…koans hold us to a certain “standard” of training and practice…They hold out the possibility of really transformative practice for human beings.
Koans are not riddles, not “dreams” as I recently read one teacher say, and not enigmas. They simply establish the teaching of Zen. They show with clarity and wakefulness, and sometimes force, the reality that the old Zen masters had awakened to. They could not be clearer. They could not be less dream-like. They are about waking up from a dream, into a more real existence.
They are about full awakening. Please don’t be deceived. Instead, please be patient, and as long as just one koan shows itself to you, you will start to be able to appreciate all of them, and they will appreciate and help you in turn, and lead you into their wonderful world.
Every koan is a beautiful presentation of each master’s discovery of that wonderful world — this world, once we’ve woken from the dreams of what we believed it to be.
Yes, they hold us to a high standard, you might say. Each koan is the whole of a master’s enlightened reality. The koan not only holds forth their awakening, but also invites us to join the master: can we really do it?
In a comparable way, every piece of music penned by a great composer holds all succeeding generations to its standard of practice. Whomever it was that Bach wrote his violin sonatas for, for example, they were apparently capable of such high technical proficiency. And since they were, all concert violinists since then must measure up to that level of musicianship. (Actually the pieces were ignored for something like 150 years after their publication in 1720, perhaps in part because of their daunting difficulty.)*
In a comparable way the koans hold us to a certain “standard” of training and practice. But that is part of their gift. They hold out the possibility of really transformative practice for human beings. Also in a comparable way to Bach’s great works, the koans have at times been ignored in Zen history, and may very well be again, who knows.
So can we really measure up? By all means! The principle of Zen is just reality – the reality of ordinary human consciousness and experience — in other words, it’s right here, here and now. There is actually nothing to measure up to.