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Forum Home > Writings on Zen > The Mystery of the Zen Koan, Unraveled

Laurie Lyons
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The Mystery of the Zen Koan, Unraveled

By Laurie Kido Lyons, Hoshi


The scene was Ancient China. Huineng, the 6th Ancestor of Zen, had just been given Dharma transmission, named the successor and abbot-to-be of the monastery in which he trained. Viewed by his peers as uneducated and unprepared for this noble task, his teacher worried for his safety and the uprising this would indefinitely cause. So, the 5th Ancestor urged Huineng to flee and meditate in solitude until the time was right to take over the monastery. The young new abbot left in the dark of night, wearing only his robe and carrying only his bowl (symbols of awakening). He was pursued by the head monk; the man everyone assumed would be named the new abbot. Upon reaching Huineng, the monk pressed him. “Who do you think you are?!?!? The robe and bowl belong to me, not to you. I demand you give them to me.” Huineng replied, “OK. I will set them down on this rock. If you can pick them up, I will step aside and you will become the new abbot.” Huineng placed the robe and bowl down; the monk tried with all his might, but could not lift them. Immediately humbled, the monk recognized Huineng’s power. “OK,” he said. “I was wrong. What can you teach me?”

Huineng said,

“Right now, thinking of neither good nor evil, what was your original face before your parents were born?” Upon hearing these words, the monk was deeply awakened to his True Nature.

What was the flaw in the monk’s understanding? Why couldn’t he lift the robe and bowl? What was it that Huineng was asking him, and why did his words suddenly awaken the monk? What is YOUR original face?

The Zen koan has been a subject of intrigue for centuries. It is the unanswerable question that must be answered. The word “koan” means public case or case study. The case or object of study in Zen is nothing other than one’s self. There are hundreds (some say thousands) of traditional Zen koans, most of which come from the “Golden Age of Zen,” from the 7th to the 10th Century in China. Zen Schools all over the world still draw from these unique teaching tools today. Traditionally offered to Zen students by their teachers, koans are meant to dig beneath the surface level of a student’s understanding. They vary in subject from a man stuck in a tree, to an oak tree in the garden, to a s**t stick (an implement used in those times to clean animal feces out of the walking path). Regardless of the subject of the koan, what we’re really meant to be investigating deeply is our own feelings, thoughts, and views about ourselves and the universe in which we live.

Paradoxical in nature, koans are designed to elicit great doubt. The student is left with no choice but to surrender to the process, exhausting all normal methods of problem solving until something else emerges. These questions cannot be answered by the intellect. The intellect, no matter how well developed, often fails us when looking into the Ultimate Nature of Reality. This is simply because the intellect is limited to one perspective, MINE! When we get stuck here, we inevitably suffer and cause others to suffer. Our objective in Zen is to connect to something much larger than me, mine, and myself. In order to do this, we must access a deeper, more intuitive part of the self.

The mind that we use to solve linear problems in our daily lives simply does not hold up in all circumstances. This mind functions quite well when we’re following a recipe, fixing a car, or filing our taxes. But it doesn’t seem to do the trick when we’re looking at deeper questions. What is love? Why am I here? Why am I suffering so much right now? Have you ever tried to make a pros and cons list, using logic to determine a course of action to deal with a problem that defies logic? There are no manuals or Youtube videos to help us through these questions. Some might offer guidance or even tell you dogmatic answers to take as your own. But Zen will never answer these questions for you. Zen will only ask more questions until you experience your own answer intimately. As one famous Zen koan says, “There are no Zen teachers.” And later, “I never said there was no Zen, only that there are no Zen teachers.” In other words, a “Zen teacher” can’t tell you what you already know deeply for yourself. He or she can only ask skillful questions, point, and hold up a mirror.

That being said, a course of koan study can only be undertaken with the guidance of a skilled teacher. The traditional answers to these koans have been passed down for generations, never written down publicly. Our own answers may take a very different form than the traditional answers. But it is the role of the teacher to discern whether the heart of the koan has been penetrated or not. We are quite adept at deceiving ourselves. What we think of, or even feel as an awakening can be the ego tricking us into falling into its trap. An experienced teacher will immediately see through this, and then simply redirect the student towards a deeper and broader understanding. At Open Mind Zen Naples, one of our modes of practice is a traditional course of koan study, a centuries-old, time tested curriculum including the Mumonkan, the Blue Cliff Record, and others.

Koan study (and of course Zen practice itself) is not for everyone. For some students, koans elicit so much doubt that they can become a detriment to practice. In these circumstances, other modes of practice are more effective. But for others, there is no other method that can function as well, as quickly, and as powerfully as koans. The only way to find out is to try. So remembering Huineng’s probing inquiry, we’ll ask once more, “What is my Original Face before my parents were born?”




Laurie Kido Lyons, Hoshi

November 4, 2015 at 2:48 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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