Shambhala Sun | July 2014
SPECIAL SECTION: YOUR GUIDE TO BUDDHIST MEDITATION
Koans: One with the Question
stories of the ancient masters are confounding to conventional mind. Their
truth, says MELISSA MYOZEN BLACKER, is revealed only when our whole being
becomes the koan.
Koans represent the sayings and doings of Zen masters and
their friends and students, as collected many centuries ago. Koan
(Japanese) literally means “public case” (as in a legal precedent), and these
ancient cases continue to have relevance for modern dharma students,
illustrating what it might mean to live free from repetitive dualistic patterns
of thinking and behaving. We are all prisoners of a mind that judges and
compares, endlessly caught in dualistic thinking: like and dislike, this and
that, you and me, knowing and not-knowing. Through the serious play of koan
practice, we learn to live freshly and immediately with everything that arises.
We personally taste life as it is, however it appears: as a breath, a headache,
the song of a bird, with nothing extra added.
Koans are not intellectual puzzles or riddles, and they are
not designed to destroy the discursive mind. They are instruments of practice
that lead to a real human connection, with other people who have studied the
way of the Buddha and who have themselves become open to the possibility of a
life lived with clarity and compassion. As Wumen, the thirteenth-century
Chinese compiler of the koan collection The Gateless Gate, said, through
this practice we learn to “walk hand in hand with all the Ancestral
Teachers…the hair of your eyebrows entangled with theirs, seeing with the same
eyes, hearing with the same ears.”
To dive deeply into koans, it’s essential to work directly
with a teacher. In my lineage, students often begin with Mu, sometimes
considered a “breakthrough” koan. A monk asks Zen master Zhaozhou if a dog has
buddhanature and receives the answer “mu,” meaning “no” in Japanese. This is
unexpected because it’s a well-known Mahayana teaching that everyone and
everything, dogs included, have awakened nature. Working with this koan, a
student can drop the story and become one with the word “mu.” Accompanied by a
quality of wondering, mu rides on the breath and washes through all experiences
and actions. As insights arise, and as old patterns of experiencing reality
drop away, the teacher works closely with the student, supporting and directing
his or her new discoveries.
Although not traditional, it’s also possible to engage with
koans on your own. They can yield great treasure if we sincerely engage with
them. For example, let’s look at Case 20 from The Book of Equanimity:
Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “I am wandering aimlessly.”
“What do you think of wandering?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not knowing is most intimate.”
Fayan was suddenly awakened.
Without trying to figure out what Dizang and his student
Fayan are actually talking about, we can feel our way into what “wandering
aimlessly” suggests to us: an accurate description of how our own heart-mind
wanders aimlessly and endlessly through its patterns of thinking and feeling. What
would it be like to truly admit that we don’t know, on the very deepest level?
And how could we taste what Fayan discovered, the great intimacy of not having
This direct intimacy is available to everyone, and koan
introspection is one of the many skillful means that can lead us to a fully
compassionate, clear, and awakened life.
Melissa Myozen Blacker is the abbot of Boundless Way Zen,
a community with Zen practice centers throughout New England. She also teaches
mindfulness programs and retreats.