Let’s clear up the misconceptions about what it means to study koans.
A koan is not a puzzle or conundrum. They aren’t to be reasoned with intellectually or used as a form of psychotherapy. A koan is to be experienced. They will aid you in producing a state of consciousness in which you have full awareness, and as you practice longer, that state will generalize into how you function moment after moment in any circumstance. In short, you will function better, because you won’t be bogged down in the trivia of the egocentric mind.
As you practice with a koan, you’ll reach a point where you see it clearly for a moment and then that window closes, and you’ll be frustrated. Then you plunge into the next koan, you struggle with it, and for a moment, it opens before you go into darkness again. That’s why in our lineage we do hundreds of koans. It’s a practice that you have to repeat over and over until you exist in samadhi on a continuous basis. It is living, and it is real. It is not a theoretical or philosophical practice. It is not enough to memorize the koans and then feel that you know something. Koans will wipe away the sense that you know something, and then you enter into this place of “not knowing.”
This “not knowing” is the state of absolute emptiness, not conceptual emptiness but the experience of emptiness, which is that there is no fixed object in the universe, that there is no separation. Separation is our dualistic thinking, our delusion. There is no separation, yet as we sit here I guarantee we all feel it. The delusion of separation is what causes us to suffer, because if I feel separate I have to take care of what’s “mine.” What’s “mine” exists only in my grasping mind.
The Hsin Hsin Ming says, “The Supreme Way knows no difficulty.” Where is the Supreme Way? Right here, as it is. Seems simple, doesn’t it? But if it’s conceptual, you don’t see the world of oneness. You can pretend, you can close your eyes and try to imagine it. That’s not it. You can’t freeze the world of oneness into an image or an idea because it’s not static. It is fluid, and that’s what you are. You are not a separate entity, you are a collection of things that are totally interdependent. And not you, everything. It is movement, and it is movement that has a direction and a duration that we produce by our actions.
Where you find yourself in relationship to your practice is your karma, and to the degree that you struggle with it, you can’t perfect it. What does perfecting mean? It means to become intimate with the ordinary way that you find yourself in; it means to be one with it, not reaching out, wanting this, rejecting that. Be one with the space where you stand. When you can do that you’ll stand in the Pure Land. It will transform you, and it is real, not theoretical. There’s a big difference: theoretical understanding is dried ashes, but the real is a vibrant, rich field, always compassionate and responsive. Not pushing this thorny “I” into the seeing eye of the Dharma, because that blinds you. You don’t like where you’re at? You don’t like who you are? That’s the muddy water of the pond that produces the lotus. You’re the muddy pond and the lotus, and they are not separate. If you reject the muddy pond and embrace the lotus, you are not practicing the living Buddha dharma. It’s you, and it’s your responsibility.
We usually start koans after we settle our sitting; that’s very important. If we can truly sit—counting our breath, following our breath, letting the body, mind and breathing settle—then we pick up the koans. Some people come in and say, “Nyogen, I’ve worked on this koan two weeks, I’ve worked on this koan six months, I’m going crazy, give me another koan, let me go, pass me through.” I worked on my first koan for four and a half years. The great Mumon worked on his first koan for seven years, and he was a spiritual genius.
Am I suggesting you work like that? No, I want you to do your koans in ten minutes! That’s for selfish reasons. The teacher wants people to rise and manifest as a buddha. But if you practice koans to gain merit badges, you’ll never see them. What’s happening here is a perfecting, a refinement of the personality of the practitioner. It’s something you don’t have to construct, that you can’t fake. Your friends and family will start to take notice. “You seem so centered.” Your personality, and the force of it, will resonate to those around you. That is the perfect way that you expound the Dharma—not through superficial intellectual discourse and posturing.
Understand that it is dormant, in a sense, with all of us, but fully contained, just like the acorn seed has all of the features of the oak tree contained within it. All it needs are certain secondary conditions, like nutrients in the soil, light, temperature, and it will bloom into a magnificent tree. This is the same with you. Don’t think that somebody gives you something. It’s all there with you, so give up the notion that you have to search for more. Take the backwards step and turn the light inward. When the conditions are right, the seed will sprout, and this Dharma tree will grow.
There are a variety of koans that we work with. First, the dharmakaya or hosshin koans. These are the so-called “miscellaneous koans”: “The Sound of One Hand Clapping,” “Muji,” “Show Me Your Face Before Your Parents Were Born.” These koans give you your first insight into absolute reality—not a reality separate from you, but the reality of what you are as you are.
Then we have kikan koans, a fascinating series of koans because they differentiate between the real and the unreal experience. Through these, we see that we produce the delusional world around us. It’s staggering to see that the egocentric mind disconnects us from reality.
Gonsen koans are next. They are very verbal. This is how we penetrate the words of the past masters and buddhas, recognizing the difference between living words and dead words.
Then the nanto koans, which are extremely difficult to pass through. Maezumi once said that resolving a nanto koan takes the same tremendous effort as the first koans to crack through the outer shell and reach the nucleus of the koan. Nanto koans help us do away with the dualistic notion of having attained something.
Finally, we conclude our practice with the Five Ranks. Here we realize the great, spontaneous unity of the Absolute and the Relative functioning as one. Your moment-to-moment existence becomes the most amazing manifestation of the Absolute.
Along the way be open and fluid to this world of oneness. Have no expectation. Work with what’s in front of you, but work with compassion and understanding. You cannot fake this, and it’s not easy. It can be painful, because ego-grasping mind relinquishes its ground bloody inch by bloody inch, but it can be done!
A talk given at the Hazy Moon Zen Center on Dec. 18, 1997.