The fraud – Perils of koan practice

You see, on the way into work this morning I realised that the fear and frustration that was coming up when sitting with this koan is that I’m being exposed as a fraud… the koans I’ve passed so far have been through luck or by pulling the wool over Sensei’s eyes, perhaps taking advantage of him or something. He has sometimes almost dragged me through koans, virtually giving me the answer in an attempt to point out what’s right in front of my friggin’ nose, but not this time. “Go back and work on it some more.” It’s not “Mu” or “Hyakujo’s Fox”, it’s not a famous barrier koan or anything, it’s not even from one of the classic collections: but I’m stumped, stopped dead.

I’ve been exposed by a koan that I haven’t “figured out the formula” for. There have been quite a few koans where you can see what was being asked for: spot the noun or choose the best line, and identify with it, be it, act it out, bow, ding-ding, next koan. Not this one, it’s less concrete, nothing to grip onto, didn’t even understand one of the words in it, and finding out the meaning of the word hasn’t really helped either.

Part of me wants to find an excuse to go back to shikantaza. Not that shikantaza is any less demanding or frustrating, but I’d be able to hide my ineptitude more easily. Can’t believe the rest of the group have been fooled by my “senior zen student” charade for so long. Look at me, leading the chanting, being invited to represent Buddhists at interfaith services & memorial parades, sitting on our group’s organising committee: what a pompous ass. I just feel they’re going to turn around and say, “Jeez, Al, we thought you’d figured this stuff out, we thought you were one of us, but you don’t really deserve to be a part of any of this.”

Anyway: just wanted to put this down, get it out of me. Realising that some of this is irrational isn’t helping the feeling of being exposed as a fake.

(Wow. Writing this out has been interesting. What a selfish prick I am… look how my ego-driven motivations are exposed, look at how I feel I really do deserve special treatment and recognition, or at least crave it.)

Genkaku’s response

Alasdair—Yup, you are a phony and a fraud of the first water … just like the rest of us. But how fortunate you are (no kidding … no BS Zen ‘compassion’) to be curious and attentive to it. Others may duck and cover and issue an occasional ‘katz!’ to reassure themselves that everything is OK and their club membership is not in jeopardy.

OK, over and over again, the moment we discover we are ‘right,’ what is ‘wrong’ asserts itself like the fires of hell. We may try to smooth things over with oozy-goozy talk about “ego,” but the fires of hell are hot and no amount of talking banks the flames.

I think you are on exactly the right track: 1. Acknowledge the problem and 2.(the hard part) don’t try to solve it. Just watch and see what actually happens. Easy to say, of course … harder to do.

The best story I know about our collective schmuck-dom came from Soen Sa Nimh when a student told him that during meditation practice, sometimes he felt like a complete phony and a schmuck. SSN replied, “You are either a Buddha or a schmuck. There is no in-between.”

No in-between.

Gently but firmly, keep an eye on that.

Adam Genkaku Fisher is resident teacher at the Black Moon Zendo in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Jok Hae’s response

Hi AlasdairGF,

Congratulations on your stuckness!! I too, find myself stuck on my latest assignment. I consider it a gift. I completely understand what you are saying about answering previous kong an’s. I even asked a teacher about the possiblility of answering a kong an, but not really “believing” it, whatever that means. I guess, as we have both found, sooner or later we run into the one that really smacks us in the face. The kong an I have been assigned is really hard and I am actually looking forward to whatever the answer is, just from a curiousity sake. I just can’t believe there is an answer to it! Glorious stuckness! 😀  Enjoy the ride!

Good luck and thanks for practicing,


Keith (Jok Hae) is a student at the New Haven Zen Center.