Thread: How to practice Zen Koans

  1. #1

    How to practice Zen Koans

    Zen Koans have been described as being used to move students beyond reason, rationality, and discursive thought and take them to a higher level of intuitive comprehension.

    Here John Tarrant "demystifies Zen koan practice" :

    https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-zen-koans/

    There's also a koan study section at the Zensite:

    http://www.thezensite.com/MainPages/koan_studies.html


    Any comments?

  2. #2
    Forums Member
    Join Date
    Mar 2017
    Location
    UK
    Posts
    371
    Interesting. I'm in the middle (or will be in a couple of months) of a year-long Zen-sayings practice, hence my other, zen-ish, posts. It is similar to the Tarrant article, in that I'm writing my own thoughts about each saying in a diary. Thoughts as they arise rather than trying to get all the deep meanings out. It's not quite the same as the year I spent trying to answer traditional Zen Koans as if I were a Zen monk.

    Traditionally, koans are a tool to build up a kind of creative tension between pupil and master, carefully bringing the pupil to a point where something has to give, hopefully the links in the chain holding the pupil back from further progress. There is no right answer (despite some books of answers which were written as 'crib sheets'), with whatever answer the pupil gave being 'wrong'; the master, though, would insisting on more answers, which were again rejected until a breakthrough occured.

    Reading koans or sayings without this relationship is somewhat different. It's a gentler way to challenge current thinking, gradually chipping away at chains rather than tearing them apart. My gut instinct is that change would take place over a much longer timescale, although who can know?

  3. #3
    Have you ever been to any Zen Buddhist centres or spoken to any Zen teachers, Phil? I haven't, apart from communicating with a couple of Zen teachers on the internet. My face-to -face communication with Buddhist teachers in "meat space" has only been with Vajrayana and Theravada.

    I just came across another article by John Tarrant which looks interesting, its at The Zen Site:


    "Paradox, Breakthrough, and the Zen Koan".

    http://www.thezensite.com/ZenTeachin...TheZenKoan.pdf



  4. #4
    Forums Member Olderon's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2017
    Location
    Concord, New Hampshire, U.S.A.
    Posts
    241
    Hi, Aloka.

    Like yourself, I have never met a Zen master or monk except in Vietnam. The Vietnamese monks did not encourage Koans.

    In Japan, most of The Buddhists I met there on Shikanoshima and Kyushu were Nichiren, which, other than Japan, I have only met online.

    In our ecumenical group here in Concord, N.H. we have a few Zen and Soto Zen practitioners, but no masters.

    Perhaps they have mastered the art of invisibility.

    Here is a wiki re. origins and current day practice of Soto Zen which mentions teachers and masters: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sōtō

    Belonged to a Zen group for a while in Rochester, New York. A subgroup from our group, The Flour City Medition Group, would go to the Rochester Zen Center to sit and study from Master Tich Nhat Hahn's writings. Master Hahn was not a master when I was in Vietnam. He was a monk at the time, which sounds odd, but I think it has to do with the progression and mastery in the monastic Zen community.

    Here are my thoughts regarding koans:

    Early in my practice I found the Koan excruciatingly painful, because, as an engineer I prided myself in being able to solve any sort of physical or analytical puzzle. Later I learned that is not the goal of the koan practice. The goal is to make the mind work at impossible mental tasks teaching the practitioner how to think, and how not to think. Also, if the practitioner learns humility during their practice, that would also be beneficial for them, and every one around them.

    This quote sums up the idea succinctly:
    Koan, Japanese Kōan, in Zen Buddhism of Japan, a succinct paradoxical statement or question used as a meditation discipline for novices, particularly in the Rinzai sect. The effort to “solve” a koan is intended to exhaust the analytic intellect and the egoistic will, readying the mind to entertain an appropriate response on the intuitive level.
    Rarely, masters will offer solutions to their students if they see that they have become intolerably frustrated in their practice. My favorite example of this is a story of a novice who went to his master to complain that the other novice was so annoying to him that he used the expression: "such and such" is constantly getting my goat! To which the master replied: "Well then, you should be very grateful to "such and such" for keeping you informed as to where your goats are penned!"

    I love that one, because there were always people in my life who got my goat. It had to do with my inflated view of myself and all my imagined accomplishments and achievements to which I had become attached. Later, after years of study and practice I learned that the self of which I was so proud and protective, no longer existed. It had died the mind-moment after I realized the concept of actually being a "process" rather than any kind of an enduring self.

    How are you feeling? Any progress?

    ...Ron
    Last edited by Olderon; 30 Apr 18 at 14:21.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Olderon
    How are you feeling? Any progress?
    Hi Ron,

    I'm still having difficulties - but hopefully I'll be seeing my doctor again later in the week.

    Thank you for asking.

  6. #6
    Forums Member
    Join Date
    Mar 2017
    Location
    UK
    Posts
    371
    Quote Originally Posted by Aloka View Post
    Have you ever been to any Zen Buddhist centres or spoken to any Zen teachers, Phil? I haven't, apart from communicating with a couple of Zen teachers on the internet. My face-to -face communication with Buddhist teachers in "meat space" has only been with Vajrayana and Theravada.

    I just came across another article by John Tarrant which looks interesting, its at The Zen Site:


    "Paradox, Breakthrough, and the Zen Koan".

    http://www.thezensite.com/ZenTeachin...TheZenKoan.pdf


    No, but Zen first brought me to Buddhism after I had been experimenting with meditation as a way of changing my state of consciousness to access 'spiritual' forms of knowledge. I read 'Zen Mind Beginner's Mind' on and off for about five years before researching all things Zen. Although I then went to an FWBO centre, it was only because there were no Zen centres nearby and it seemed a fairly . Which is why I ended up studying Koans for a year, and putting in a fair amount of background study to understand the process.

    BTW the Paradox article is pretty good. As a biology teacher interested in how our minds work and perceive everything around us, I was always trying to keep up with different ways of understanding, from different cultures as well as from different scientific disciplines.

  7. #7
    Previous Member
    Join Date
    Sep 2018
    Posts
    20
    Years ago I made a pilgrimage, if you will, to many different Zen centers in America, both Soto and Rinzai. Not surprisingly, they were all pretty much the same except for the different personalities of the teachers, which gave things their own unique manner. It's up to the practitioner to figure out a lot on their own, assuming there is anything to figure out. Koan practice is nearly always used one on one in a teacher/student relationship where the teacher knows the student pretty well and picks out a particular koan for them. Sometimes they just go with "Mu".

    I am not sure that koans work so well when practiced alone, especially since there is no right or wrong answer. They are mostly a way of checking the progress of a student. The olden tales of someone becoming enlightened suddenly with a whack on the head or a koan's "answer" suddenly appearing may just be teaching stories?

    Most places did not do koan practice. A few Soto centers did, and the same with Rinzai. At all centers, it was always sitting meditation, walking meditation, maybe some bowing, chanting, work practice, and dharma talks. That's pretty much the drill. Not much sutra study either. People didn't critique this or that. It was often helpful and fun to have a place to go to on a regular basis where things were highly disciplined, and you got to meet people. I learned a lot from others. They were all different too, but there is a type, at least in America. It was a little concerning to see nothing but white yuppies in many centers. Rarely, rarely any Black, Asian or Latino folks. Zen appears to not appeal to many other cultures in this country for some reason. That may be Buddhism in general over here?
    Last edited by steve marino; 19 Sep 18 at 13:52.

  8. #8
    Forums Member
    Join Date
    Mar 2017
    Location
    UK
    Posts
    371
    Quote Originally Posted by steve marino View Post

    I am not sure that koans work so well when practiced alone, especially since there is no right or wrong answer. They are mostly a way of checking the progress of a student. The olden tales of someone becoming enlightened suddenly with a whack on the head or a koan's "answer" suddenly appearing may just be teaching stories?
    From my studies, there have been different ways of teaching using koans in the past. They were used to check progress, hence the proliferation of 'cheat' books that gave answers to traditional koans, so students had ready answers to give. The other use was to bring about progress using the fact that there were no right or wrong answers to the koans. The student had to provide an answer anyway, which the teacher refused to accept, and so had to go away and rethink. Over time, the process built up a kind of creative tension in the mind of the student which allowed for 'sudden' breakthroughs. For this to work, the teacher has to be exceptionally talented in judging how far to push the student at any time, so drifted out of favour when there were none to be found.

Los Angeles Mexico City London Colombo Kuala Lumpur Sydney
Sun, 11:11 PM Mon, 1:11 AM Mon, 7:11 AM Mon, 11:41 AM Mon, 2:11 PM Mon, 4:11 PM