Koan practice is integral to rinzai Zen and at the heart of Pacific Zen Institute approach to awakening.
But how special are they really? And if they are special, are the unique and which properties make them special? That they are old? That they are Chinese? That people kick things and shout?
John Tarrant likes to say "A koan is a story that transforms you". Ok. Good start. But has this been put to rigorous analysis? Probably not. So what would make a good Zen game...you see where I am going with this?
This question came to me while sitting: What is the opposition of a story that transforms you? I figured, a story that does not transforms you. That leaves you mired the way you are. So, for tonight's experiment, we used one of those stories, and treated it like a koan. There was no hypothesis, or controls, or comparative analysis. That is all to say the scientific method was kept safely away from our lab, and that is probably right as the meditative path is seldom linear, but all the same, this was some interesting &^$%.
We were instructed to find a tired old story. Any one. "I am too disorganized. I cannot do my job right because I lack follow through. I will never accomplish anything because I doubt myself. I am unlovable because ___. " Whatever. We all have them. Find one that makes you suffer. Then condense it to a one sentence phrase. A slogan. We were instructed not to try to fix it, or make it more or less true, or to worry about whether it was true. Just notice what came up around it.
We rang the bell, and were invited to treat that as our koan.
Then we passed the Zen cricket and discussed our experience.
Like I said, interesting &*$%.
A: My mind was going too fast and I couldn't find one, then I realized that was my koan and I realized I sit with that one a lot and refuse to look at it.
B: It was really powerful. For me it was a fear of getting older. Sitting with it for the first time and just letting it be there. I noticed my fear, but it seemed further away. Like I was watching it. I realized that if I read a story about a girl who was afraid of getting older, I would like her and feel interested. I am going to sit with this more.
C: I thought about it like a koan. At first, I didn't like it. I thought, "this is a &*^ty koan. Then I realized my mind was trying to find ways to demonstrate it, like I was going to present it to David.
D: It was intense. I realized how much time I spend avoiding this story. And then I looked at it, and realized it wasn't as bad as I had thought.
E: It actual felt quite light hearted. I was a bit concerned that my problem didn't seem important. Then I realized that it just didn't seem like a big deal when I wasn't tasked with solving it.
F: I noticed that when I treated it like a koan, I trusted I would know what to do when the time came to do something, and it just disappeared. and I sat. and only later did it reappear at the end of the period.
G: I found it really disturbing. My mind rebelled at giving respect to a story that had caused me so much pain. It didn't want to welcome it at all.
H: I noticed how I had a few stories, before my mind settled on one. that my mind was too busy to get anything productive out of meditation. I noticed how when that was my koan, the edges softened and the story was defanged. It was something I was seeing with a little distance, and it was just something I was telling myself. I wasn't anymore sure at all how true it was.
I: I used the story about how everyone would leave me. then I noticed how hard I work not to look at that. And when I sat with it, it seemed more forgivable to feel that way.
Thanks everyone who joined tonight. It was a great evening.
So we played a little Zen game a few weeks ago and I want to capture it here before it completely dissolves through the sieve my brain is become.
So, I gave a little context. One of the thing that I have noticed, and that I like about meditation, is that we have created a little fraternity of suffering. No not of suffering, but of honesty about that suffering- all people suffer (I am too fat, too skinny, not assertive enough, my parents didn't support me enough, I am a crappy lawyer, my nick hurts, my back hurts, my mind is a mess etc etc etc).
Anyway, it seems like there are at least two things you can do about suffering. Focus on something else, or look into it. There are many practices for focusing on something else: Yoga, breath meditations, working long hours, drinking, visualization, running, etc. They have their place.
Then there are practices of looking into the suffering. Therapy is one, though I think it asks "What about this story? Where did it come from? Why do I feel that way". But then, I am not a therapist. Zen also looks at suffering. That is what we do at WiG, just welcome it in, and pay attention to it. We don't try ot solve it, resovle it, or calm it...except that of course people do. And that is interesting to notice also.
So the game.
We sat three times. The first time I simply asked people to sit, then to calm and still their minds, though whatever means they thought fitting. Watch your breath, imagine a cloudless sky, imagine an elevator. Whatever. Then the group was asked to raise one finger when a thought managed to enter in anyway. I think the first was about 5 seconds later. One person lasted 2 seconds.
So there you go. Thoughts are natural. I mean, its kind of a weird fantasy to want to be without them. The mind thinks, the heart beats, the lungs breath. No one is trying to stop their hearts from beating, why put so much emphasis on our thoughts?
So we sat again, again encouraged to suppress thoughts. This time, people were asked to notice what means the used and how they felt when a thought did arise.
Then we talked about that. I recall some people used breath counting, some, noticing their bodies, others letting go of thoughts, others imagining a stream. More interestingly, people reacted with guilt, shame, frustration, a sense of loss, failure, fear of missing something, a lost opportunity when the thoughts did arise and they noticed they had. Weird huh?
The last time we sat, everyone was told that we were going on a hunting expedition. We were going to look for this ^&% *&(* mind of ours. the one giving us all these problems. find it, locate it, pull it up by the roots.
People were invited to notice where the throughts were physically, in whose voice they were, what they wanted, what emotions were driving them, etc etc etc.
Now it got interesting. People noticed the past one one side, present on the other. That the closer they got to this mind, the more dissipated it was, dispersed, and ultimately empty. Some noticed how their mind bucked, and shut them out. Or went blank when they got near something painful.
Tricky little bastard that mind.
What fund. Don't you wish you were there?
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
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