Sunday, November 10, 2013

How to solve Zen koans (cartoon)

CC Liu, Seth Auberon, Gia Yesu, Dhr. Seven, Ashley Wells, Wisdom Quarterly, with instructor Betsy Enduring Vow (ZCLA) and Grayson and Roshi Jeff Albrizze (

IF koans (Zen Buddhist "riddles" from the Japanese word for "public case") are not for intellectually "solving" or "deciphering," what are they for?

ZCLA is an oasis of diversity (Obon)
We went down to the Zen Center of Los Angeles today with Roshi Albrizze ( to see Roshi Tenshin Fletcher ( and took ZP-1 (Zen Practice, Module 1, ZCLA's intro class). 

Noah Levine (breitenbush)
Author and Theravada insight meditation (vipassana) practitioner Noah Levine, co-founder of Dharma Punx/Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, was on hand with us for basic training. We learned to sit up straight, bend down to bow fully, hold our hands with opposing thumb-tips on our laps, walk as slowly as humanly possible, and were given some insight into "working with koans." Fortunately, Noah pressed and pressed to get at the point of koan practice. The example Betsy gave was:
Yes I do, Joshu! We all do.
A monk asked Zen master Joshu, "Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?" The Zen master replied, "Moo!" (Japanese mu, negation, "not," "nonbeing").* Betsy went on to explain that this would be like the Archbishop of Los Angeles asking the Italian pope, "Is there a God?" and the pontiff answering, "Hell no!" A paradox, because surely a figurehead like the leader of the Catholic Church believes in his deity, so why would he negate the archbishop's question? Thinking will not arrive at an answer, but there is a way to find out. How does one solve it and, moreover, what would be the point of solving it?
*This famous question comes from a fragment of a koan (Case 1, The Gateless Gate). Paradoxically, another koan (Case 18, The Book of Serenity) presents a longer version, in which Joshu answers "yes" in response to the exact same question asked by a different monk.

Noah, did it blow your mind? It did ours, like a rake in a rock garden! (buddhistmedia)

Homer goes to hell for a day (Avici), and Flanders is the devil.
How to solve koans
Pick a finger (Gutei)
There is no thinking, grappling, ruminating, or pondering involved. That is surely a dead end. An answer/solution arrived at in this way, if it is good and particularly pithy, will "stink of Zen." The bell will ring, and the interviewer (for dokusan or face-to-face meeting) will yell, "Next!" 
Of course, "Next!" is what s/he'll yell even if the Zen practitioner gets it "right." But s/he won't do it with a twinkle in his or her eye acknowledging that you were onto something this time, and it is now appropriate to move on to the next public case.

Instead of "thinking," a koan is successfully resolved by grokking, that is, by a semi-subconscious remembrance of the case without straining to get anywhere in an effort to solve it. Rock/grok it gently like a baby at heart level. In this way, illumination dawns, an epiphany (satori) occurs, and a deep certainty arises that one has understood what the conscious mind could never have hammered out by mere reasoning.

Roshi Jeff Albrizze (PT)
So when Bart Simpson was asked, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" the answer was not to slap his digits against his palms producing a muted clap. It was, instead, a way of opening the boy up to a world of conscious possibility, an awareness or knowing beyond thought and wit and reason. 
"Intuition" is a name for it, but it is very misleading due to the connotations we've layered on. "A knowing that surpasseth all understanding" is a Christian translation for the phenomenon that seems to approximate the wordless experience. "Direct knowledge" unmediated and unencumbered by the thought process might be a New Age way of stating it.

Budai: Fat, Happy Homer "Buddha" Simpson statue (Kidrobot)
"Japanese Yosemite" (Kamikōchi), Nagano Prefecture, altitude 4,900 ft. (1,500 m). The kami or kanji 神垣内 of Kami-ko-uchi are the shapeshifting mountain monsters of Japan. This water soaked site resembles the flooding Yokoji ZMC near Idylwild, California, experienced after a wildfire annihilated the earth-retaining forest all around the center.
Dharma talk: Zen Mountain Center to rebuild?
Fire dragon of flames (
Abbot Tenshin, Yokoji Zen Mountain Center (ZMC): Tenshin's "Dharma" talk was brief and to the point: There was a fire, but a fire crew made up of convicts/volunteer firefighters, who had learned to meditate at Yokoji, refused to give up when ordered to abandon ZMC by the fire department.
Their heroic efforts saved the Yokoji. Proving there's no such thing as karma, or that there is such a thing as karma, but that it rarely -- as happened here -- turns around to benefit one so clearly and tangibly.
However, karma works in mysterious ways: What fire could not do, Nature obliged the rains to take care of: Five days of California monsoon weather (due, we think, to climate chaos and our deteriorating environment) washed down tons of muddy debris on ZMC, covering most of the site under three feet of silt and ashes. Maybe it will be dug out, maybe it won't. Trees' lives hang in the balance.

Tenshin Fletcher (
Although the trees are all hearty redwoods, they cannot bear to have their trunks sunk underground. Donations of time, effort, and funds would help, but Tenshin is reluctant to say so. For the one thing he has learned through all of these ordeals is that he and his family will survive. Life may be full of ups and downs, but we can remain relatively steady in the ebb and flow, wave and trough, high and low. Abbot Tenshin Fletcher -- who received helpful advice from Tassajara in Big Sur (San Francisco Zen Center), which famously survived a California forest fire -- previously lived and worked at ZCLA years ago and has remained a vibrant Dharma friend of the current ZCLA Abbess Wendy Nakao and many of the center's older and disproportionately Jewish-Buddhist (JuBu) residents.

No comments: