If we look closely, every life dilemma has at its core a guiding koan. Being fired from my job, who am I?  From every powerful dream springs forth a luminous question. Having lost my car, I come to a towering stone wall without a doorway – how do I reach the other side? Every spiritual obstacle is an invitation to enter a vital query. All these years, and I’m still not getting it. Where have I been looking?  

Who am I?
Who is inquiring?
If she’s breathing, river knows
Asleep, mountain knows

       Koan practice is a brilliant Zen approach to the moment that teaches us how to walk into the paradox life continually presenting itself to us.  Guided by the mind of zazen, it opens up the constricted world and delivers its gem of prajna. The koan reveres what we do not – failure, tenderness and the surrender of control.

Authentic Season
Like geese heading north
No room for extra clothing
The sky will hold you

       Traditional koans appear as frustrating  queries, stories or exchanges or even one word. The classic curriculum of some 300 plus koans has been well honed for centuries to guide students along the path of insight. What is the sound of one hand clapping? The thinking mind cannot imagine an answer to this. Raising a hand up to the air? Hmmmm. The koan, Mu. One word. Translated as No. Nothing. What am I supposed to do with that? Immediately the mind pleads – I don’t know, I don’t know, get me back to something familiar. Such an excellent start – we can just notice how we get busy after that. Where do we look? From whence do we think the answer will come?

Source of Acceptance
Not the thinking mind!
More like being potter’s clay
Soft in Buddha’s hands

       Every fall 100 day practice period, each Ango participant teases out a personal koan that speaks to their edge of practice, to the very questions that matter most to them. These koans serve as a touchstone throughout the practice period.  To work, a personal koan needs to be short, portable and compelling enough to travel 14 weeks. Some do not make it. (the koan, that is) Your koan must have juice for you. “Why” questions are not useful because they ask for explanations. “Who, what, when and where” questions are useful. Or, like Mu, a single compelling word or haunting phrase.  Most often, the koan with staying power springs right out of the mess of our conflicts and this world on fire.

What is Right Action?
Tip of the tree root
Seeking water in the dark
No thought of the woods

       Only an authentic answer will do.

       Although the answer must be authentically our own, a koan teaches us we are not alone. At retreats, participants present their koans in Mondo, a traditional Zen practice that involves fielding questions from the group in the most succinct way. Answers are spontaneous, distilled and open up the question in ways we cannot see when ruminating around in our own heads. In this way, the koan is always answered from a place beyond our own separate experience. It is answered in relation with all beings.   

Whose body?
Prick it with a pin
and you’ll get one sure answer
these eyes, another

       To begin working on a koan, we notice everything it immediately evokes. The first easy answers. The intellectual reasoning. The anxiety and self consciousness. The longed for outcomes. The places we’d like to avoid. A good koan should bring to the surface all the charged detritus in the heart-mind like a magnet collecting loose metal filings.  Then we reverse the polarity, let go of all of that, and wait. Just wait.

What’s dreaming?
Whose dreaming?
Chasing the dreamer
with a dream butterfly net
He escapes! Again!

       Tending a koan is like being a bird watcher waiting for a species you know lives in these woods but haven’t yet met. Maybe you’ve seen a picture, learned some of its discernible habits. One has to be really quiet, patient, completely take in the landscape, and listen. Let the koan lead you further and further into the woods. What other questions arise as you listen for the call of this koan?

Relax the Struggle
But keep what is fierce
A bear in her winter cave
Eyes gaze into dark  
    

If we investigate our koan thoroughly, it will lead us to the truth of emptiness as our attachments to ideas about it drop away and something fresh emerges. The koan is not answered in words necessarily, but in our walking. The “aha!” come at the grocery store, in the middle of an argument, or in a dream. It may lead you to a swim in deep still waters or a thicket of brambles. It may offer a brilliant vista or a lonely dry desert. We have to be willing to look again and again.

Where is it?
Hmmm, where have I searched?
Like spring, laughter, it finds me –
when I stop looking. 

       Several years ago, Chozen Bays Roshi gave me a starter koan at a sesshin – How do you know the earth is spinning? Hmmm, I passively pondered on my cushion. At first, I was delighted to be struck by the fact that I actually do not know it’s spinning. I told her, Well, it’s a rumor, like enlightenment, but a rumor I have some faith in and am willing to follow. Clever, but not it. Later, I went into sanzen to offer a different more intimate response. I felt into the earth spinning underneath me and demonstrated wordlessly by suddenly falling over robes and all. If you are very still, when something moving jolts forward underneath you like a train, you fall over. I could see she was not moved. Closer! But still not it. I left that retreat and forgot about the koan. (Always a good thing to do) Until one day, I saw it immediately while talking with a friend. Oh, just get up and spin! That’s the immediate knowing, in this very body. This is why children are often better at answering koans than adults. Our minds are so complicated! I was delighted in hindsight to have played with a few responses before the aha. Albeit, not at the time! Sadly, one notices that once answered, it no longer possses its allure. It’s like losing a good friend who’s now moved to another town.     

What is Zen practice now?
Lose the manual
Each moment, dark and giving
Each move, a marvel

      One year, as an experiment at the end of Ango, everyone pooled their koans in a box which was passed around the circle. Each person randomly picked one out. As everyone read the koan they received, it was uncanny how each question another person had asked perfectly answered their own koan. Q: Where is it? A: Still in the midst of activity. Q: What is right action? A: Relax the Struggle. Q: Where is wisdom right now? A: Awake!  The phenomena points to the common root from which all our koans spring, a wordless place that is expressed through the body in zazen. An existential question something like – What is this? What is this life? What is mine to do?

What is mine to do?
Following the path
of Buddha into brambles
Love the one you can

With palms together,

Seido

Acknowledgements

My gratitude to the many inspired Ango students over these past years asking the most interesting of questions. The sampling of these koans above come from Josu, Jukan, Laurie, Honji, Rishin, Myorin, Ontetsu, Genju and Komon. The haiku responses are from the teacher. But as I say to them, they are simply my dream of their dream, and each student must find the absolutely unequivocal response on their own.