The world is always calling to us. The invitation sounds like children laughing, smells like barbecue, and feels like the anxiety before a job interview. Meditation is a way of answering that call, of noticing what life is like without our usual stories about it. When you meditate, you don’t have to make your mind quiet or replace your unpleasant thoughts with pleasant ones. You can just notice what is alive for you, attending to the unfolding of the moment. When we allow ourselves the luxury of just paying attention, the richness and subtlety of even the simplest things begins to reveal itself.
What are Koans?
Zen koans are not easy to pin down. According to Wikipedia, “A kōan is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen practice to provoke the ‘great doubt’ and test a student’s progress in Zen practice.” While this is not incorrect, it’s also not very interesting or descriptive of what koans do. Koans are kind of like puzzles, but not exactly; a bit like riddles, but not really. They are more like Liquid Plumr for the mind, dissolving the clogs that keep us from touching life deeply.
Rather than showing us the way to a life that’s better than the one we already have or to a self that’s better than the one we already have, koans help us to become more intimate with the life and self we already have (yes, this one). They have a way of turning things on their head, of pulling the rug out from under us, of tossing us head over heels and ass over teakettle. When we fall into the world of a koan, our usual way of doing life might fade into the background, leaving us with the freedom to create something new. We might find delight in things we used to think were problems and take up radical new activities like cooking without a recipe or mowing the lawn regularly. When we spend time with a koan, there’s no telling what might happen next.
Koans want to be everywhere and our minds, our bodies, the world, and places we can’t see all belong to everywhere. When we spend time with a koan, it might show up in conversations with friends and strangers; it might whisper from the trees or come honking from a car horn; it might visit in the form of a dream, a memory, or an old song. We may forget the koan, but it will not forget us.
Koans don’t just open us up to a new way of thinking, but a new way of being. And with that kind of discovery can come important implications for the way we act in the world. If we do not see the people around us as separate from ourselves, how will our behavior toward them change? If we suddenly cannot find fault with anything, how will we conduct a business meeting, a symphony, or a marriage? What if we look at an enemy one day and find his face beautiful?
Working with Koans – Field Notes
Koans challenge us by dancing around outside our usual way of understanding the world. When I first meet a koan I might laugh, get frustrated, or feel nothing at all. I don’t know why.
It seems to be helpful to notice tension when it arises. Usually where I find discomfort is where the koan is touching me, showing me how I keep myself locked out of my own life. If what I think I’m looking for is less pain, not more, this can seem counter-intuitive. But this allowing and intensification seems to be a necessary step, almost as though the koan is waiting for a demonstration of my full commitment before it will unfold completely.
A funny thing about koans is that I don’t know how to activate them or make them open or get them to do whatever kind of magic it is that they do, so mostly I just enjoy myself while I wait. And wait. I go do other things like work and sleep and play guitar and I carry the koan with me, trusting that it will notify me when it’s ready to get me involved, like a good auto mechanic.
When I allow the koan to take over the process, interesting things happen. I might find myself feeling deep joy or sorrow, vividly remembering events or people that I haven’t thought about in years, or having strange dreams. It can seem as though a hidden trap door has opened and I find myself in a world that is much deeper, weirder, and more nourishing than the one I inhabited before. My old ways of understanding the world–my rules about how I or others should be, about what is possible or probable or a good idea–no longer hold much interest. There is a feeling of fondness and intimacy with everything around me. Often I cannot remember the problems I thought I had, and when I do remember them it seems silly that I ever considered them problems.
Although I might hope that a koan will help me in a particular area–for example, having better self-esteem or less anger or more compassion–they always have their own agenda that is far deeper and more satisfying than my own. It is always unexpected and always wonderful. And while what I’ve always thought I wanted was to be whisked away to some other world where things are predictable and safe and make sense, it turns out that what I was really looking for is just to be brought closer to this one.
So if you’re interested taking a test drive with a koan, you’re welcome to join us for our weekly meditation group in San Antonio, TX, contact us to ask about working with a teacher, or check out these blogs by PZI teachers:
Jesse Cardin’s It’s Alive! Zen blog
John Tarrant’s Zenosaurus blog
Rachel Boughton’s Flower Mountain Zen blog
Jon Joseph’s Portola Camp Zendo blog
David Parks’s blog Jesus Points to the Moon
You can find all kinds of writings in general and specific about koans at Pacific Zen Institute’s website
Camellia: Roger Jordan (www.rogerjordanart.com)