. The student might then start chasing a path that will never illuminate the truth. So, keep in mind that anything said in these discussions is not the truth itself but an attempt to describe the truth that can be seen through koan study.
In order to undertake koan study, a student must be completely and utterly gripped by Zen. Zen calls to its students, and its students become willing to risk their very existence for the existence of the reality of their true selves. You will be willing to give everything you have to your practice. You must throw yourself at the koan with desperation. You will call your koan with everything that you have.
To start, work on your koan as you sit zazen. Breathe in, and then on the out breath, call your koan with every part of yourself. At the very end of your breath you will eventually find a blank space. The answer to your koan can be found within that blank space. Enter the blank space.
As you move from breath meditation to your first koan, your meditation will become stronger. Initially, you will find with breath meditation that you are able to still your incessant thoughts. Your mind becomes still, and you are fully aware of the present moment. You become able to control your jumping monkey mind, and you will be able to enter samadhi. Samadhi is a state of deep concentration. It is a meditative state, in which you are aware of everything but in which you are also very deep within the meditation. It is in this state of samadhi that you will work on your koan. When samadhi has developed to a satisfactory strength, you are primed for your koan practice.
In koan practice, you want to sleep, eat, dream, and live your koan. You want to actually become one with your koan, so call it with everything that you have. As they say, die on the cushion. You will be reborn, and life will take on new meaning.
Realizing the No-Self
Let's take a look at a koan so you get a flavor of what is ahead for you.
The monks of two halls of a monastery were disputing over a cat. Nansen held the cat up for all to see in one hand and with his other he picked up his sword and said, “Monks, if you can say a word of Zen, I will spare the cat. If you cannot, I will kill it!”
Not one of the monks would answer. So Nansen raised his sword over his head and finally cut the cat in two. That evening, Joshu came back to the monastery and Nansen told him of the story. Joshu immediately took off one of his shoes and put it on his head.
Nansen said, “If you had been there, the cat would have been spared.”
What is meant by this story? It looks like a load of nonsense to most people. However, Joshu was able, by putting his shoe on his head, to show Nansen that he knew of Zen. We cannot understand this koan with our intellect and cannot rationalize our way through its meaning. But a closer look reveals more than initially meets our limited understanding.
“Of the many devices employed by Ego to keep us in power,none is more effective than language. The English languageis so structured that it demands the repeated use of thepersonal pronoun ‘I’ for grammatical nicety and presumedclarity. This plays into the hands ofEgo … for the more we postulate this, the morewe are exposed to Ego's never-ending demands.”—Zen Master Philip Kapleau
Nansen and Joshu were both great Zen masters. Nansen asks us to come up with some response that will stop him from killing the cat. As we know from the precepts, killing is abhorrent in Zen, so for Nansen to actually kill a cat must mean that he is trying to impart some extremely important information to the crowd of monks and is willing to do something absolutely awful in order to do so. He waits to see if any of the monks knows anything of Zen and then he kills the cat. The question is: How can you save the cat?
The only way you can answer this question is to be no-self, to kill the self and realize the no-self. The monks were all abiding in their ego-driven small selves, afraid to take a chance, afraid to speak out and be judged by others. Ego raged in the room, and not one monk was a living example of no-self. In order to understand why Joshu put his shoe on his head and satisfied Nansen with an understanding of Zen, one has to work on the koan and give one's whole self to the realization of the koan.