…the job of the koan is to propel us into the heart of life, the heart of this moment, here and now…
I recently read an open letter from a college-age young woman working far away from home in Africa, sent to her friends and family. She said: “I had this idea I was kind of a self-made girl – but that’s not really true. I’m here because of so many people. I am me because of everyone in my life, and for that I am wicked grateful.”
I feel grateful when I read these words.
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In koan training we get so many chances – we get infinite chances. We never fail. We always fail. We just keep on going.
There’s a wisdom about reality contained in the koans. They are a kind of secret science. They know the workings of reality – revealed to us gradually, in more and more detail, once we have opened the shell of “I, me, mine.”
I used to think koan study was essentially about taking down, deconstructing, demolishing; that every koan was there to break down the habits of conceptual, rational thinking – to spring us from the prison of our “understanding,” and so on. With koan after koan we destroy the house called Me, opening up the wider reality which all things share.
What that reality actually is, is a metaphysical matter we don’t need to get embroiled in, since the job of the koan is to propel us into the heart of life, the heart of this moment, here and now, as we stare at this very screen – or as our mind wanders, our eyes glaze over, or the ghost of a desire floats up out of nowhere: boy, how about a nice cappuccino?
They say there’s a point where the koans become like useless old furniture. Why then did so many of the old masters never stop sitting with them? Our abbot has almost sixty years of sitting with koans. Why did Harada Daiun Roshi say that at the age of 90 he still felt like a child of two in the Dharma, wet behind the ears?
Sometimes the koans are indeed blunt instruments – as Mumon says, “brickbats,” pounded on the gateless gate. The cement foundations of our sense of things may seem to need powerdrivers, sledgehammers, jackhammers, to be cracked at all. So we wield the pickaxe of Mu again and again, against the rock of our understanding, our hidden assumptions, the solidified scar-tissue of our certainties. And then it crumbles when a feather alights on it.
Among the ten thousand realities of the Way, the koans may also offer gentle adjustments and shifts. Yet a little shift, and that one minute of one degree of change in angle of vision, and something new comes clear – this entire world, for example, is nothing but Buddha’s body; or this one thing, this pen, this strip of sunlight, is a phenomenon of infinite proportions.
Each koan is its own universe. Which is none other than this universe, for sure, yet discovered again and again, always for the first time. Every koan is a new world born for the first time; it’s the marvel of the “Mani-jewel,” of the “treasure hidden within the mountain of form,” showing itself once again, yet for the first time. As Dogen said, “The Way is not merely arising now, but nor is it carried over from before:” both new and ancient; both newborn and unborn; both freshly discovered, and immemorial.
Yet if we think we know that jewel, and can put it in a velvet case, or wear it on our finger, perhaps we are already losing it.
Truly there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy – innumerably more things.
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Just a reminder: we’re not trying to fix anything. We’re just doing our practice. As it happens, if we diligently and consistently do our practice, then things will start to fix themselves. But we’re not so interested in that. We are interested in practice alone, for its own sake. In other words, for no sake, just practice. And if we do that, then strangely the whole world receives healing – or “tikkun,” as the Jewish faith calls it.
Message from Henry taken from our November 30, 2015 Newsletter
Image: Father and Son, by melindarma, CC0 Public Domain, from Pixabay. com