Aw, Koan wit yez!

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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.
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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!

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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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Memories are made of this

This has nothing to do with raccoons.  I just found it while looking for something else among the few and scattered remains of what was lost from this computer last crash.  It was written  back in May, undoubtedly for posting, but that somehow never happened.  Could be that my May bike crash in Central Park and subsequent in-head memory crash had something to do with this being side-tracked?  Actually no, that was a year ago May–the one they had in 2007.  At any rate…

Just about twenty-four hours ago, maybe it was forty-eight, I wrote an entry for this space using a method I learned from Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing down the bones.

Simply, one begins by placing the pen or pencil in the upper left hand corner of a blank page and writes and writes and does nothing but write. No reading what has been written. No correcting spelling or grammatical or punctuation or any other possible errors. No crossing out. Just keep writing until the pre-determined time period has ended or the hand hurts too much or you run out of paper or ink. Being bored or running out of things to write are not legitimate reasons to quit. Rather they become topics of the writing. Something like…

…and so in conclusion let me just restate that never before in the history of human kind have such wonderous thoughts beens s et to paper.  (Damnit, what do I write about now?  I can’t believe that there’s nothing left to say.  Not hing coming to mind at all.  There’s bot to be something to write about.  I promised myself I’d keep this up for at least 20 minutes and I[ve got at least 3 or 4 to go…

Anyhow I had written about working with koans at a seven day Ch’an retreat at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center about 6 weeks ago, about how I’d struggled to the end of my logical abilities to make sense of this Zen puzzle and still came to no answer.  Then, as it is supposed to happen if one is sufficiently open, the investigation jumped outside the realm of the logical.

One afternoon, standing along side a creek rushing with snow melt, all sorts of ego and emotion made their unbidden appearances, and suddenly I was overwhelmed by feelings of nausea and loneliness–the likes of which I’d not felt since my first marriage ended in 1974. Only this time it was quite clear that these feelings were not being thrust upon me.  I was creating them myself–or better–the ego was doing it.
At this point the writing exercise began to imitate the koan work.  I’d reached the end of the koan stuff (I’d thought) but was committed to writing more.  Without planning I found myself describing the interior monolog I produce whenever, on my bike, I approach the top of East Clinton Avenue.  East Clinton is a mammoth stepped hill which descends the New Jersey Palisades a few miles north of the George Washington Bridge.  I can easily reach 45 mph on this descent.  As I near the top, the initial “o boy !” feelings are chased out of my skull by the “what-if” messages of Logic:
What if somebody backs out of a driveway?
Or crosses an intersection?
Or there are pebbles on the road?
Or oil slick appears?
Or some oncoming fool decides on an unsignaled left turn right in front of my zippy ass?
Images of Goldberg as roadkill, of ambulances, of weeping family members as far away as Taiwan compete for space in my cinema brain.
As the descent begins the brain shuts down.  The emotions kick in: anticipation, anxiety, fear.  As I begin the drop feelings progress through outright fear to omygod fear to mind-changing fear to too-late fear to resignation-fear and then…the wondrous white-noise of no feelings as it becomes evident that feelings are as irrelevant as logic.  With feelings gone comes pure response to the ride,  comes “WHEEEE!!!”     Not out of control.  Not in control.  Control is simply no longer a factor.

Now the connector between the koan work and the hill are most neatly stated in another koan:

The priest Shih-shuang said, “How do you step from the top of a hundred-foot pole?”

How, when you’ve reached the limit of your secure, verifiable, testable and provable logical process, do you take that additional step into the insecure, unverifiable…ultimately spiritual realm?  Birds have to be nudged out of the nest.  My long-time-not-seen friend, The Mole, insisted that the only thing to get him to leave the security of his parents’ apartment was them closing the place down and moving out of state.  For many of us  this is that fabled “leap of  faith:” the belief, not that all will work out as we might wish it to, but that this is what is called for at this moment.  And that, whatever happens, we will be able to handle it.

When an addict decides to go sober this selfsame leap of faith is involved.  So too, I think, for the immigrant who moves to a new land without the promise of anything.  It is a remarkable instant in which faith in the universe and faith in self become indistinguishable from each other.  Each then may create his own suffering of fears and hopes (two sides of the same egoistic coin) or, by simply doing what must be done, avoid the suffering, stay better focused on the reality and thereby succeed without having pre-defined success.

At any rate, 24 or 48 hours or so ago when I was at about this point in the exercise, just after I’d launched into a bit about how, when we take these leaps, we leave behind who we were and become whoever comes next, I hit the “save and continue editing” button and the entire essay disappeared.  Disappeared.  Vanished from my hand, screen and memories.  Gone.  Poof !  The life-follows-art conspiracy strikes again.

Another koan:
It is said that throughout his career as a rail-splitter, Abraham Lincoln always had the same ax.  During that time it went through 3 handles and 2 heads.

Published in: on August 3, 2008 at 1:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond…

Just about twenty-four hours ago, maybe it was forty-eight, I wrote an entry for this space using a method I learned from Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing down the bones. Simply, one begins by placing the pen or pencil in the upper left hand corner of a blank page and writes and writes and does nothing but write. No reading what has been written. No correcting spelling or grammatical or punctuation or any other possible errors. No crossing out. Just keep writing until the pre-determined time period has ended or the hand hurts too much or you run out of paper or ink. Being bored or running out of things to write are not legitimate reasons to quit. Rather they become topics of the writing. Something like…

…and so in conclusion let me just restate that never before in the history of human kind have such wonderous thoughts beens s et to paper. (Damnit, what do I write about now? I can’t believe that there’s nothing left to say. Not hing coming to mind at all. There’s bot to be something to write about. I promised myself I’d keep this up for at least 20 minutes and I[‘ve got at least 3 or 4 to go…

Anyhow I had written about working with koans at a seven day Ch’an retreat at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center about 6 weeks ago, about how I’d struggled to the end of my logical abilities to make sense of this Zen puzzle and still came to no answer. Then, as it is supposed to happen if one is sufficiently open, the investigation jumped outside the realm of the logical. One afternoon, standing along side a creek rushing with snow melt, all sorts of ego and emotion made their unbidden appearances, and suddenly I was overwhelmed by feelings of nausea and loneliness–the likes of which I’d not felt since my first marriage ended in 1974. Only this time it was quite clear that these feelings were not being thrust upon me. I was creating them myself–or better–the ego was doing it.

At this point the writing exercise began to imitate the koan work. I’d reached the end of the koan stuff (I’d thought) but was commited to writing more. Without planning I found myself describing the interior I encounter whenever, on my bike, I approach the top of East Clinton Avenue. East Clinton is a mammoth stepped hill which descends the New Jersey Palisades a few miles north of the George Washington Bridge. I can easily reach 45 mph on this descent. As I near the top, the initial “o boy!” thoughts are chased out of my skull by the “what-if” messages of Logic:What if somebody backs out of a driveway?Or crosses an intersection?Or there are pebbles on the road?

Or oil slick?

Or some oncoming fool decides on an unsignaled left turn right in front of your zippy ass?

Images of Goldberg as roadkill, of ambulances, of weeping family members as far away as Taiwan compete for space in my cinema brain.

Here the brain shuts down and the emotions kick in: anticipation, a kind of wordless concern, anxiety, fear. As I begin the drop feelings progress into outright fear, omygod fear, mind-changing fear, resignation-fear and then…a white-noise of no feelings as it becomes evident that feelings are as irrelevant as logic. With feelings gone comes pure response to the ride, comes “WHEEEE!!! Not out of control. Not in control. Control is simply no longer a factor.

Now the connector between the koan work and the hill are most neatly stated in another koan:

The priest Shih-shuang said, “How do you step from the top of a hundred-foot pole?”

How, when you’ve reached the limit of your secure, verifiable, testable and provable logical process, to you take that additional step into the insecure, unverifiable…ultimate spiritual realm? Birds have to be nudged out of the nest. My long-time-not-seen friend, The Mole, insisted that the only thing to get him to leave the security of his parents’ apartment was them closing the place down and moving out of state. For many of us it is that “leap of faith, the belief, not that all will work out as we might wish it to, but that this is what is called for at this moment. Beyond that, whatever happens we will be able to handle it.

When an addict decides to go sober this selfsame leap of faith is involved. So too, I think, for the immigrant who moves to a new land without the promise of anything. Each may create his own suffering of fears and hopes (two sides of the same egoistic coin) or, by simply doing what must be done, avoid the suffering, stay better focused on the reality and thereby increase chances of success.

At any rate, 24 or 48 hours or so ago when I was at about this point in the exercise, just after I’d launched into a bit about how, when we take these leaps, we leave behind who we were and become whoever comes next, I hit the “save and continue editing” button and the entire essay disappeared. Disappeared. Vanished from my hand. Gone. Poof! The life-follows-art conspiracy strikes again.

Another koan:

It is said that throughout his career as a rail-splitter, Abraham Lincoln always had the same axe. During that time he went through 3 handles and 2 heads.

Published in: on April 16, 2007 at 9:03 am  Comments (1)  
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