Aw, Koan wit yez!


Let me make this a bit scholarly by quoting someone who actually knows what he’s talking about before devolving into my homey self-example.  The writer here is Koun Yamada.  He is writing in the Author’s Preface to the First Edition of the Gateless Gate: the classic book of Zen Koans.  The man says:

The entrance into Zen [right away an interruption from me: Forget about the first four words.  This is no more or less than getting to know yourself, a point I’ll undoubtedly make more times than necessary] is the grasping of one’s essential nature.  It is absolutely impossible, however, to come to a clear understanding of our essential nature by any intellectual or philosophical method.  It is accomplished only by the experience of self-realization through zazen.  [Another interruption from me: Zazen is sitting meditation, and I don’t buy it as the only way to knowing who or what you really are, but it comes with the quotation.  Let the man continue:]  And the koans [Me again:  Koans are short–often very short–stories designed to confound our usual processes of understanding] used in Zen can be seen through only when looked at from the essential point of view.  Therefore to the person whose enlightened eye has not been opened, Zen koans seem impractical, illogical, and against common sense.  Once this eye  has opened, however, all koans express natural matters and relate the most obvious of realities.

OK, so koans are apparently absurd little stories which, when we try to figure them out, exhaust our practical, logical, commonsensical faculties, thus bringing into play our impractical, illogical and–here  I’m being cute, but maybe not–nonsensical connections with life.  Most remarkably we never solve them so much as transmute them into openings for entering into that deeper understanding of ourselves and all of reality.  You might call them an entrance into (OMYGOD!) Zen!

Let the scene shift…IMG_1181

The last week in May was spent at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York.  The event was a seven day Koan Retreat, the third I’ve attended along with five Western Zen Retreats of five days each and one other done mostly in Chinese with English translations.   DDRC has become an grounding place and a launching pad for me.  Without any formal acknowledgment or contract, the retreat leaders, John Crook and Simon Child,  dharma heirs of  The Venerable Master Sheng Yen (1930-2009), have become my teachers.  Without conspiring they regularly double-team me, good-cop/bad-cop me into new levels of growth.  What’s particularly remarkable is that there is never forewarning of who will be which cop!

This retreat like the others was a great success: learning to deal better with both physical and spiritual pain, opening more to reality and being a bit less vulnerable to the persuasions of ego.  The method was koan based, using these ancient conundrums as a portal to self understanding beyond cognition, to lead us into worlds of sensation and perception without the brain’s compulsion to organize and interpret and value-judge.

After a day to settle in and leave the rest of the world behind we were given a handout with 7 full koans and perhaps 7 hua-tous, the punchlines to other koans.  Our task was to select the one we’d prefer to work on for the remaining days.  The belief: we are drawn to our choice by the karma we bring to it.   A social worker might substitute the word “unconscious” for karma, but this particular social worker no longer sees a difference between the two.

I chose  “How can you step off the top of a 100 foot pole?”  I chose it for several reasons:

1. I knew this hua-tou and so thought I had a leg up on it.
2. It was short and thus suited my limited ability to memorize.
3. I could sing it to the tune of “Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week.”  (Try it!)
4. Something told me it was the one to go with.
A note here: this seven day silent retreat was one of continual meditation,  the meditation taking several forms.  Each day’s schedule was the same, beginning with exercise done meditatively.  Eating was done as a meditation on eating.  Twice each day we engaged in a work meditation.
My work meditation task was to sweep the 35′ x 70′ meditation hall twice a day, a job that had me walking continually on bare feet continually in pain–another opportunity to truly practice.

The retreat actually went as the one a year ago had also gone.  The day of settling in.  Then one day of befuddlement followed by a day of thinking I had the thing licked.  An interview with our teacher and this year’s bad-cop, John Crook, who allowed me to rage successful for a few minutes then, by posing a simple follow-up question to my self-satisfied ravings, propelled me into “Great Doubt.”  Great Doubt is another traditional Zen concept.  It describes a period of utter agony which I expressed as thoughts of Why am I here?  Who am I fooling?  What’s the point of all this self-torture anyway?   Notice that here the focus has shifted from the literal content of the koan to it’s impact on all of my life certainties.  The portal was open.  Did I dare walk through it?

My immediate and thoroughly logical conclusion: go back to the dorm; pack; hitch hike back to town; catch the train back to NYC!


One view from the center of the circle of Great Doubt

But something else said stay.  A few hours later, during a period of solitary walk-in-the-woods meditation I found myself in an unknown part of the retreat grounds in a light rain, not so much distracting myself from the interior gloom by focusing on the exterior beauty but simply melting into it.  That’s when it hit, my revelation of the moment, one which would carry me through the ups and downs of the week’s remaining rollercoaster ride and (hooray) life since then:

I am a happy man who occasionally has unhappy moments.

I know, there are a whole bunch of you out there who already knew that.

Published in: on June 13, 2009 at 10:55 am  Comments (10)  

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Two thoughts: An interesting escape from what is bothering you; and, are you really an unhappy man with occaisional happy moments?


  2. @Geo Carl: Forgive me for butting in. Re thought one: it’s not escape, indeed it’s quite the opposite. They call sesshin “retreat” but I have always felt that was a misnomer. One does not “retreat” in the conventional sense, as in going to a resort or just lounging on the beach, or holing up some cabin in the woods to read and/or drink. No. Sesshin entails a rigorous schedule and brings you face to face not with what you might like but with what actually is, like it or not, ready or not. This can be profoundly liberating, profoundly disturbing, or both — sometimes both in the course of the same couple of days. Whatever it is, it isn’t escape.

    Re thought two: no, you heard him correctly.


  3. Ah, yes, but when does one surface?


  4. What is the meaning of retreat? what is a retreat?

    A re-treat is a process of withdrawing from formidable or unpleasant situation, a moment of peace, quietness, privacy, seclusion, retirement or solitude.

    However, it can also mean a process of going backward or receding from a position or condition gained.
    But the question remains:

    Did you accomplish the/a/your goal?

    I quote you from above:

    “Great doubt is another traditional Zen concept;…..who am I fooling? why am I here?”
    “The portal was open, did I walk through it?”

    And then, you found yourself in an unknown path in the woods; that was your moment! The moment of authenticity and certainty.
    The moment that resolved your doubts despite all the aches and pains.



    • Yo! Kassandra MonahanI

      Were you a Zenmaster in a former life?


      • Hi Richard!

        Probably so, never thought of it… it might explain why I am always at peace.
        how are you doing?


  5. Hi Richard!

    Thank you so much for this lovely post. I miss the retreat and look forward to when I can attend again.


  6. hello richard

    A one hundred foot pole is pretty high, once one has stepped off….does one have the luxury and/or concern with happy or unhappy? beyond conventional concerns of course(we all want to be happy in our day to day).

    who and what is the MAN who would be happy or unhappy?



  7. I thought a koan was a baked pastry? Something tells me to be happy for you but my bus has been discontinued even as I wait at the stop.


  8. good photo of rain on pond!


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