Many people think koans are mysterious and hard to understand. Well, in this post I’m going to explain to you how koans work.

Here’s a koan:

The Diamond Sutra says, “If people despise you, it’s because of sinful karma from previous lives that has inexorably led you into evil paths in this life. Then, being despised by people in this life extinguishes the sinful karma of previous lives.”
First, there’s this poster of a harp seal in the restroom at work:
Seal tearsI don’t know if you can tell at this resolution, but there appears to be a tear coming out of her right eye. At the bottom of the poster is a caption that reads, “SAVE US – Contrary to popular belief, the slaughter of harp seals continues.” I truly love all kinds of animals and seals are pretty close to the top of the list. Still, when I look at the poster I kind of grimace at the bleeding-heartedness of it and make sarcastic comments to myself (“Is it really ‘popular belief’ that the slaughter of harp seals has stopped?” “Is that really a tear in her eye? Gimme a break!”).

I’m currently having some kind of friction with a coworker who I consider a friend.  I apparently did something that really offended her, but she won’t address it with me or even tell me what it is. Having people mad at me is not one of my strong suits and, being the doggedly accommodating individual that I am, I have carried around an appropriately weighty brick of guilt and a remorseful sadness for a few weeks now.

WP_20150211_003Because I am so accommodating, I am willing to adopt the role of perpetrator when it is offered so convincingly, even when I don’t know my crime.  Gosh, she doesn’t even want to talk to me about it. I must have done something really bad. I do my best to make amends in exile.  I think hard about what I have done (even though I don’t know what it is) and sincerely pledge to institute moral reforms. When she is around I imagine how she would or would not like me to be, and then I try to be it.  Even when she’s not around, sometimes my mind paints her looking over my shoulder. I make myself very small and I walk on my tippy-tippytoes. It feels stiff and robotic. I lack free will. It is very painful.

This evening, I went into the restroom at work and, as I often do, looked at the poster with the harp seal on it.  This time, instead of ridiculing it, I realized that the tear in the harp seal’s eye was for me.  I felt a rush of forgiveness and relief. Of course! I’m no perpetrator, I’m just me!  I laughed and said aloud, to the seal poster in the bathroom, “Ohhhhhh, thank you buddy.”

Now you know how koans work.

It’s Alive! Zen is a home for Zen meditation and koans in San Antonio, Texas

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