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 to know?
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.
Copyright © July 2014 by Shambhala Sun magazine. Reprinted with permission.