Koan Inquiry

 

 

Koan Inquiry

 

Koans are stories of the Zen tradition and they are stories that we find in our life everyday. They bring us right into the heart of Zen. Right here. Right now.


 

Koans’ great virtue is that you simply cannot use ordinary conceptual means to resolve the offence they seem to offer to ordinary ways of making sense. Instead they oblige you to look in a radically fresh way, and immediately the misunderstanding that there was a problem dissolves.

Roshi Susan Murphy

What is a Koan?

Koans are that strange class of miniature stories, questions, images or even single words, which turn out to be holographic towards reality. Just as every particle of holographic light contains the image projected by the entire hologram, every koan directly answers to reality in such a way as to contain and convey the nature of the whole-of mind, heartbeat, world, galaxy, universe.

Koans became part of Zen training during Song dynasty China, especially around the time ofYuanwu (compiler of the magisterial collection of one hundred koans titled The Blue Cliff Record) when the records of exchanges between recognised Chan Buddhist masters and often anonymous student monks of the Tang and Song dynasties began to be taken up as ‘gong-an’ (Japanese ‘koan’), or ‘public cases’ to be clarified by practitioners. ‘Clarifying’ does not mean ‘explaining’ or ‘answering’, but rather becoming able to directly present and embody the koan point, which means discovering in yourself the mind of the master whose words or actions yielded the koan. The practice continues in Rinzai (Linji) schools of Zen down to the present day and formed the backbone of my own training path of more than 1 700 koans.

Every koan in a particular way mends a tear in our relationship with reality, helps reverse our fear-based withdrawal from it, which has cruelled our own lives and been so violently damaging to our world, and takes a decisive step clear of the thinking that created the problem. Koans invite us to share the mind of someone who can see whole.

Roshi Susan Murphy adapted from Minding the Earth Mending the World

Koans: A special kind of origin story

Since Koans always strip away what we use to hide from original mind, koans are a special kind of origin story in their way – extremely portable ones, small enough to be held in the palm of one hand, and never lacking a playful power to overturn rusted-on thinking.

They are origin stories because they share with creation or cosmology stories a fundamental interest in the source of all that is. But with the vital difference that they do not try to explain it – not even metaphorically. Instead they just point it out steadily and directly, never limiting it with a name or explanation.

You can think of them as tiny, potent detonators to reopen entry to reality lying in wait for us right under our very eyes and noses, in the most ordinary details of the world including words themselves.

Koans are traditionally close to the oral tradition in its participatory, improvisatory freshness. They are drawn mainly from live encounters, were traditionally offered in a somewhat ceremonial face-to-face encounter between teacher and student, and the response (rather than ‘answer’) that they evoke is offered, when it ripens, in direct presentation rather than explanatory form.

By their very nature koans are literally not what you think. They are instead what you cannot fail to realise when you strip away all your suppositions.

Their great virtue is that you simply cannot use ordinary conceptual means to resolve the offence they seem to offer to ordinary ways of making sense. Instead they oblige you to look in a radically fresh way, and immediately the misunderstanding that there was a problem dissolves.

Or to put that another way, koans reveal, by sudden means, that the real problem was that we were blocking our own access to the fresh wholeness of reality.

The thinking that divides the seamless world, thinking that generally originates in the proposition ‘me’, just won’t work for a koan. Whenever we resort to the usual categories (always relative to an insular sense of ‘me’ or, at best, a partisan ‘us’) to try to approach a koan, we will always find it impossible to put Humpty Dumpty’s original egg back together again.

Grasping after reality in the form of opposable fragments only persists in creating the problem.

So every koan requires that we find our way to resume the original undivided state of mind, which turns out to be as natural and at ease as the rain falling and the earth getting wet. Until we do, the koan won’t stop bothering us. When we do, it brings us back to our senses and to what and where we actually are-which is oddly familiar, intimately at home, yet bigger, more roomy, and in touch with a remarkably interesting energy.

Roshi Susan Murphy adapted from Minding the Earth Mending the World

Koan Inquiry: Resources from the WWW

On the Great Koan, ‘No’ – Roshi John Tarrant

Koans take account of the confusion and cross purposes that are a feature of the mind. They lead us to rest in our uncertainty, including what’s happening now and what we want to flee.

How we work on Koans and how they work on us

Joan Sutherland, Judy Roitman, and Bodhin Kjolhede examine the practice of koan introspection, how different traditions approach it, and how the way we engage with koans is changing. Introduction by Ross Bolleter.


 

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