Formal Zen koans are short stories or statements by past Chan/Zen masters which have been passed down through the generations for study and contemplation by Zen students. Each koan contains a Dharma teaching, and until you personally experience and digest that teaching, the koan remains a closed gate you need to pass through. On the other side of that gate is greater freedom, wisdom, and compassion. In this episode, I discuss “natural koans,” or Dharma gates that arise in our everyday lives, and how to work with them.
Quicklinks to Article Content:
A Brief Intro to Chan/Zen Koans
Natural Koans: The Soto Zen “Koan Arises in Everyday Life”
1) Identifying Koans
Obstacles to Manifesting Our True Nature
Recurring Themes in Our Problems
2) Working with a Koan
Intense Attention – and Patience
Mindfulness on and off the Meditation Seat
3) Sticking with a Koan Until Resolution
A Brief Intro to Chan/Zen Koans
In a classic, historical sense, koans are short, written accounts of statements by Chan teachers or exchanges between teachers and students in Chan Buddhism (originally, in China; later Zen in Japan, and known by other names in other places the lineage spread from China). Literally “koan” means “public case.” If a story made it into the koan literature, it was because it seen as presenting something of enduring Dharmic significance, relevant to any practitioner. A koan story may be a statement by a Chan master, an exchange between teachers, or the interaction between a teacher and student. Koan stories were developed and collected starting in the Tang dynasty (618–907) in China,[i] and there are many classic koans along with collections of hundreds of such stories in volumes such as the Blue Cliff Record.
In most Linji (Japanese: Rinzai) lineages of Zen, koan stories were and are arranged into a curriculum and used as subjects of intensive contemplation by students. It’s difficult to describe exactly what that “intensive contemplation” entails, and as a Soto – not a Rinzai – practitioner, I’m not the best one to try. However, I think it’s fair to say that the typical Rinzai method is for a teacher to assign a student a koan. There are many commentaries on the traditional koans, but that doesn’t usually help the student much.
Here’s an example of a classic koan from the Blue Cliff Record, just to give you a sense of them:
“Nansen, Kiso, and Mayoku went together to pay respects to National Teacher Chu. Halfway there, Nansen drew a circle on the road and said, “If you can speak, we’ll go on.”
Kiso sat in the circle. Mayoku curtsied.
Nansen said, “Then let’s not go.”
Kiso said, “What’s going on in your mind?”[ii]
As you can see, traditional koans tend to be pretty inscrutable at first. It takes a while to get used to their imagery and language, and even then, the meaning may not be obvious. The student has to explore the koan in a personal, non-intellectual way in order to reach the essence of the question or teaching it contains. It’s all part of the process to wrestle with the language and open one’s mind to what might be going on. Even when the question or teaching in the koan is identified, the student must wrestle with it for herself. What is her answer to the question? How would she respond if Nansen drew a circle on the road? The answer isn’t one that can simply be stated verbally; instead, it has to be lived. In the Rinzai system, the student must demonstrate his understanding in a way that communicates to the teacher that the koan has been absorbed and resolved in a real and personal way. Only then does the student pass, and then get assigned a new koan.
Natural Koans: The Soto Zen “Koan Arises in Everyday Life”
In Soto Zen tradition we have many koans (most of which are the same ones found in Rinzai), but we do not engage them in the formal, systematic way used in Rinzai. We may study them often, but students do not get assigned koans, there is no set curriculum, and there is no formal system whereby the student presents her understanding to the teacher in private interview and may or may not eventually be acknowledged by the teacher as having passed the koan.
Instead, we say the “koan arises in everyday life.” Honestly, I’m not sure where that phrase originates. It may very will be a modern description of the Soto approach, which has its own flavor and emphasis, and historically did not suggest its approach was a corollary to that of Rinzai, with the only difference being we concentrate on questions or issues that arise within our own lives instead of using traditional stories.
What we do find in the Soto tradition is a passionate portrayal of spiritual questioning, search, struggle, and resolution, independent of formal koan study. Zen master Dogen describes mountains walking, and gives monks detailed instructions for how to mindfully brush their teeth and wash their face. Chan master Hongzhi describes roaming and playing in samadhi. There is no shortage of profound teachings with which to challenge ourselves.
The idea of the “koan arising in everyday life,” however, is – I think – an incredibly useful one, especially for modern lay Soto Zen practitioners. Without a formal curriculum assigned and monitored by a teacher, Soto practitioners can easily find themselves at a loss for what to do next. When the gist of your tradition’s teachings is “no gaining idea,” and “you already have Buddha nature,” what are you supposed to do? When there are no tests to take and pass, no external approval to seek, how are you supposed to motivate yourself? When your main form of meditation isn’t even supposed to be “meditation practice,” but just sitting, how do you avoid drifting into complacency?
As I’ve discussed on the podcast before, awakening is for all of us, and it’s a shame and a waste if we sleepwalk through our lives, assuming this is all the better it gets. Our human life is a precious opportunity to seek liberation and to wake up to the miracle of our existence. We can know the Dharma Gate of Joyful Ease (150 – Zazen as the Dharma Gate of Joyful Ease), and experience our zazen as “returning home and sitting in peace.” We can heal our ill-will toward self and other, and grow substantially in wisdom, compassion, and skillful means. Our self-obsession can fall away, leaving us more attentive and appreciative to everything around us. Ugly habits can be untangled so we can live more freely, and without leaving a wake of sadness and hurt behind us. The more we can get the small self out of the way, the more beneficial we will be to everyone and everything.
Looking for the koans in our life helps us identify our opportunities for growth, and framing them as koans helps us engage and resolve them. Koans point out our obstacles to realizing and manifesting all the great stuff I just described as possible for us. Looking at them this way can bring a sense of dignity to our life: Our obstacles (or problems, issues, neuroses, fears, etc.) should not be cause for shame or discouragement, but instead should arouse our curiosity and determination. Koans are our gateways to living a better life, our Dharma Gates. We may not have chosen our particular koans in a million years – perhaps a short temper, or an addiction, or social anxiety – and we don’t have to like them. But if we maintain the faith that they can be resolved in some way – that our relationship to the whole affair can become much more liberated, even if our problem remains – our messy, imperfect lives can become fascinating spiritual adventures.
I like the term “natural koan” to signify everyday life koans as opposed to the “formal koans” of Zen literature. I’ll explain more about what natural koans look like in a moment, but basically, they are obstacles that arise in the course of our personal lives, which we then identify as koans and engage with them as such. In a sense, then, we start from personal experience and try to find within it what is universal and Dharmic. In formal koan work, you start from the universal and Dharmic, and work to make it personal. Both ways are challenging, if for different reasons.
The rest of this episode will discuss the three steps – as I see them – to working with natural koans:
- Identifying the koan we’re facing.
- Working with the koan, engaging it passionately but with humility and patience.
- Sticking with the koan until we resolve it.
As I go through these steps, I’m fortunate to be able to include an example of what I’m calling a “natural” koan from a great new book, The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up in the Land of Attachments by Eve Myonen Marko and Wendy Egyoku Nakao, published in 2020. It contains over 60 koans drawn from modern lay lives – I’m guessing, at least in spirit if not in detail, these stories come from students Marko and Nakao actually know. If this podcast episode intrigues you, I encourage you to check out this book!
Identifying Koans: Obstacles to Manifesting Our True Nature
In Zen, we identify, engage, and struggle with koans not because we should, or because the ancestors did, or because we’ll impress others. We struggle with koans because, inevitably, there is liberation on the other side of them. A koan points out to us a limitation in our being – and that might be a limitation in our understanding, our compassion, our acceptance, embodiment, skillfulness, equanimity, or freedom. A koan we can’t yet pass points out where we need to grow, and therefore is a precious opportunity, a Dharma Gate. It may seem like identifying a koan in our lives is a negative process – looking for a problem, a flaw, a limitation, an obstacle – so it’s important to keep this positive framing in mind so we don’t get stuck in self-criticism or frustration.
According to my teacher, Gyokuko Carlson, “Our true nature is eternal, joyous, selfless, and pure.” She didn’t make that up – it came from some Zen source or other, but I can’t remember exactly where. This description is a good grounding for searching for where our koan – or koans – might lie. If our true nature is eternal, joyous, selfless, and pure, then anywhere we’re not acting in accord with our true nature is an indication of an obstacle we have. This is important: From the Mahayana Buddhist point of view, our fundamental ignorance about our true nature obscures it, so liberation is simply a matter of ending that ignorance. A profound moment of insight can cause our obscurations to fall away in an instant (as opposed to having to painstakingly remodel an inherently flawed being into something a little bit better).
Wherever we experience a contraction – fear, inhibition, grasping, confusion, dullness – is a place our true nature is being obscured. No matter how mundane the manifestation – irritation at traffic, a need to control your spouse, depression, a tendency to judge people – if you trace the “why” back to its source you find a spiritual issue. This is what Buddhism teaches, and it has always been true in my own experience. The spiritual issue may not be obvious, but it’s there – under our anger, fear, greed, laziness, grasping, anxiety, and relationship problems. There is a spiritual issue or misunderstanding under our impatience, arrogance, stinginess, and lack of boundaries.
Saying that all of your obstacles have a spiritual source is not at all meant to say there’s no such thing as mental health issues, or that your circumstances can’t be really challenging despite any actions you take. Those matters can and should be dealt with, but what we’re looking for when we identify a koan is this: What can we do to make the situation better, no matter what happens? How can we shift our mind or behavior to alleviate suffering and open us up to liberation, even if nothing around us changes? A spiritual issue or misunderstanding is something we can deal with and doing so may bring immense peace and gratitude even if we remain in challenging circumstances.
Identifying Koans: Recurring Themes in Our Problems
Laurie and Cathy were retired. Cathy did not hesitate to show her disdain for the time that Laurie spent “down there” at the Zen Center. Each time Laurie would leave the house, Cathy, from her perch on the sofa, would say, “There she goes down there again.”
One Friday evening, Laurie, laden with luggage from her days away, crossed the threshold into the house. Cathy, still sitting on the sofa, asked, “Well, Laurie, have you found the meaning of life yet?”
Without hesitation, Laurie replied, “Yes, Cathy: This. Is. It!”
Cathy was silent.
What is going on here? Perhaps you relate very directly because you have this kind of tension in your own life. Maybe you have loved ones who do not understand what you are doing with all your interest in Buddhism or Zen or meditation. They may resist, resent, or maybe just quietly disparage. Perhaps they’re as supportive as they know how to be, but don’t understand at all, so your time sitting zazen or studying the dharma or spending time with Sangha seems to them the equivalent of a hobby, as if you were enjoying yourself fishing or knitting. They don’t understand how essential practice is to your life.
If a loved one is openly hostile to something we feel called to do, why do we persist? Should we? If we are creating disharmony in our home life, family, we’d better have a good reason. Zen suggests practice is our everyday life, no difference, so why would we create disharmony in our relationships? Is it selfish?
Ordinarily, we would approach the kind of situation described in this householder koan like this: “My partner really needs to change his/her attitude. Why aren’t they more generous or understanding? I need to demand they be more respectful. Maybe I picked the wrong partner.” If we don’t blame our partner, we might ordinarily think: “I shouldn’t be so sensitive, I’ll try to stop caring. Or maybe I can go to the Zen center less often, or I can make sure to give my partner lots of attention before I go, so she’s more supportive.” We think of ways to fix the situation by changing our behavior, making requests of others, or changing our circumstances. But this is not what a koan is about. A koan is about us. Our own body-mind. If nothing whatsoever changed in our circumstances, what could we do to relieve suffering, learn something, find some liberation, or increase our compassion?
I’m guessing the Laurie in our story identified this a koan because it bugged her so much, and because such an impasse seems to have been created in her life. She wasn’t willing to give up her Zen practice, but the response from Cathy really bothered her. The intensity of Laurie’s negative experience, her sense of being stuck, was a sign to her that something deeper was at play here. We can identify koans in our life when we notice themes in the issues we face, which usually becomes easier after years of practice, paying attention to our experience and behavior. Usually, a conflict, obstacle, or place of contraction is not a one-off. We tend to have the same kinds of problems over and over, because they are symptoms of an underlying spiritual koan.
Working with a Koan: Intense Attention – and Patience
When we first encounter a koan, it usually seems obscure and impenetrable. We don’t even know what we’re supposed to do with it – move it? Go around it? Awaken to how it’s an illusion? Give up the need to go anywhere else? Jump on top of it? Embrace it? Dismiss it? A response to a koan is enacted with our whole being – body, mind, and heart. An intellectual answer does nothing to budge a koan. Refusing to engage does nothing to budge a koan. The only way to pass a koan is to awaken to a whole new way of being, where it no longer is an obstacle.
Koan work involves peeling back layers of questions, like layers of an onion. Each of these questions we explore for ourselves. There’s no right or wrong answer. You have to look within and be willing to find out what’s going on for you, without judgement or editing or denial. You get a conundrum in your sights – a contraction, an obstacle, a limitation, a point of discomfort, pain, frustration, dissatisfaction, a point of tension – and then you press up against it. You can’t resolve it in a lasting or meaningful way by bashing it down or solving it through intellect or correcting it through sheer force of will, the way we attack ordinary problems.
Instead, we must get up close to our koan and investigate it with a sense of humility and patience. We hold a question: “What is going on here?” We cultivate a willingness to know, even if we may discover uncomfortable truths about ourselves in the process. One of my teachers, Kyogen Carlson, used to describe the dynamic of engaging with a spiritual question or obstacle with an analogy: It’s like standing near a closed and locked door that’s too strong to break down. You need to get through the door, and you have faith (or have heard) it will open at some point. Therefore, you stay close to it, or even keep your hand on it. It takes effort to be attentive, and to keep yourself on task so you don’t just get bored and wander off, but there’s no direct and definitive action you can take to open the door through sheer force of will. Willful attempts to break through are inevitably based in your assumptions about the koan you’re facing, and the way through is a new way of being or seeing.
Working with a Koan: Mindfulness on and off the Meditation Seat
A very practical question many people ask at this point in a discussion on natural koans is, “When and how are you supposed to ‘work’ on the koan?” This is an especially puzzling question if shikantaza, just sitting, is your main practice. We don’t consciously “work” on koans, even natural ones, during zazen. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t ever take some time on the meditation seat to reflect on your koan – just be aware that you are departing from shikantaza in doing so. You can also turn your awareness toward your koan at any other time throughout your day – for example, while doing simple physical work, driving, lying in bed waiting to fall asleep, taking a few breaths between tasks, or during times you have specifically set aside for quiet reflection. When Rinzai students are working on a tough koan, they are encouraged to carry it with them every moment, even into sleep; this kind of intensity isn’t easy outside of a meditation retreat, but it illustrates what’s possible when we’re really motivated.
When we call our koan to mind, we are practicing mindfulness in the classic Buddhist sense. In Episode 79 – Buddha’s Teachings 10: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, I discussed how mindfulness isn’t just cultivating awareness of this moment, as modern, psychological, secular mindfulness practice is presented. Classical Buddhist mindfulness is about direct and careful observation of one’s experience in order to achieve insight. The Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness are about the recommended subjects for mindful contemplation if you want to progress on the spiritual path. The recommended subjects include the arising and passing away of feelings and mind states, and the Dharma teachings on dukkha and not-self (anatta).
It’s not a far stretch at all to apply the powers of mindfulness to a koan, or something – generally based in a delusion – that is obscuring our true nature. Our mind needs to be relatively focused and calm as we call our koan to mind, so this work is complemented by a regular meditation practice. Perfect stillness isn’t required, but we also won’t get far just daydreaming about our koan as we rush about doing other things. With an open mind, we bring the matter of koan to the fore. We might do this by silently reciting a question that has formed in our minds, or vividly recalling a recent experience where the koan manifested. Perhaps we are able to locate a wordless tension in our bodies that represents our obstruction. Generally speaking, though, we want to identify a question.
To illustrate this process turning the power of mindfulness on a koan, let’s return to Laurie’s “This Is It!” Let’s imagine you’re Laurie, who finds herself taking advantage of the stillness she has touched in her zazen to turn her mind, for a time, to the koan of tension with her partner over the time she spends at the Zen center. (Note: I’m just making all this up, this isn’t necessarily what the authors of Householder Koans had in mind with this koan.) Recalling the situation, you imagine yourself coming back home, your mind and heart calmed and strengthened from Zen retreat. You have tasted some of the peace you search for. Then, rudely, your spiritual calm is disturbed when the first thing your partner says as you walk through the door is a sarcastic, ““Well, have you found the meaning of life yet?”
You look more closely at what happened in this scenario – not commenting, judging, evaluating, or telling a story about, just looking. What did you feel? What went through your mind? You remember feeling irritated, and judgmental of your partner because she or he is so spiritually uninspired. Okay, what else? You realize you felt resentful because you want your partner to affirm your choice to spend so much time doing Zen practice. Interesting. Why is that? Curiously, you recognize a fear within you – usually suppressed – that you are wasting your time with Zen, that either you’re not capable of attaining real liberation, or that the liberation you’re looking for actually isn’t possible. Interesting, what’s that about? Now the whole landscape of the koan has shifted. This isn’t primarily about your relationship with your partner, it’s about your own inner doubt.
Do you see how underneath what seems like a mundane interpersonal issue, there is the whole question of the nature of Buddhist practice? What are we looking for if we already have it? If ultimately this is about being satisfied with exactly what we already have, then why do we need to practice? Why do we need to do anything special? Why do we need zazen, or Sangha, or teachings, or teachers? Do we need them? We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. If we give up practicing, something is missing. When we push against the circumstances of our lives in order to practice, we create a new problem. What can we do?
Sticking with a Koan Until Resolution
If you think of a koan as being like an onion with many layers, we rarely peel all the “layers of the onion” at one sitting. However, if you’re diligent, if you don’t give up, things will open over time. We just keep investigating and questioning, following the thread deeper and deeper.
Any amount of insight is good, but we know when a koan isn’t yet fully resolved. Resolution brings us to a new degree of freedom. New possibilities open up in front of us in terms of how we can think, speak, behave, and respond. We see clearly how our limited ideas or understanding was obscuring our true nature, and it shines through more brightly. Of course, resolving one koan still leaves many others, and resolving one doesn’t make us into perfect Buddhas, but there is a significant and rewarding shift in our being.
What does resolution of a koan look like? Koan stories often contain an example of breaking through, of awakening, of resolution, in order to inspire us. In our personal, natural koans, we may not know how they’re going to turn out, and we may doubt at times that resolution is possible. In my experience, the answer, or resolution, is usually something of a surprise to us. This is true even if, in the end, our great realization is something rather obvious, like, “Oh, I can’t control the world, and I don’t have to!” If you say such a thing to a friend, they probably won’t be impressed with your insight. But we come to such a realization in the process of our spiritual practice, it’s not just an intellectual thing. It’s a full-body, full-person thing. It’s waking up to the truth directly and personally. “Oh! I don’t have to control the world!”
Again, to illustrate, let’s use the case of Laurie’s “This is it.” The resolution of this koan is presented as follows:
Cathy, still sitting on the sofa, asked, “Well, Laurie, have you found the meaning of life yet?”
Without hesitation, Laurie replied, “Yes, Cathy: This. Is. It!”
What is going on here? You could read this as, “I can’t take this anymore, you’ve got to stop giving me a hard time or this relationship is over.” You could read this as, “Okay, what I’m seeking is supposed to be right in front of me, so I’ll stop seeking anything elsewhere by going to the Zen center.” But I think Laurie did not stop practicing. She did not leave her partner or tell her to shut up. Her partner probably didn’t even entirely stop giving her a hard time about going to the Zen center. What manner of resolution, what insight, shift, or understanding is portrayed in this interaction?
Here’s a possibility:
This = Laurie, her way-seeking mind, her resentful partner, their relationship (including what’s rewarding and what causes tension), ongoing challenges, unresolved koans, unfairness, the inevitability of old age, disease and death and the fact that no matter how hard we try we won’t be as prepared for them as we hope, etc.
Is = I face all of this openly, fearlessly, honestly, without denial or uselessly wishing it was otherwise.
It = It with a capital I, the completeness, nobility, dignity we long for.
I think what’s portrayed here is Laurie making a fierce and vital peace with her life, standing upright in her choices without apology, without defensiveness, and also with compassion. She knows that what got her to this point of relative freedom was her practice. She knows practice is worth it, and pays off, so even though it might annoy her partner, she must continue with it. But she also knows the Dharma extends right into her living room, so she doesn’t need to subtly reject or run away from what’s at home, or need affirmation from her partner about it all. Will Laurie be able to “keep” this position, this freedom? Maybe, maybe not. But, generally speaking, when we break through a koan, although it never means all our problems and tensions are literally solved, we are forever changed.
Resolution may take many, many years. To keep up our efforts it may help to talk about a natural koan with a teacher or with fellow Dharma practitioners, because their faith in the practice – their faith that you really can resolve something by continuing to work with your koan – may be strong even if yours flags. Ultimately, the best way to build our resilience in sticking with koans is to notice the smaller koans we face all the time, and appreciate the resolution we achieve when we, for example, take a breath before responding with impatience, or recognize a moment of simple perfection watching the sun light up the steam rising from our tea.