Very good presentation.
--- On Fri, 19/11/10, ED <seacrofter...@yahoo.com> wrote:
From: ED <seacrofter...@yahoo.com>
Subject: [Zen] Zen Koan Practice
Date: Friday, 19 November, 2010, 12:02 AM
Zen Koan Practice
By Genjo Marinello, Abbot Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji (Great Plum Mountain -
Listening to the Dharma Zen Temple )
Koan is a Japanese word that comes from the Chinese, kung-an, that means
"public dictate." It is a reference to examples that are meant to guide life;
or in the case of Zen, these dictates are meant to be catalysts for awakening
one's true/deep/pure nature.
They often recount an encounter between master and disciple, where the master's
response or question is said to reveal the deep nature of things as they are.
Perhaps the earliest example of a koan comes from the fable of the time the
historical Buddha held up a flower before an assemblage of followers and spoke
not a word.
It is said that all remained silent and puzzled except for his disciple
Venerable Kasho who is said to have smiled in recognition. What was transmitted
when the Buddha held up a flower?
"Don't explain it, show me your understanding!", shouts the Zen master. To do
so you must at once become the Buddha, Kasho, and the flower! Koans are an
advanced tool, and have no inherent power in and of themselves, but can be very
enlightening when used properly. I have heard Genki Roshi (Zen master & Abbot)
refer to them as a can-opener for the Heart/Mind (kokoro). They are like a
door-knocker, they are of no use, unless used properly as a tool to knock on
the door of one's Heart/Mind.
Koans should only be used after one's meditation has entered some Samadhi.
Samadhi is the condition of one's mind when most of the silt and ripples
(ideas, thoughts, feelings, judgments) have quieted and the mind has become
more or less clear, calm, clean, naturally reflective and free-flowing in this
moment. If your mind has not yet achieved at least a small measure of Samadhi,
don't bother with koans.
Koans deliberately stir up the waters of the mind, and if the mind is already
disturbed, koan practice will only make things worse. This is why Genki Roshi
only assigns koans during Sesshins (long concentrated periods of meditation)
where reaching Samadhi is more likely. If the mind is practiced at a given
level of Samadhi, then a koan can be used to stretch one's Samadhi-mind to a
bigger dimension. By resolving a koan, that is to say encompassing the
example/dictate/question with one's understanding, small mind is slowly or
suddenly stretched and awakened into Big Mind.
Koans are NOT answered. Any descriptive response, yes/no response, or this/that
response will be rejected. Yet, no response is also no good! How then can one
respond at all? When the deep meaning of the koan is understood directly, then
a token of that understanding is easy to present. Usually no words are
necessary, some poetic or creative gesture will suffice. This is why I say that
koans are not answered, but resolved.
To work on a koan is to let a koan work on you. Once a measure of Samadhi is
attained, the practitioner calls the example or question to mind. The only
volition appropriate in Koan work is calling the question gently but repeatedly
to consciousness. Do not waste any time trying to figure the koan out. Let it
stretch your mind through the questioning alone, make no effort to solve it.
Any analysis is a waste of time, and at best will produce a "fox" or pseudo-Zen
Koans are a devilish instrument because they deliberately tempt us to make an
interpretation, explanation, imitation or analysis; and yet, it is only when we
exhaust or give up these lines of investigation that a deeper level of inquiry
Often, only when we are able to admit in frustration that we don't know
anything, can true koan practice begin. Allow the koan to sit in your belly,
there it may begin to feel like you have swallowed a hot iron ball that can not
be digested or expelled. Eventually, sometimes after years of practice, the
koan will do its work, the mind will open in gentle deep understanding, and any
number of simple direct responses will seem obvious.
Koans are questions or statements that are like a challenge to your person,
your most fundamental perception of self. Koans act like swords to stab at your
ego and draw forth your Buddha Nature (your fully natural nature that is not
dependent on your self-definition). The practitioner's job is not to fight or
struggle with these attacks, but to neutralize them. This is done by making a
genuine, authentic, spontaneous, gut response.
Whenever a response to a koan arises within me prior to dokusan (personal
interview between Roshi and the student) I let it go, this is the best
guarantee that the response that arises in the dokusan line or in front of the
Roshi will be fresh. Now, it is often the case that the response that I make at
dokusan is nearly identical to my first inclination; yet, by letting the first
and subsequent responses go, the Koan has the best chance to broaden one's
understanding into the fullest flowering.
To understand a Koan with your rational mind is only the beginning; to
understand the koan fully through and through, with every fiber of your being,
is just a good start. To respond to a Koan we must learn to manifest our
understanding simply and directly without hesitation. To manifest our response
is to give a pure reflection of what is being pointed at. For example, the
"answer" to the koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping" is SILENCE: the
silence that permeates the universe, the Tao itself.
Yet, this somewhat rational understanding says nothing. As a response it is
already long dead. How will you feel this silence in every fiber of your being,
and once this is directly experienced, how will you manifest a token of your
experience to the Roshi's satisfaction? Be courageous, do not be just still and
frozen; at least say "I don't know." Any response that is turned away will
close off a blind alley, or push you down some new direction. Slowly the Roshi
will help eliminate any response but a pure reflection of what is being pointed
Each Koan begs for a uniquely individual response within the frame of the
question. If a Koan is like a fist to the head it is useless to respond with a
kick to the shins. If the Roshi asks for an apple, bring your own variety; but
understand that a orange or a loaf of bread won't do.
Koans are like seeds of awakening. Sometimes there is a prolonged and difficult
growing period, sometimes the growing period is short and direct. Always, we
await the fruit of one's response to ripen and fall of its own accord. To fully
resolve a koan one must allow it to grow to full maturity; a koan must reveal
itself. To nurture and care for a koan, simply and repeatedly prod your
awareness with the essence of the "question" or "encounter."
For example, if the koan is "Bring me the essence of the temple bell sound,"
then first we nurture the ground in which the koan will be planted by settling
into samadhi (the condition of one's mind when we are naturally calm, balanced,
present and intimately involved in this moment of eternity). Once samadhi
activity is established (sitting, i.e. zazen, walking, i.e. kinhin, working,
i.e. samu), we plant the koan gently, repeatedly and attentively by bringing
the koan to our awareness and allowing it to rest in our abdomen.
There it will grow and ripen without any further effort on our part. In the
example of the essence of the temple bell sound, we allow the sound of the
temple bell to resonate in our abdomen until it can flow out of us without any
rational discrimination, analysis, or hesitation. At this moment of awakening,
the fruit of the koan will spontaneously erupt from our core as a clear
resonating response without any coloring of "it" or "me." Nothing will separate
the practitioner and the sound, they will be one without interference from
Over the years of doing koan practice with four different Roshis (Zen masters),
I have come to understand that koans fall roughly into five different
categories. Actually, any number of sub-divisions could be devised, and all are
ultimately meaningless, a koan is just a koan. However, for the benefit of
trying to communicate the flavor of koan work, I have dreamed up the following
Some koans beg the practitioner to drop the barriers between oneself and
nature. Koans like "bring me the sound of rain," "the essence of flower," or "a
mountain on a rope," all move a practitioner in this direction of expanded
Other koans beg the practitioner to drop the artificial and conceptual barriers
between oneself and Buddha. Koans like "bring me the essence of the standing
altar statue," "bring me the essence of Zen master activity (Gutei, Zuigan,
Rinzai…)," or "If hanging from a branch by your teeth over a precipice, with
your hands and feet unable to grasp a branch, how will you respond to a sincere
request to reveal the Dharma (Truth/Zen essence)?"
Some koans beg the practitioner to open all the doors to the human condition by
asking "bring the essence of old man (or women, child, infant, trickster, fool,
priest, monk, teacher, death, birth, friend, foe, joy, sorrow…)."
Some koans beg the practitioner to reveal the Tao itself (the foundation of
Reality that transcends life and death, form or no form, right and wrong, yin
and yang, male and female, and all other dualities). Koans that get the
practitioner to stretch their awareness in this direction might ask "what is
the sound of one hand clapping," "reveal the essence of Mu…," "show me the
source of earth, wind, fire, and water."
Finally, there are koans which beg the practitioner to put it all together and
reveal ordinary activity as fully awakened activity. Koans that prod us to open
in this way can ask "reveal the true nature of the universe while washing
bowls," "what do you do after you reach the top of a hundred foot pole (after
enlightenment then what?)," "how do you climb Buddha mountain," "where is
master Rinzai's person of no-rank and no-post right now."
All koans beg us to wake up right now and live fully in this moment without any
filter between us and the rest of reality.
When formal koan study is well on its way, we discover that our life itself is
the greatest of all koans. Any problem or condition that seems to separate us
from ourselves, or anyone or anything else, can be used as a koan. Plant the
problem in your gut as described above and wait for it to ripen and fall
without trying to fix, change, or analyze it. You will discover that all
problems are illusions of one kind or another. To see reality clearly is to
remove all the barriers within and between one's self and other than self.
The third Dharma ancestor in Zen has said that nothing is separate or excluded,
all things move and intermingle without distinction. For example, I am often
obsessed by various thought patterns that seem to repeat endlessly; yet, if I
step back from the pattern or pain and hold it gently and attentively in my
belly or lap, then in fairly short order the pattern or pain dissolves,
sometimes revealing a previously unseen truth or story, sometimes just
dissipating without a trace. Sometimes the relief is temporary, sometimes it is
permanent, but always with gentle attentive awareness there is some resolution
or at least evolution.
I was once asked if responding to a koan was like acting, and I said: "yes,
like very good acting where, in pure genuineness, there is nothing separating
the actor or actress from the role being played."
Genjo Marinello Oshô began his Zen training in 1975 and was ordained an unsui
in 1980. In 1981-1982 he trained at Ryutaku-ji in Japan with Sochu Rôshi and
Soen Nakagawa Rôshi. Genjo Oshô was installed as Abbot on Rinzai Gigen Zenji's
(d.866) memorial day, January 10, 1999. After Genki Rôshi's retirement, Genjo
Oshô continued his training with Eido Shimano Rôshi, abbot of Dai Bosatsu
Monastery. On May 21st, 2008, Genjo Oshô received dharma transmission from Eido
Shimano Rôshi, in a ceremony also involving Genki Rôshi, other honored
teachers, family, and sangha.  
In addition to being a Zen priest, Genjo Oshô is a psychotherapist (LMHC), a
certificated spiritual director (interfaith member of Spiritual Directors
International), and as a member of the American Zen Teachers Association
fulfills their membership criteria.
Genjo Oshô has served as an Adjunct Faculty member of Antioch University
Seattle in Buddhist Studies, a signer of the Religious Coalition for Equality's
statement in Support on Antidiscrimination, a volunteer Buddhist pastor for
the Washington State Department of Corrections, a Spiritual Director associated
with Anamchara – A Program of Multifaith Works, meditation instructor for
Birankai International (Aikido association) and has worked repeatedly with
the Seattle Church Council as part of an interfaith trauma response team (for
example see Seattle PI, 3/29/06).
Genjo Oshô's Dharma Talks have been published in several Dharma journals,
including the Theosophical Society's Quest Magazine, Sansho Journal and
the journal of the Zen Studies Society.
Genjo Oshô's commentary on Zen Koan Practice has been translated into
several languages and is a highly ranked WWW article on the subject.