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Talking About Koans

Although we have said that koans are to be done and not talked about, we still talk about them, of course. This is only in an effort to disclose information to the students that may be helpful in pointing them toward greater discovery.

There are traditionally different ways in which a koan may be discussed, including the following:

  • Dokusan

  • Teisho

  • Dharma combat

  • Question-and-answer period

All of the above are encounters in which a teacher will try to move a student ahead in his or her practice, encouraging a mind-to-mind transmission of the true nature of reality. Each kind of koan talk is designed to impart dharma knowledge to the Zen student.

“To study Buddhism is to study the self.To study the self is to forget the self.To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.”—Dogen

Dokusan

Dokusan is a one-on-one meeting with your Zen teacher. During dokusan, a student will try to give an answer to a koan. The teacher will then let the student know if he or she is right or if it's time to go back and try again. When it is the student's turn for dokusan, he or she will enter a private room with the teacher and usually bow to the altar and the teacher before sitting in front of the teacher on a cushion that is there, waiting. You, the student, will attempt to answer the koan. It is often necessary to tell the teacher what koan you were undertaking, such as “My koan is Mu,” so that the teacher, who may have hundreds of students, can be ready for your answer.

You will then answer the koan to the best of your ability. Answers to koans are not necessarily related in words. You must show your teacher that you have an understanding of your koan. The answer to the koan, when you have reached it, will grip you, and you will be compelled to answer in a specific way. Dokusan is not a time for intellectual debates on koans. If you go in and try to explain a koan to your teacher, most likely the teacher will ring a bell and tell you to leave. The intellect is not your friend in koan practice, so try to kill the rational mind and move beyond it into bigger mind.

Your teacher will initially appear very supportive and encouraging, and your first efforts at dokusan will most likely be very positive encounters. But as you move into the koan, and the teacher senses that you are getting somewhere, approval disappears. The teacher will then push you further and further into frustration as you hit wall after wall. If you go into dokusan and meet with a wall you cannot seem to scale, try again. Try again and again. Try until you are frustrated beyond measure, until you are utterly beaten. It is not until you die on your cushion and give up that you will find the answer.

Koans are difficult to work on outside of a sesshin. A sesshin, a kind of Zen retreat with fifteen hours a day or more of Zen practice, is a time where the student can make the most practice on a koan as all outside distractions are taken away.

Have you ever been obsessed with finding the answer to a problem? You work on the problem, mull it over again and again, but you are completely frustrated when it comes to actually finding the answer. You spend hours, days, weeks, trying to figure the problem out. Finally, completely frustrated, you give up and go out to have some fun. Suddenly, there it is! The answer has just popped into your mind as if it has always been there. This has happened because you have let the answer move into the deeper parts of your working mind. Let it move from the surface thinking to another level, where it can be figured out without the distractions of consciousness.

Teisho

Teisho is a dharma discourse in which the teacher tries to show the student the truth through commentary on a koan. Teishos are given to all students present and are not one-to-one encounters. Many modern literary compilations on Zen are actually transcribed and edited teisho talks.

During teisho talks, the students gather in the zendo and sit very still on their zafus. The teacher might open the dharma talk with some sutras. Then, a koan from one of the koan collections will be presented, and the teacher will offer his or her understanding of the koan to the students. The presentation presumes that the audience of students are enlightened beings. In order to hear the teisho and to take it in, the student must shift his or her ability to understand and listen in a wholly different manner.

Dharma Combat

Dharma combat is not a new video game, although it does sound like one. Dharma combat, or shosan, is an encounter with the teacher in which the teacher tries to push the student further into the realization of the koan by using a spirited exchange encounter with the students and the dharma community. The teacher presents a koan to the community and encourages the students to test their knowledge of the koan and ask questions. Dharma combat can also take place between senior students or two Zen masters.

Here is an example of dharma combat between two Zen masters.

In the early 1970s, two Buddhist masters met in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One was a Tibetan master named Kalu Rinpoche, and the other was a Korean Zen master named Seung Sahn. The audience was on the edge of their seats as the dharma combat began. Seung Sahn held up an orange and, in the tradition of Zen dharma combat fashion, demanded, “What is this?”

Kalu Rinpoche just stared at him, questioning.

Once more, Seung Sahn asked, “What is this?”

Finally, Kalu Rinpoche looked at his translator and asked, “Don't they have oranges in Korea?”

Mondo

Another form of a koan discussion is the question-and-answer period, known as mondo. Everyone in attendance at a mondo can ask the teacher questions relating to the koan or other Zen-related topics. It is not as spirited as a dharma talk, and the answers tend to be intellectual and explanatory.

The mondo is a chance for students to get explanations for questions they may have, such as “How do you know when I have the answer to a koan?” The master answers in a way that encourages the student to reach a deeper level of perception.

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