A Belated Preface
Now that we have discussed a few koans, I feel I should be clearer about the intentions shaping this blog. If this were a book, my objectives for the book would customarily be outlined in a preface that preceded the Introduction. The reason there was no such preface is that the issues I want to raise now would have made little sense until we had worked through several koans with the approach I am using.
To my knowledge, no other published introduction to koan practice takes the approach I take here. What I want to disclose in this belated preface are the ways in which my treatment of koans may transgress some longstanding taboos of the Zen tradition. What follows is a technical discussion directed to Zen practitioners who understand the Buddhist scruples involved.
Do I Transgress?
The word “transgress” may seem a little overblown but it is part of Zen rhetoric in dialogues between Zen Masters in which one Master will take a position and then ask, “Do I transgress?” This means, “Is the position I just took in accord with the Dharma or not?” Unless the other Master can then expose an error by “one-upping” the first Master’s position, the first Master wins the playful “Dharma combat” by which Masters hone their skill in expressing the Dharma in words or actions.
Here are some ways in which my approach may transgress Zen Buddhist norms. Again, this discussion is meant for my sisters and brothers in the Dharma familiar with those norms.
First of all, my blog provides an overview of how koan training proceeds over time. I have said that teachers will, over a series of interviews, tell the student to “become one” or “become more intimate” with the koan in question. The teacher provides no explanation of why these admonitions are critical, leaving students to decide how to understand these phrases. This is a process that can take the student weeks, months, or years to resolve.
By saying in my Introduction that the teacher wants the student to “show rather say” the point of a koan, I am providing an overview that short-circuits the traditional Zen learning process. Others have commented that Japanese koan training resembles the apprenticeship process in Japanese arts and crafts, including the martial arts. There, the Master demonstrates silently and the apprentice imitates. Whatever explanations the Master provides come in pithy comments on the apprentice’s performance. The process is not designed to bolster self-esteem. Rather, it is intended to get the apprentice to try even harder to master the ineffable aspects of the art or craft.
In contrast, by providing an overview of koan training, I have provided a conceptual description that Zen teachers in both Asia and the West never provide to their students. Instead, they expect students to piece together the dynamics of koan work for themselves over time.
Secondly, I risk transgressing traditional norms by flatly stating that the appropriate way to demonstrate the point of a koan is not through conceptual explanations, but through action or words that are gestures demonstrating awareness of that point. Again, this clue on how to proceed short-circuits the traditional learning process in which students must discover this stratagem for themselves by trial and error.
Even worse, with each koan I discuss, I point toward a range of actions that might embody the point of the koan. My goal in doing this, figuratively speaking, is to lead my readers to water hoping they will drink. By this I mean that I don’t want to give them “the answer” to any given koan. Instead, I try to point them in the right direction by leading them to the water’s edge.
Zen absolutely prohibits sharing the traditional “answer” to a koan with a student who has not yet completed their work on it. This restriction is amply justified by the fear that a black-market trade in koan “answers” will thwart their effectiveness in Zen training, where koans are used to create an uncomfortable but desirable existential crisis that can push students to reach a new understanding of their lives. I risk transgressing because, in pointing readers in the right direction, I may be depriving them of the frustration necessary for a crisis powerful enough to trigger a deep awakening.
Finally, I should disclose another motivation that shapes this blog. I retain a keen interest in Western philosophy, which I believe is undergoing a major tectonic shift. I also take a keen interest in neuroscience, which is increasingly resetting the agenda for Western philosophy. I further believe that koan practice has revolutionary implications for philosophy that will be validated by future neuroscientific research.
These interests also appear to transgress the norms of Zen Buddhism. After all, the koan literature is replete with stories of Buddhist scholars who abandoned their philosophical debates in favor of Zen’s tacit path to awakening. Indeed, many modern commentators have framed Zen as anti-philosophy, or perhaps more accurately as “un-philosophy”. My own view is that Western philosophy has always offered the un-philosophy of skepticism. I believe a proper understanding of Zen can lead to a shakeup of philosophy even more profound than those made by Hume or Wittgenstein.
So Why Do I Risk Transgressing?
The main reason I take the risks just described is because I regard the koan literature as one of the great cultural treasures of the world. I regard it as fully equivalent in value to our classical Greek and Roman cultural legacy. The koan literature is not just a cultural treasure of East Asia, it is the rightful inheritance of all peoples.
I take the unorthodox view that broad access to the koan literature has been overly restricted because of its use in the formal training of Zen Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay people. I therefore try to make this cultural gem accessible to everyone, whether or not they will ever practice Buddhism.
This puts me in a position similar to proponents of secular Mindfulness, who critics accuse of peddling mere stress reduction without spiritual implications. In contrast, I believe that secular Mindfulness leads a small percentage of practitioners to want to go deeper. This is how some people find their way to Buddhism.
It is my hope that the access I provide to people curious about Zen koans will lead some percentage of them to embark on the koan path by finding a sangha and a teacher who can help them.
Finally, I believe the approach I take in this blog is in furtherance of my vows to save all beings and my vow to “not spare the Dharma assets”, that is, to generously share the treasures of the Zen koan way.
My brother and sisters in Dharma will have to judge whether my efforts transgress, and if so, whether they can be forgiven.
This blog collects the poorly edited ramblings of urban zen students, finding the teacher underfoot. We will type until someone tells us to stop. We hope you learn from our mistakes
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