Message from Henry: Koan Training in the West

We have a tendency in the West to understand Buddhist meditation practice as primarily an individual effort for individual benefits. It’s certainly true that we ourselves must do the “heavy-lifting” of maintaining a practice, yet it’s a communal practice…

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Two points about koan training in the West:

1. Keeping koan training “true” — in the sense of upright, aligned with its intention. One way to understand this is as follows:

The meditation teacher Shinzen Young says there are four levels of wisdom in meditation practice:

Wisdom 1: Surface psychology: working with and releasing personal psychological blocks, wounds, patterns, dynamics, emotional habits and so on.

Wisdom 2: Deep or “transpersonal” psychology, or the “realm of powers”

Wisdom 3: The territory of shamanism, dream work, archetypal powers. This is not intrinsic to Zen, but can arise in training, depending on temperament and disposition. “Soul work.”

Wisdom 4: Understanding “self” as a “sensorium” constructed from several channels of experience, and seeing through the illusion of self-as-thing to self-as-process. Disidentifying. Seeing through to Zero, the fundamental infinite-empty-oneness of self and world, space and time.

This may not be a perfect scheme but serves as a handy yardstick.

Koans are touch-stones of “Wisdom # 4”. The process of koan training may at times for sure lead us through work in the other areas, but the reality that koans are all about, are all implicated in, and all seek to open us up to, is the fourth. Therefore, koans are not really capable of being grasped unless there has been an opening to this fundamental reality. Until that time they may be interesting or baffling or challenging, but we are not yet ripe for intensive study. Indeed if we embark on such study prematurely, we are liable to use our minds to grapple with them, when they precisely intend us to be freed of our minds, ever more thoroughly. This has led in some quarters to attempts to force conceptual understandings of koans, even to mistranslations designed to make them amenable to the mind. This is precisely how the training may get lost.

2. We have a tendency in the West to understand Buddhist meditation practice as primarily an individual effort for individual benefits. It’s certainly true that we ourselves must do the “heavy-lifting” of maintaining a practice, yet it’s a communal practice, not only in the sense of contemporary fellow sangha, but also in terms of the sangha represented by ancestral and living lineage, and more importantly, by the orientation expressed in the first great vow, to do our best to serve and save all beings. Hence, we practice for and with all beings, not alone. And to be clear about that, we need a flesh-and-blood teacher, and a sangha. Please don’t be misled about this: three treasures are necessary. Otherwise we fall into false paths.

Anyway — enough of this. Time to sit still and be quiet….

Message from Henry is from our January 24, 2017 Newsletter.

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