MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Posts Tagged ‘Spirituality

The Heart of Meditation

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You are the entire ocean in a drop.

RUMI

The contemporary meditation teacher, Shinzen Young, says that attention is life’s fundamental skill. And such a seemingly basic and simple skill as attention can have a powerful and transformative repercussion in our lives.

When we are fully attentive and absorbed with our meditative practice (whether it’s reciting a mantra, following the breath, sitting with a koan, or simply just sitting), the ego drops. When the ego dissolves, a whole new realm opens up – the world of Nonseparation… Boundlessness… Wholeness… Oneness…

We experience the universe as ourselves! We are no longer separate from the other – we experience the other as ourselves! When we see and experience the other as ourselves, we treat the other as ourselves, which is basically what compassion means.

When the Zen Master, Goto Zuigan Roshi, was asked what Zen is all about, he answered:

What is Zen? Simple, so simple. Infinite gratitude to all things past. Infinite service to all things present. And infinite responsibility to all things future.

That, for me, is the essence of the meditative life…

–Matt

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January 20, 2021 at 9:34 am

The Dance of Life

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Photo: Israr Syed/Flickr

At the still point of the turning world…

There the dance is.

T.S. Eliot

When the boundaries between self and other blur,
The ego dissolves.
When I and you interpenetrate each other,
The self disappears.
There is just the dance of life–
Dancing itself!
Where is the self?
Gone!
Where is the other?
Gone!

Gate, Gate, Parasmamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
(Gone, gone, gone all the way over,
everyone gone to the other shore.
Enlightenment!)

–Matt

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November 17, 2020 at 9:33 am

The Matter of Life and Death

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When you have attained your self-nature, you can free yourself from life-and-death. How will you free yourself from life-and-death when the light of your eyes is falling to the ground?

THE GATELESS GATE

When we start to work and reflect on koans, certain koans stand out and resonate with us more than the others. One such koan for me is this koan from the Gateless Gate, which partly reads, “How will you free yourself from life-and-death when the light of your eyes is falling to the ground?”

At first glance, some of you may wonder why such a koan which deals with death is something that is close to my heart.

As some of you know, the Dalai Lama meditates 5 hours every day. And one of the things he meditates on is death. A journalist once asked him why he meditates on such a morbid subject matter. The Dalai Lama replied, “So that I can be prepared when it comes.”

How I wish I was like the Dalai Lama, who was so proactive about something which most of us wouldn’t even like to think about.

In my case, it was not a deliberate decision. I was forced to confront this reality somewhat early in my life.

Shortly after I was married 18 years ago, I was misdiagnosed. The doctor I consulted with gave me 36 medicines to deal with a heart attack that I supposedly had! I was hospitalized for 3-4 months, and nearly lost my life. I came to the hospital walking. But I was discharged from the hospital on a stretcher.

Later on, when I consulted with another doctor, I found out I never had a heart attack! But the damage has been done. My immune system collapsed and never recovered. My asthma, which I had as a child, came back with a vengeance. So much so that I couldn’t go out of the house anymore, because even a small amount of dust or smoke could trigger a bad asthma attack, which could send me to the hospital. 18 years of chronic asthma plus other medical conditions, like diabetes and hypertension, has definitely weakened and debilitated me.

You might say that for the past 18 years I’ve been on self quarantine.

Dogen Zenji spoke about genjokoans. Genjokoans are koans that arise from the personal circumstances of one’s personal life. My chronic illness has become my personal genjokoan. And it has forced me to confront suffering and death. In other words, the reality of my mortality and the impermanence of life, which is something that is at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. But, in my case, it was brought home with such force and clarity.

“How will I free myself from life-and-death when the light of my eyes is falling to the ground?”

A few months ago, I had a bad asthma attack. As I was confined to my bed, a koan from Case 43 of the Blue Cliff Record, entitled “Tozan’s ‘Hot and Cold’,” came to my mind. For me, the koan deals with the inevitable suffering and pain that we are all subject to.

Commenting on this koan, I was struck when Yamada Koun Roshi wrote, “It is in the very midst of suffering that we are liberated from suffering.”

In connection with this, let me share an experience I had when I was hospitalized last year:

When I was rushed to the emergency room, one of the things that the doctor requested was for me to have my x-ray taken. Since I was too weak to walk, I was wheeled in my wheelchair by a medical attendant to the x-ray room.

I had to wait for my turn while sitting in my wheelchair in the common reception area for patients who will have their x-ray or ultrasound taken. With nothing to do, I began to look at the faces of the roomful of patients in the reception area.

All of a sudden there was no separation between I and them. Their fears were my fears. Their anxieties were my anxieties. Their pain was my pain. I was them, and they were I.

I realized that it is only when we are one with our suffering, that we find freedom from suffering. And when we are one with our suffering, we learn to be one with the suffering of others.

To paraphrase Yamada Koun Roshi, “If you haven’t wept with those who suffer, there is no enlightenment.”

With the raging pandemic all around us, sometimes I feel frustrated that there is little that I can do about it. I have to remind myself that by sitting in meditation for those who are affected by the coronavirus and for the safety and protection of family, friends and neighbors I am affecting the world. Because we are one, or to borrow the words of Philip Kapleau Roshi, “The world is one interdependent Whole and each separate one of us is that Whole.”

–Matt

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November 6, 2020 at 9:23 am

Everything is Emptiness. Everything is Compassion…

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Reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa (Photo: Thomas Merton)

Polonnaruwa with its vast area under trees. Fences. Few people. No beggars. A dirt road. Lost. Then we find Gal Vihara and the other monastic complex stupas. Cells. Distant mountains, like Yucatán.

The path dips down to Gil Vihara: a wide, quiet hollow, surrounded with trees. A low outcrop of rock, with a cave cut into it, and beside the cave a big seated Buddha on the left, a reclining Buddha on the right, and Ananda, I guess, standing by the head of the reclining Buddha. In the cave, another seated Buddha. I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. The silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, which has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything—without refutation—without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening. I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into the rock shape and landscape, figure, rock, and tree. And the sweep of bare rock sloping away on the other side of the hollow, where you can go back and see different aspects of the figures.

Looking at these figures, I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tired vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. The sheer evidence of the reclining figure, the smile, the sad smile of Ananda standing with arms folded (much more “imperative” than Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa because completely simple and straightforward). The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, no “mystery.”

All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya[ ]everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual vitality running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely, with Mahabalipuram and Polonnaruwa, my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains, but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise. This is Asia in its purity, not covered with garbage, Asian or European or American. It is clear, pure, complete. It says everything. It needs nothing. Because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered. It does not need to be discovered. It is we, Asians included, who need to discover it.

–Thomas Merton

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September 22, 2020 at 9:46 am

What Do I Do With My Pain?

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Photo: Fr. Laurence Freeman, OSB

May I be the medicine and the physician for the sick. May I be their nurse until their illness never recurs.

–Shantideva

Last Easter Sunday, I received a viber message from An [1]. It was an invitation to a virtual dokusan [2] with Sr. Sonia [3]. I was pleasantly surprised and, at the same time, elated by this invitation. Come to think about it, it was probably 20 years ago since I had my last dokusan with Sr. Sonia!

Among other things, An asked me if I’d like to take up a koan [4] with Sr. Sonia during dokusan.

These days I just sit. Overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, I just sit with the uncertainty, fear, isolation, pain and suffering that most people are going through nowadays, myself included.

Somehow this became much more personal to me after I found out, a few hours before I got An’s message, that my 2 sisters, who are nurses in the U.S., got exposed to the coronavirus. And they couldn’t even get themselves tested because there are no testing kits available.

A few days ago, I was reading an article written by Fr. Richard Rohr. He asked the question: “What do we do with our pain?” I don’t know if you can call that a koan. But it clearly articulated to me what I’m sitting with these days.

Faced with so much suffering and pain, I’m left with no words. I can just sit.

Just sit until I calm down.

Just sit until I’m fully in the present moment.

Just sit until the ego drops.

Just sit until the sense of fear and isolation dissolves.

Above all, just sit for those affected by this deadly virus, as well as for the protection and safety of family, friends and neighbors.

As the 8th century Indian Buddhist monk and scholar Shantideva puts it, “May I be the medicine and the physician for the sick. May I be their nurse until their illness never recurs.”

In the movie Zen, which is about the life of Zen Master Dogen [5], there was a scene where a woman brought her sick and dying baby to Dogen, asking him to save her child. Dogen said, “There is only one way to save the child. Visit every home in this area and try to find a home where no relative has died. And have that family give you a single bean.”

Of course, no such home was found.

No one is left untouched by old age, sickness and death. Perhaps this is what the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us.

During dokusan I was struck when Sr. Sonia said, “It is God who gathers our sadness.”

It is Christ who gathers our every pain. It is Christ who suffers in us. Our tears are Christ’s tears.

“Christ has no body but yours,” St. Teresa of Avila says.

St. Paul cries, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me”(Galatians 2:20).

I am every man, woman and child.

I am every sentient being.

I am Kannon [6], the perceiver of all the cries in the universe.

I am Christ, who heals every broken heart in the world.

Yet, as this deadly pandemic rages all around us, it is strange… I feel a deep sense of equanimity and profound connection.

Perhaps the Zen Master Unmon [7] holds the key when he says, “The whole earth is medicine.” Yes, the whole earth is medicine, because the whole earth is my True Self.

And there is just One Body. One Life. One Breath.

As I end this short reflection, let me leave you with these words from Ruben Habito Roshi:

“There is no one and nothing that is not an essential part of myself… Just as the pain in my little finger is felt by my whole body, I cannot but be concerned with all that is going on in this world of ours, with all the pain, the suffering and cries of anguish of so many living beings. They are my pain and suffering.”

–Matt

Notes:

[1] An Mercado Alcantara is a senior member of the Bahay Dalangin Zen Community, a Zen group based in Metro Manila.

[2] Dokusan means private interview with a Zen Teacher.

[3] Sr. Sonia Punzalan is a Catholic nun and Zen Teacher.

[4] A koan is a paradoxical statement taken from the biographies of Chinese Zen Masters, usually from the Tang or Sung Dynasties, and is assigned by a Zen Teacher to a Zen practitioner as an object of meditation.

[5] Dogen is a 13th century Japanese Zen Master.

[6]  Kannon is the bodhisattva of compassion. A bodhisattva is a person who delays enlightenment to help suffering beings.

[7] Unmon is a 10th century Chinese Zen Master.

 

Written by MattAndJojang

April 20, 2020 at 10:33 am

Zen Christian Experience

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Fr. Robert Kennedy - Kamila Zarembska

Fr. Robert Kennedy (Photo: Kamila Zarembska)

So often I have been asked to explain why I, a Jesuit, am also a Zen teacher who conducts Zen retreats for Christians.

Let me try to answer: it began one spring morning in 1976 in Kamakura, Japan, standing with friends outside the Zen meditation hall of Yamada Roshi where we had just finished a five-day period of Zen meditation, I was so convinced of the value of the guided meditation and the experienced leadership of Zen training that I said to my Catholic companions, ‘This belongs in the Church!’ That I would make such a statement reflects my Jesuit orientation of bringing to the Church ‘gifts of greater worth’. I believed then, as I do now, that Zen was a great gift to bring to the Church, even though I knew I would have much to do to prepare the Church to receive such a gift. Concerns I had made me wonder to which Christians I would attempt to bring the gift of Zen since most Buddhists themselves were not interested in the Zen expression of Buddhism.

The practice of Zen began as an attempt by Chinese monks to intuit and enflesh the ideals of Buddhism which they had received from India. Hence their life of meditation and compassionate service as well as their interpretation of their Buddhist scriptures were by no means accepted by the majority of Buddhists. Even the beloved saint of Pure Land Buddhism, Shinran, was especially critical of the Zen ideal of urging people to strive for enlightenment. So I wondered, if the majority of Buddhists are not interested in Zen, how will most Christians appreciate my bringing them such a gift and how many will give this gift a welcome reception?

Let me explain the gift that Zen offers. It is an imageless way of responding to a truth we cannot imagine. Reflecting on this gift, I remember reading in the autobiography of St Therese, the Little Flower, that on her deathbed she suffered the temptation that there was no heaven waiting for her. I believe this is a way of saying she was tempted to think there was no God waiting for her either. Since St Therese is not only a saint but a Doctor of the Church, it is wise to pay attention to her experience.

I believe the temptation of St Therese was not a temptation at all, but for her and for some other Christians at least it is the natural evolution of the human mind. Accordingly the Benedictine and Zen Master, Willigis Jager, writes, ‘It is a decisive step when the individual in contemplation suddenly finds … God vanishing out of sight, or simply crumbling into pieces. This experience can at first give rise to great uncertainty. The Father’s hand is withdrawn, loneliness and a sense of lostness turn into a kind of abyss.’ Not only is the experience of the loss of God common to fervent Christians, I believe it is the experience that Christ himself suffered on the cross and we have still not fully understood his final words: ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’

Contemplating Christ’s last words, I am reminded how Zen and the words of the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not put strange gods before me’, invite us to have no image of God: to discard not only all idols, but all conceptions and mental images of God as well. There is really nothing that we can say definitively about God. Not even that he is good. Given our limited language, we can say only what he is not. Meister Eckhart comes to mind: ‘Keep silent and don’t gape after God, for by gaping after him, you are lying, you are committing sin’. And later, ‘Hence I beg God that he relieve me of God’. To my thinking, Eckhart’s comment that ‘a man ought not to have a god who is just a product of his thought, nor should he be satisfied with that, because if the thought disappeared, God too would disappear’ clearly illustrates the commandment and Zen thinking.

It is true that most Christians do not journey on this arduous road of prayer, but for those who do, Zen contemplation can be of great help. The very purpose of Zen is to see into the emptiness of our concepts and emotions and into the emptiness of the culture which carries or expresses our faith. Zen reminds us of our own Christian truth that we need not subscribe to any philosophy or theology or any cultural expression of faith. Zen’s gift to us is to understand that often it is not belief in God that we lose but belief or interest in the philosophy, theology or culture that expresses this belief. Again I am reminded of the Little Flower who discontinued reciting the rosary when she did not find it helpful. The rosary, here, is but a symbol of any form of piety or thought in Christendom. Any cultural expression of faith is, in itself, not faith; let us not then cling to mere expressions of faith. Let us realize that to die and rise with Christ is quite enough.

Zen’s gift to us is by no means a foreign one. Our own Catholic tradition has long supported the truth that recommends the abandonment of all confrontational understanding of God that would line up opinions, whether Christian, Greek or any other against one another like horses at the starting line. Our tradition advocates a way of understanding God that transcends all differences. Among the Doctors of the Church, St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, in The life of Moses asserts, ‘The man who thinks that God can be known does not really have life; for he has been diverted from true being to something devised by his own imagination.’

Here you may be asking yourself; if Christian thought itself has long taught us not to cling to any ideas about God, why should we now tum to Zen Buddhism? Why should we undertake a long training to end up where we were fifteen centuries ago? The answer to this question is that it is not the only goal of Christianity to keep repeating truths we were taught fifteen centuries ago. The Second Vatican Council and recently the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus stress that Jesuits, and analogously all Christian people, according to their personality and situation in life, must foster interreligious dialogue not just on the level of thought but also on the level of religious experience. Both urge us to share with one another spiritual experiences with regard to prayer, faith, and ‘ways of searching for God or the Absolute.’

To share our experience with others according to the 34th General Congregation implies two important principles. First, genuine dialogue with believers of other religions requires that we deepen our own Christian faith and commitment because real inter-faith dialogue takes place only between those rooted in their own identity. The goal of inter-faith dialogue is not to convert one another but to be converted to an attitude of listening to the other that can lead to mutual respect and admiration at how truth manifests itself in different cultures and personalities. Even more than admiration, true listening can lead to the astonishment of Jesus who listened to the centurion and exclaimed, ‘I have not found such faith in Israel.’

The second principle implied in sharing religious experience with others reminds us that Vatican II exhorted all Catholics to a dialogue with others to ‘acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral goods found in other religions and the values in their society and culture.’ This principle underlines how far we have come from going to war with our brothers and sisters of other faiths! We are now exhorted not merely to tolerate their otherness, not merely to accept their truth, but to promote it. And if we are called to promote this truth, then surely we are called to seek it with all our mind and heart and strength.

Zen Buddhism has an extraordinary appeal for contemporary men and women seeking a true, personal spiritual experience. It has had a powerful hold on the Catholic mind. According to Robert Aitken, a Zen master in Hawaii, all the Zen centres in Europe, except one in France, have been started by Catholics. To my way of thinking this attraction to Zen practice is a God-given opportunity to practise the very exhortations that come to us from Vatican II, from the General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, and finally from our own good common sense.

I view my having trained to be a Zen teacher and conducting inter­ faith retreats for Zen Buddhists and Christians as a response to Vatican II and to the 34th General Congregation’s statement which concluded that ‘to be religious today is to be interreligious in a sense that a positive relationship with believers of other faiths is a requirement in a world of religious pluralism.’ Although some Jesuits have already been trained for this work, the Congregation continuously encourages each assistancy to prepare Jesuits for interreligious dialogue and to understand and appreciate the urgency of this task in today’s pluralistic world.

My interest in Zen Buddhism stems from my attempt to reach out to Zen Buddhism, not uncritically, but with a reverence for the truth which the Church admits is there, and to integrate these truths with our own truths for the benefit of all concerned. Let me now demonstrate what we do when Zen and Christian students come to sit together. Let me give an example of the Zen teaching that Zen and Christian students practise together. This teaching is taken from the 11th Koan of the Book of Serenity, one of the major books of Zen teaching which is familiar to Zen students and which teaches us to experience life free from preconceived concepts.

The Zen Master Yunmen states that when light does not penetrate freely, there are three types of sicknesses that grow in the dark. The first sickness is not to get on the donkey. I understand this sickness to apply to those who do not engage in practice but remain on the level of theory or thinking or dogmatic conviction. Practising Zen we overcome this sickness. Zen aims at doing, not just thinking. It is the doing, breathing and living that transform the practitioner and make him or her useful in this world. Zen teaches that the self is not different from its function in a world of action. Kathleen Raine, a contemporary British poet, apparently agrees with this Zen teaching. She writes:

Each creature is the signature of its action.
The gull swoops, shaped by wind and hunger,
Eyes and avenging beak, and strong with wings
Turned to a fine edge of beauty and power by wind and water.
Scream and wing-beat utter the holy truth of its being. Man acts amiss: pure only the song
That breaks from the lips of love…

The second sickness that grows in the dark where light does not penetrate freely is not getting off the donkey. I understand this statement to express a warning to those students who cling to the forms and rules of practice when these forms and rules have ceased to serve their purpose and no longer serve life. One Zen story tells of a monk far advanced in training who comes to a master for further instruction. He comes to him loaded down with Zen scripture, Zen customs, Zen language, Zen clothes; in other words he stinks of Zen. The Master asks him if he has had his breakfast. ‘Yes, I have,’ responds the monk. ‘Then go wash your bowl,’ says the Master. He means there is no such thing as Zen apart from our very life as we live it moment by moment. We are to live freely and not to be caught by forms that once had their place but no longer serve an adult and insightful life.

Concerning this, Dogen, a Japanese Zen philosopher of the thirteenth century, wrote:

Suchness is the real form of truth as it appears throughout the world – it is fluid and differs from any static substance. Our body is not really ours. Our life is easily changed by life and circumstances and never remains static. Countless things pass, and we will never see them again. Our mind is also continually changing. Some people wonder ‘If this is true on what can we rely?’ But others who have the resolve to seek enlightenment, use this constant flux to deepen their enlightenment.

My understanding of the second sickness is that when we cling to forms that we have outgrown, we stay on the donkey and we stink of Zen.

The third sickness, that grows where the light does not penetrate freely, is to say, ‘What donkey?’ Zen training is not meant to lead us into a vacuum called emptiness but to prepare us to return to the market place laden with wine and fish or with whatever those in front of us need at this moment. For Dogen and for the Mahayana tradition generally, doctrinal expressions and ritual forms must correspond to the suffering and ignorance of the world. Buddhist thought is true and its forms are authentic when they alleviate suffering and enlighten ignorance. We cannot say ‘What donkey is there?’ or ‘What world is there?’ We must turn to life with full hands and hearts, again and again and again.

Catholics legitimately want, and respond to, what Merton calls ‘the hardheaded spiritual realism (of Zen)… non-charged with melodrama’. The proof of this is in the large numbers of Christians who show up regularly for zen retreats in the New York area alone. ‘Why haven’t we been taught this before?’ or, ‘We’ve always known that God is unknowable – this practice gives us lay people an opportunity to experience this’ or ‘It’s great to know we can practise Zen without compromising our Christianity’ are the kinds of comments that come up repeatedly. A non-conceptual approach to prayer is of value, in itself and to balance out the whole spectrum of Christian prayer forms and retreats as well.

In summary, I am attracted to inter-faith work between Zen Buddhists and Christians because it is the work of the imagination. I have no better way of describing what I mean by imagination than to end with a poem by a contemporary American poet, Denise Levertov.

Imagine this blur of chill, white, gray, vague, sadness burned off.

Imagine a landscape
of dry clear sunlight, precise shadows,
forms of pure color.

Imagine two neighbouring hills, and
your house, my house, looking across, friendly:
imagine ourselves
meeting each other,
bringing gifts, bringing news.

Yes we need the heat
of imagination’s sun
to cut through our bonds of cloud.

And oh, can the great and golden light
warm our flesh that has grown so cold?

–Fr. Robert Kennedy, SJ

Robert Kennedy, SJ, born in New York, was ordained priest in Japan where he first practised Zen and studied with the Japanese Zen Master Yamada Roshi. He continued his study on returning to the United States and in 1998 he became the first Catholic priest in the country to receive inka whereby he received the honorary title of Roshi. He is Chair of the Theology Department at St Peter’s College, Jersey City, where he teaches theology and Japanese, a practising psychotherapist in New York City, and the author of Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit (Continuum 1995, 1998).

Written by MattAndJojang

February 19, 2020 at 12:31 pm

The Moonlight

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Moon.jpg

The moonlight touches
The calm surface of the pond
On the temple grounds.

–Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

November 28, 2019 at 9:14 am

Stepping in the Dark: How to Practice with Koans

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Walking in the Dark

Photo: ProStockMedia

Step by step in the dark, if my foot’s not wet, I’ve found the stone.

–Zen Koan

When you’re walking in the dark, it’s good to have a friend to keep you company. And sometimes your friend will say something you hadn’t thought of, and that’s helpful. And sometimes they will say something that you don’t quite understand, but it makes you curious, and aware that there’s something going on you hadn’t noticed. Keeping company like this, while walking in the dark, changes how you experience your life in a way that stays with you.

From a few moments after language blinked into existence, humans have tried to hold onto the words that accompany such mysterious moments of insight. We have etched them on bones, written them on papyrus scrolls, attached them to the refrigerator with a magnet. A bit more than a millennium ago people in China started to call these sayings koans. Koans are records of conversations, bits of verse, and stories. Soon there were great collections of koans and people discovered they were a transformative meditation practice. It appears that koans came out of a very old tradition of improvised spoken word poetry, art that crystallized out of a particular moment. Koans came to be a way of communicating understandings about the nature of reality and of having experiences of awakening.

As a teenager I’d write down poems or the words of a song and keep them with me where I could look at them. When I’d repeat the words to myself, I’d see something I hadn’t seen before, understand how to get through this dark patch or how to grow up. I still find those bits of paper in boxes and old wallets. I also discovered meditation around that time and it helped too. I could sit still and let the world have its way with me, put my doomed thoughts on hold and allow what was mysterious to reveal itself to me in the light through the window.

It was 20 years later when I first heard about koans. Initially I imagined them as an obscure spiritual puzzle for argumentative monks, which wasn’t very appealing. But then I met an actual koan. I had no expectations at first, but it was good company. I liked it. I wondered about it and turned it over and over in my meditation. I let myself be inside the world of the koan. Slowly, unexpectedly, it started to soften me up and I become fond of my actual life, even the difficult bits, the grumpy children, the impossible problems. The French poet Paul Eluard explained it: “Il y a un autre monde, mais il est dans celui-ci” (there is another world but it’s inside this one). Later on, my intense curiosity about the koans gave my practice a new kind of energy. And as I went along, I found there was something in me that understood what they were talking about. Ever since I’ve always had a koan with me, meditating, walking around, in my sleep.

A koan: Step by step in the dark, if my foot is not wet, I’ve found the stone.

A koan is made of evocative words and images. It’s not generalized spiritual advice, or even a good idea, it’s a response to a specific moment, and that moment is happening now. Each koan is different and takes me on its own journey. In the case of the koan above, you can enter through the stone, the dark, the water. And when you do this it’s possible to see how this moment is like so many others. “I’m in the dark again, looking for a stone. I’m walking through it, taking one step after another.” and I could also see that difficult situations are part of the condition of being a person. We find ourselves in the dark because it’s in our nature to be this way. And it’s also in our nature to find our way. It’s clear that the eternal and the ephemeral are connected, your individual life is part of something vast and shared.

Koans will show you something, and it will never be about how you or the world is wrong. Your criticisms and judgments, your ideas about how deeply flawed you or the rest of humanity are, your plans for escape or revenge or redemption, none of that matters at all to the koan. It will show you the vast web of everything, the net of jewels that you are a part of. Koans will teach you how to practice and they will be a gate into the never-boring world of everything you don’t already know.

Here’s how to do it: Step by step, in the dark, if my foot is not wet, I’ve found the stone.

1. Take a step:

Find a koan for yourself. You can use this one, about stepping in the dark, or if it holds no appeal, find another. I’ve included a short list below. Or perhaps you’ve already found a koan, or one is eyeing you from across the room. You can meditate with the koan, or take it for a walk. You can repeat the words to yourself, or not. Even one word is enough. What you remember consciously may not be up to you. Trusting the way you naturally work with the koan is the beginning of making a relationship with it.

2. Be in the dark:

We like to know things. It makes us feel safer, not vulnerable to criticism from ourselves or others. Koans don’t work like that. They reward the vulnerability of not knowing. The effort of working with the koan is in letting go of the ways you usually use your mind, the plans, the judgments, the image management. If you like, you can even let go of the koan. Once you’ve heard it you can’t lose it, it will stay with you, anchored below your attention. You don’t need to explain it to yourself or figure it out. What is required is to allow yourself to go to the edge of what you know and look beyond. This curiously delicious darkness stretches out in all directions. Transformation comes from this place.

3. Get wet:

Take the koan into your life. This means take it to the store, take it on a long commute, to work, take it to the woods, the circus, and holidays with your parents or your children. Repeat it. Allow it into your heart when you’re late for an appointment or in the midst of a hard conversation, when you’re sad or bored or disappointed in fame or fortune. Just recall the koan to mind and notice what happens. Really look. What you saw before won’t be what you see now. You may see the light in people’s faces that you had missed before. Something annoying may turn out to be funny instead.

4. Find a stone:

This koan, “Step by step in the dark…” points to the way that you have the capacity to find a moment of ease, a dry place to put your foot. Notice when that ease comes, maybe that’s the stone. The koan also provides you with places to step in the form of potent words and images. Let yourself rest in these. Use the word or image as a focus, lean into it. Explore what it’s like. Feel it in your body. Actually walk in the dark and notice how it is for you. Find out what kind of stone is your stone, and how it is for you to step there. Notice when you’re at peace.

5. Start again:

When you lose your practice, when suffering appears again, impenetrable and literal, you can always start again. Find your koan. Shake it a bit and ask, what now? This is a practice that will be there when you need it.

You can do this anytime, in any condition. You can do this in meditation, sitting quietly, in a pool of sunlight. And better still, take it where you don’t think it can go. It’s there whenever you need insight or a new way of seeing your situation or a hand to hold in the dark. There won’t be an answer, not directly, but you will start to see something new, or more clearly. The world (the argument, the traffic) will be visible in a different way, perhaps brighter, or perhaps it will bring tears to your eyes, or make you laugh out loud.

Postscript:

There is a Zen practice of working on koans individually with a teacher as a curriculum, which is based on a traditional Japanese method. The technique I give here is also useful in that context. There are many ways to practice with koans, and you will discover your own. Fortunately koans are robust, durable, and impossible to break.

A very small selection of koans to choose from:
1. There is a true person of no rank, always coming and going through the portals of your face.

2. There is nothing I dislike.

3. The heart-mind turns in accord with the ten thousand things. The pivot on which it turns is very deep.

4. Put out the fire across the river.

5. What is your original face before your parents were born?

6. Heart clouded, heart unclouded, standing or falling, it’s still the same body.

7. Who am I?

8. Question: Why did the first ancestor come from the west? Answer: The oak tree in the garden.

9. There is a solitary brightness without fixed shape or form. It knows how to listen, to understand, and to teach the dharma. This solitary brightness is you.

–Rachel Boughton

Source: Lion’s Roar Magazine

Written by MattAndJojang

October 29, 2019 at 9:13 am

“Welcome!”

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Zhaozhou's Bridge

Zhaozhou’s Bridge in Hebei Province, China. Named after the Zen Master Zhaozhou Congsen (Jap.: Jōshū Jūshin), it is the oldest bridge in China. (Photo: mafengho.cn)

When times of great difficulty visit us, how shall we meet them? Zhaozhou said “Welcome!”

— Zen Koan

Written by MattAndJojang

October 27, 2019 at 10:47 am

Blue Mountain, White Cloud

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Blue Mountain White Cloud

The blue mountain is the father of the white cloud.
The white cloud is the son of the blue mountain.
All day long they depend on each other, without being dependent on each other.
The white cloud is always the white cloud.
The blue mountain is always the blue mountain.

-Zen Master Dongshan Lianjie

Written by MattAndJojang

October 21, 2019 at 10:51 am