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Koans are for life, not just interview: reflections of a koan committed – Guro Shoshin Huby

“Koans are not for me”, I used to think. “My practice is woefully inadequate. Koans are for serious and accomplished practitioners of Zen”.

“Besides”, I would go on, “I live too much in my head. Koans would only make my head even fuller of words and distract me from the practice of being in the world beyond my own confusion and muddled perceptions”.

I forgot the accepted wisdom that you can’t solve a koan riddle with words. That is precisely their point. They put you in an impossible spot where there is no logical way out. You tie your mind in knots to find an answer, until you give up and look elsewhere, beyond words, outside of your head, to other parts of your experience, to find a response to the riddle. Once I discovered this, there was no way back and I am now completely committed to koans.

Since I fell into koan practice, by accident, a couple of years back, I have discovered three things about koans. First of all, they can be playful and fun. Secondly, they seem to burrow their way to those parts of my existence that have become stuck and need a bit of oiling and attention. Thirdly and perhaps for that reason, they have opened up and grounded my practice and my zazen in ways I don’t quite understand. But I think it may be because koans take me away from the self that is locked inside my head, and help me experience that self as part of a shifting, complex and exciting landscape of connections. I will try and explain.

First of all the fun and play. “Koan practice” used to conjure up for me an image of a black-clad practitioner sitting rock-steady for hours on end penetrating the mysteries of Zen. But that is doing koan practice an injustice. I have discovered that koans can be fun; they invite play and imagination. I have roamed with, sometimes as, a silver fox in the white wastes of a winter mountain, I have been a gnarled birch tree clinging to a rocky place and bowing with an irresistible storm, I have stood in a quiet place while helming a close-hauled sailboat into a force 6 wind, laughing with the wind and spray in my face.

I don’t think I often “get” the koans I am working on. But then that’s part of the play. There is always more to explore, and you can always go deeper – koans are for life, not just interview. But I have a most interesting ride getting to where I end up. And part of the fascination is that I don’t know how I get there. For example, I often explore a koan through a story. Once I found myself swinging on an old temple bell, together with an old toothless monk, from the tower of a hidden and dilapidated monastery, both shouting “whoohoo!” as we swung to and fro over a green valley deep below. I have no idea how I ended up there – the story just came to me.

But I do know now that the response, such as it is, somehow comes from parts of my existence that demand I speak to them. My first koan came directly from my own experience at the time. I was applying the retrospectoscope to my life, feeling a certain degree of regret for opportunities missed and wishing I had made other choices so I could have found myself in a different place. Then I came across the story of Hyakujo/Pai Chang and the old master who had been sentenced to ages of life as a silver fox because he had given an unsatisfactory answer when asked if an enlightened person was freed from the karmic chains of cause and effect. I discussed this with Roshi, and it became my first koan. Working on that koan was a good experience that demanded more. Roshi gave me the choice of selecting koans myself, or working through the little book of koans. I decided on the latter because I wanted as broad an experience of the practice as possible.

But no matter what koan I work on, so far at least, it seems to wheedle its way to a part of my life and existence that demands attention. For example, my middle sister is not just any girl – she has her own issues that she resolves in a middle sister kind of way that speaks directly to me. The old man I help to his feet is my own old age. The battle across the river I try to still is the one raging inside of me.

Lately I have come to ask myself about the relationship between zazen and koan work. Whatever it is, it is working for me, but I don’t quite know how. I once asked Shinro Sensei why Maezumi introduced koan work as part of our Soto practice. Shinro suggested it was because shikantaza on its own doesn’t always work. It can be too static, it doesn’t always get there. I am not sure what that means, but it makes sense to me. I find shikantaza hard. I fidget a lot, struggle with anxious thoughts of things I have not done that I should, so it is hard stilling the mind, particularly in everyday practice in a busy life when I sit one or two periods at a time. I reprimand myself endlessly: “You are not doing it right, this is not proper zazen”. When I do manage to sit still and focussed I get to a point where I feel “all dressed up and nowhere to go”. Knowing I should not feel like that because there is nowhere to go knocks me off the perch, and so it goes, round and round the person, me, who is trying to do “proper” zazen. It is VERY frustrating.

I sometimes try something I have discovered is akin to a Chan practice called Hua Tou – asking “who sits, who observes the one who sits, who observes the one who sits, and so on”, and that helps focus and attention, and is a most useful practice. However, it puts me, the person, at the centre, it operates in my head, and it can all too easily join the circus of thoughts that is about me and my zazen.

And I think this is the nub of things for me, or a question worth exploring. Koans, because they are koans, kspeak to me in a way that somehow puts my own experience in a larger context. They never get personal. I have had to go outside of logic to find a response, and they never really get inside my head. They connect me with all the middle sisters, all the old and ageing men and women, all battles ever fought and all cogitations about karmic cause and effect through the ages, and so take the sting, the self, out of my response – be it anguish, anger, reproach, or a shaking of the head.

Koans ask not who is sitting, or in what way. They ask what is sitting; what connections, events and co-incidences have come together to bring this life, at this moment, to the cushion, to express itself and its place in the ever-shifting myriad of things. Sometimes by weathering streams of thought, sensations, memories, sometimes fidgeting, and sometimes in periods of stillness when zazen sits zazen and all there is is the breath and proverbial door banging in the wind.