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Life Koans and Retreat Experience


Dharma Talk given on March 9, 2006 at the Chan Meditation Center, Elmhurst, NY


The first thing I should say is that it’s quite an awe-inspiring experience for me to be giving this talk here. I’m very familiar with this room: I’m particularly familiar with a certain patch of wall over there, another one down there, and at least two patches up there, which I remember in vivid detail. I’ve sat quite a number of retreats in this room with Shifu: all of them extremely difficult and inspiring. So it’s quite strange to be here in this room and recalling the clarity of mind and the work which was done by all of us who attended those retreats with Shifu.

This evening I want to explore some themes in Chan. And when I say explore, I mean explore. When you explore something there’s always a risk. An exploration is an adventure. I’m exploring some ideas, not teaching you some fixed rule about them. So it might be that I may say some things that might be different from what you’ve been taught elsewhere or before. That’s fine, because what we’re doing together is an exploration of ideas, which are fairly flexible anyway. If you find what I’m saying to be useful for you, well, that’s good. If what I’m saying is a load of rubbish for you and you don’t believe it, well, forget it. That’s OK, too.

I want to begin with some very simple questions, and of course they won’t be so simple when we start looking at them. What is Chan for? Why are you doing Chan? Why do you sit? Why did you come on this early spring evening, maybe from some quite a long way away, to hear a talk about Chan? What is your motivation? These are all questions that form the basis of koans. Of course, there is a history of koans, how they began in what are called “encounter-dialogues” between masters and monks many, many years ago. That’s the history. But koans are not only a matter of history-they are right here and right now, all the time.

Shifu used to say to me that the most important koans are life koans-that’s to say, the koans of our life, which are present with us yesterday, today and tomorrow. These life koans are made up from the patterns of our lives and the fact that those patterns of life are often not at all easy to live with. We have to remember that the Buddha himself is often called the Great Doctor. Why a great doctor? Because he heals. You may remember that the First Noble Truth says that life is suffering, not that there is suffering in life, but life is suffering. You cannot have life without suffering, and maybe you cannot have suffering without life, either-which is an interesting reversal.

So we must begin by asking what suffering is. Why do we suffer? It’s absolutely fundamental. It begins very early. You see, we’re all born as babies completely dependent upon Mother. This is very different from many other mammals: cows; donkeys; monkeys; chimpanzees. All of their babies are born pretty active, moving in the world. We are born totally, one hundred percent dependent upon Mum, and a little bit later, less dependent on Dad, and then teachers, then spiritual teachers, then friends, and so on. We are deeply dependent on other people for learning how to live. Yet, right from the beginning, other people have limited time for us. Those of you who are mums I think will agree that one can’t give the whole of one’s time to this baby, who of course wants you the whole of the time. There may be other children around who are to be looked after, as well. So of course, immediately there’s a clash of wants: baby wants Mum, Mum is too busy for baby and says, wait. Baby doesn’t want to wait. Other children have to be attended to. So, right from the beginning, there’s the problem of how do I get what I want?

And what is it that’s wanting something? What is it that wants the breast? What is it that wants to be cuddled? Well – it must be-me! And “me” becomes really rather important because everything depends upon “me.” And as you grow up, as we all grow up, we learn that some things are gratifying, and that’s nice! And some things are very far from gratifying. They may be very punishing. And when those things happen, of course, we don’t want them. And so, we come, of course, immediately to the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, life is suffering because of desire. Desire is one of those rather big words. What it simply means is that we want things that we haven’t got, and we don’t want things that we have got.

So there is an endless oscillation between wanting this and not wanting that, a whole pattern of wantings and not wantings and, of course, these patterns begin to form shapes so that by the time we are nine or ten years old there’s already a personality developing there, full of responses, often very skilled responses, for getting what one wants and not getting what one doesn’t want. A lot of the time we fail and that gets worrying, sometimes so deeply worrying that the issues get suppressed and buried-the roots of later neuroses. These things are well known, they lead to the problems that may have to be dealt with in psychotherapy-they are also the spiritual sickness with which we have to deal.

In Buddhism, we talk about it in a rather different way from within the psychological disciplines. We say that by the time we are eighteen, nineteen, or twenty, we’ve inherited something which we can call “karmic retribution.” Shifu’s talks on karmic retribution are extremely illuminating. Briefly, karmic retribution arises because as we struggle with these difficulties in life, we make mistakes. Some mistakes are very small; some mistakes may be very big. And when we make mistakes, there’s always a price to pay. That’s to say, mistakes have consequences. Of course, when we do helpful, good things to other people, those also have beneficial consequences. But the difficult ones are when we make serious mistakes, which many years later begin to have an effect.

All of us suffer from karmic retribution. Although this is quite a severe way of speaking, we are looking at something very real. We need to think about it. It’s worthwhile spending some time on one’s own, thinking about the difficult things in one’s life and where they have come from, how they originated. Did one make a mistake?

Of course, other people may be involved as well. Some of the things that happen to one involve other people. For example, I didn’t choose to be born to a particular Mum, she was not my choice. Things that arise out of my relationship with my mother, say, are not one hundred percent due to me. Even so, you will still find that, even in a difficult relationship with a parent or teacher, you could have behaved your-self differently. If you had chosen to go down one path rather than another, things might have been different. Maybe you know that wonderful poem by Robert Frost, isn’t it, American poet, where he talks about walking on a path through a forest, through a wood, and the path divides, and you go one way and it leads to a whole story-what if you’d gone the other way? What might have happened if you’d gone the other way? Of course, one doesn’t know but all of this leads to a certain kind of uncertainty in one’s adult life. There’s always some karmic retribution hanging around. There are always things that one could have done better. And this we can call, to use the Sanskrit word, dukkha. Dukkha is translated in English as suffering but the actual meaning of the word is something more subtle than that. It means something like, oh, let us say, unsatisfactoriness. It means that some part one’s life is not satisfactory, and that might be serious, it might be real suffering, or it might be something that one can put up with and get along with so long as one does one’s best.

So, by the time we’ve reached maturity, we have our life koan. My life koan is, what to do with the puzzling aspects of my life? How can I live a good life? Or how can I at least do less harm than I am doing? What can I do? What can I do in a world in such extraordinary political turmoil? I’m just a small citizen, maybe of a small country. The world is falling apart. What can I do? The public karma, the public retribution is very large, and it’s coming about only too clearly from the gross errors that have been made. We needn’t go further into that, yet it is perfectly clear that the mistakes which humanity’s been making over the last hundred years are now coming home to roost.

This issue of life koans, how to work with a life koan, is actually a very important issue. So let’s look at a few guidelines to the way in which life koans can be worked upon in retreats. I want to talk about two particular kinds of retreat that we’ve been developing in the Western Chan Fellowship.

First of all, it is essential to see that we live our lives most of the time in the three times; that’s to say, the past, the present, and the future. We spend our time playing past, present and future. Why do I suffer now? It’s because of something in the past. What about what should I do in the future? Well, I should plan to do something in the future. The odd fact is, that the past actually is dead. There are memories of it, but everything in the past is actually gone, and everything in the future has not yet arisen. There’s only one place where you can actually be, and that is now. This needs thinking about, because it’s very easy to say that’s a lot of nonsense – of course there’s past, present, and future. But actually, the only place where there is something, is-ness, is only now. How could there be anything else? Anything else is was-ness or will-be. Is-ness is only now. And you, therefore, can only be now. You cannot be in the past. That’s dead. You cannot be in the future. It hasn’t come. You can only be now.

And here comes the koan: where is now? When I said now, just now, it’s already gone! So, you haven’t even got a now. The now that I say now in is already past, it’s dead. There we have a koan, you see, a real paradox, because we’ve just said, the only place where you can be is now, but then when you go into it you find that now has already gone. So where can you be? That’s the koan. It’s a koan you uncovered by thinking about karmic retribution. You start thinking about your life and the problems with your life, but then you realize that all that stuff, all that worry actually was past. Does it affect me now? Yes, but only insofar as I bring it up again, and again, and again, and fuss about it. If I can genuinely step out of that anxiety, I find myself in the now… or do I? There’s the paradox. There’s the problem. And that’s what koans are all about. They’re all about paradox. Life is full of it!

Let’s let ourselves off the hook a little bit, even though we may not go the whole way. This “now” we’re talking about, which is always gone, is actually moving, so if I am to stay with the now I have to move, I have to move with the now as it moves. It’s like surfing on a giant wave. The wave is just part of the ocean, it’s moving, moving, moving, moving: so long as I stay on the top of the surfboard, on the top of the moving wave of now, I’m in the continuous present. As soon as I fall off, the wave goes on and I’m in the past. As for the future, this ocean has no shore, so if you stay on the board you go on and on and on forever. Inevitably, we fall off sooner or later of course. And then we are back in the three times. And we’re back with the koan. What was it I saw when I was riding in the continuous present? There was the wave, there was the smell of sea, there was the wind, and where was I? Hmm, we’re beginning to enter the landscape of the koan.

So, our life koans, as we go into them, begin to uncover deep mystery. Other religions tend to stop the investigation at that point by saying, oh, God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world. God’s doing it all. In the Abrahamic religions, the whole thing is solved relatively easily by saying, God’s the mystery. But, of course, “God” is just a word. The actual mystery is open! We don’t know the mystery. If we knew what it was, it wouldn’t be a mystery.

So: what about the methods of Chan, the methods that Shifu often so fondly talks about with us?

In the method of Silent Illumination, one of the things that happens is that as we sit there’s this enormous noise in the head that all of us have struggled with-the noise of our karmic retribution repeating itself over and over again. The three times are rattling away in our skulls. Yet, as we continue sitting, samatha, calming the mind, begins to happen, and the mind begins to get calmer and calmer. And as the mind becomes calmer, so also the way in which we categorize our world begins to change. For example, space: normally, sitting in this room on a Silent Illumination retreat there are these four walls, there is this shape. But, as one begins to enter into the further reaches of Silent Illumination, one finds it’s almost as if one can see through the walls. One’s feeling of space is enormous. Or time: one suddenly finds that one thinks one’s been on one’s cushion for half a minute and the bell goes and you realize you’ve been there for half an hour. Something very strange has happened to one’s sense of time. So, actually, in the practice of meditation itself, we discover the mysteries, and the mysteries are quite clearly of the mind. Vastness, spaciousness, timelessness are things which are discovered in the method of Silent Illumination.

However, often, we are then bothered by questions which arise from that: how can that be? What is this? We are beset by questions, and these questions become the material of the classical koans. The classical koans are the ways in which masters and monks in ancient times talked about these very same problems: Why is life only seventy years? Why is death? What is life? What should I do? Who am I? These fundamental questions have not changed since the time of the Buddha.
As you know, one way of working is through the method known in Chan as the huatou, that is to say, a short, sharp question like, “Who is repeating Buddha’s name?” upon which one meditates. When one looks at such a question for a very long period of time in meditation, some of the changes I referred to in Silent Illumination eventually also begin to happen.

In the Western Chan Fellowship we also use a rather different method, the heart of which was created by an American called Charles Berner. Like many Americans, he was in a great hurry. He was so hurried, in fact, that he called it an “Enlightenment Intensive,” as if by being intense for three days you might get enlightened! A little unlikely, one might say. But still, this was the idea. And indeed, the method is very intense and very useful. It takes the form of what he called a Communication Exercise, and the question used in communication is a huatou.

John CrookI want to describe this method briefly to you, even though some of you know about it already. It’s a very important and useful method to illustrate how one can work with a huatou or with a koan in a simple direct manner. Let’s take, for example, the fundamental question with which we always start these retreats. “Who am I?” If you came on a retreat with us, the first thing you would be asked to do, is, OK, discover who you are. Within a retreat based in zazen we make use of the Communication Exercise.

It’s like this. We all pair up in couples. Each one of us will ask the partner the question in alternation, each one has five minutes to respond over a period of thirty or forty minutes-that is three or six goes each. Suppose this gentleman (points to participant) and I are working together on this question: the session begins, the bell goes ping! I turn to my colleague and I say, “Robert (or whatever your name is), tell me who you are.” He has five minutes to answer, which of course isn’t enough, but he’s going to have another go later. After five minutes, the bell will go again, and he now will say to me, “OK, John, tell me who you are.” Then I’ve got five minutes. And then ping! Tell me who you are. Ping! Tell me who you are-for thirty minutes, or even forty minutes.

What’s very interesting about this exercise is that you begin quite normally. For example, I might say, well, first of all I’m a father, and what’s more than that, I’m a grandfather, I’ve got six grandchildren. Then I might divert and spend two or three minutes talking about my grandchildren. I like them very much, etc., etc. I might come back to: I’m also an academic, I studied psychology in the university, I’ve been to the Himalayas, and studied with the lamas, blah blah blah. So, all about my roles in life, the things I’ve done. But two days later I might start wondering a bit about that. Instead, I might say something like, well, when I think about some aspects of my life, I really feel a bit sad. Or, it could be something like, I wasn’t really as kind to my mother as I might have been. Or, it might be, every time I hear the news I want to weep. One’s partner might come up with, hmm, news-hearing makes me angry. Of course, feelings are beginning to be expressed, first of all indirectly. But then the question is-who are you? And the truest expression of somebody who’s weeping is to weep, not to say, I’m weeping, but actually to do it. Many people express themselves, finally, by allowing emotion to appear-opening themselves so much to the exercise that they allow the feelings of distress to actually appear. Yet there’s only five minutes. After five minutes, ping! Tell me who you are. So there’s a tight discipline in this, you see, I can’t indulge myself. I can have a big weep about, well, the day’s news or whatever, but then, ping! Oh dear! Right, OK, tell me who you are. And off we go again.

Now the beauty of this is that when one person is open enough to show what’s really in their heart-the actual emotion-the other person knows that it’s safe for him or for her to do the same. Trust begins to develop. Naturally, not everybody can be so free with feelings as that. Some people find it very difficult. The British find it rather difficult, particularly British men, to express their feelings immediately and openly. And I’m not sure about Chinese, but I think they have some difficulties with certain feelings as well. There are similarities between the British and the Chinese when it comes to reticence about our feelings, whereas Indians and Arabs love to leap into their emotions at the first possible opportunity! Either way, if one is more reticent about one’s feelings one can at least say, you know, there really is great sadness in my heart when I think about Iraq, say. Great sadness. And of course that is a very genuine heartfelt statement, and it will do. You don’t have to weep. You merely have to show the reality of your feeling.

The really interesting thing about this exercise is that Charles Berner called it “emptying the barrel.” It’s as if we have a huge barrel in our minds and bodies full of all this karmic retribution stuff, all these worries, all this karma. As we begin to let it go to our partner in these exercises, so we begin to empty the barrel until we really begin to free ourselves from it. Strangely, rather strangely-the themes that appear, once fully expressed, do not have to be repeated, at least, not within the retreat. After the half an hour, we change partners, so that you work with him, and she works with me. So there’s constant change around the group, all the time. You are not just working with one partner, you’re working with all the group. If there are twenty people in the group, there are nineteen others to work with, through the week, or the four days, or however long it takes.

As the time goes along, one is beginning to empty oneself of all this stuff. Some of it is heavy stuff. Berner, in his Californian style, used to refer to that as “elephant shit”-an expression I think he got from Fritz Perls. Then this other stuff that is not quite so heavy- Berner described that as “chicken shit.” Whatever it is, there’s a lot of shit in this barrel and it needs to be emptied out. Berner was a very earthy West Coast character, as perhaps you realize. So, we empty ourselves of all this nonsense.

But what’s happening? The mind may become very still in rather the same way as it would do in a Silent Illumination retreat. There’s a master present, and you can go at any time and have an interview to ask a question or to say how you’ve got on. Somebody might come to the master, the master might look at him and say to himself, aha, there’s a change here because signs of worry have gone, the eye energy is bright, the person sits down and says, “I’m me, and it’s great!” How many of you can say, “I’m me and it’s great,” straight off? Not so easy, is it? We usually hesitate about saying, I’m great, and it’s all right. Yet, actually, if you go into it, it’s true, because as you empty your self of all the painful stuff, so you can feel confident in yourself because you’re not avoiding that stuff, you’re not denying it, not suppressing it so that it wells up again and again. You’ve shared it, you’ve acknowledged it, you’ve pointed out what a crappy person you are, and you’ve said, “Yes, it’s me, I’m like that.” But still, for some curious reason, because it is being emptied out and shared, there’s a feeling that, well, after all, it’s OK to be me. There’s a sort of humility here.

And this is the beginning of Dharma confidence, too. If one is OK with oneself, one begins to understand the Dharma far more deeply. You can then start turning towards other people. If you’re not fussing about yourself because you’re OK, nothing special, but OK, you can then start turning, asking, “Who are you?” to another.

Other questions follow, questions like, OK, so you know who you are now. Well, tell me, how is life fulfilled? Hmm, how is life fulfilled? And off we go again, with that question. Or, it could be something like, tell me, what is love? Hmm, What is love? Or “What are you?” What is the who-person made of? What is the mind before the person existed? Have you heard that one before? We’re getting close to the “real” koans.

What happens on these retreats? Statistically speaking, about forty-five percent of people actually get to the point of feeling it’s OK to be themselves, and will then continue to work further. And some, very rarely, may actually have a kensho experience, not usually on retreat, but separately after retreat. A kensho experience by definition is simply one in which all self concern drops away: a definition of an enlightenment experience. Such an experience can arise, but it’s rare, very rare. The best result in a Western Zen retreat is usually what Shifu would call a “one-mind” experience: a feeling of oneness with everybody, love of everybody on the retreat, love of everybody outside, and a feeling of really positive affirmation about the world, a feeling of oneness with it. And that can be a very strange and wonderful experience because when you meditate a lot, as we have said, the boundaries of time and space dissolve. So you may, as it were, come out of the Chan hall and look at the hills, and suddenly the hills and everything around you appears to be part of you-there’s no difference. That is a yogic experience, which is a consequence of the practice of the meditation.

So we’re talking here not simply about the answering of a question, we’re talking about a transformation in the very psyche itself, in which the yogic process of meditation plus the intellectual endeavor of working with a question combine to produce what in Sanskrit is called paravritti, a turning around within consciousness itself. You’ve dropped out of the three times. For a brief while you are totally there in the moving present: in the presence of the present.

Well, that’s the Western Zen Retreat and many people have benefited from it. Many people find it a very useful introduction to the Dharma. Personally, I think it’s an exceptionally good introduction to the Dharma for the following reason: it is perfectly possible to do a lot of mind-calming without actually asking who you are. Often meditators get into the habit of doing a lot of samatha, or a lot of vipassana, sitting on their backsides, calming the mind, but actually, none of their difficulties are being resolved because none of them are coming up. And as soon as you get into an argument with somebody, up it will all come! So actually, you may not be learning Dharma just by sitting. There has to be more to it than that. You have to confront yourself. And I put it to you, that in Zen, in Chan, the number one thing we all have to do is to confront ourselves. It is not only the opening gambit, but perhaps the most important gambit of all in the practice of Chan.

Now I want to talk a little bit about the old koan stories, and how they can be used today. Many of these old koan stories are quite complex and long, so I think the best way to start is to tell one story with which we can work . Here’s a rather nice one that raises some difficulties.

In the old days in China, monks used to wander around from monastery to monastery, visiting masters and finding out what they could learn, and also getting a free meal or two, no doubt. Anyway, one day there was this monk, pretty scruffy, turns up at a monastery, opens the door, goes into the Chan hall, looks around-it’s a beautiful Chan hall, statues of the Buddha, scrolls on the wall, wonderful calligraphy-he looks around and mutters , “Bah! Ugh!” turns around and walks out. But when he gets to the front gate, he thinks, “Oh, I was a bit hasty, I think I’ll go back.” So back he goes. By this time the master has come into the Chan hall and is sitting on his throne. The master raises his fly whisk in welcome-and what does the monk do? He says, “BAH! UGH!” and walks out. This time he doesn’t come back. Afterwards the master says to the guest master, “What’s happened to that noisy fellow?” And the guest master says, “He’s gone away!” And the master says, “That guy will end up building monasteries on the tops of mountains while abusing and swearing at the Buddhas and patriarchs.”

Now -here’s a question for you: in making this remark, was the master approving or disapproving of the monk? Hmm, think about it.

This is a useful story because it’s clearly about a split between earthy Zen practice, just being oneself in the wilderness, you know, lighting a fire, doing your own cooking and living in a pretty primitive way but in total honesty with nature, and, by contrast, coming into an institutionalized hall with all the decorations and architecture and pomp and circumstance, masters in glowing robes with fly whisks, “BAH! What do I want with all that stuff?”

So there’s a problem here: What indeed is the place of beautiful buildings in Chan? But you could put the problem round the other way, and say, surely this man should have better manners than that! You could argue either from the point of view of somebody who says, “All these holy places are important, one must never insult a temple, one must always make one’s three prostrations before one crosses the floor and do all that, you can’t just shout ‘Bah!’ and walk off. That’s disgusting behavior!” On the other hand, you might say, “Oh, I don’t bother about these temples, mountain-tops are much better for me, caves are the proper place, I just like to live in caves, and eat nettles like Milarepa.”

Which way is right? Which view is right? Are they both right? How do they relate? You’re faced with a duality here. That’s the subtlety of the koan. It throws you into a duality: either/or. Where is the third place? If you find the third place, you’ve solved the koan.

OK, that’s just the example of one particular koan and the way in which it throws up dilemmas for those who want to practice. When the master says, “Ah, that guy, one day he’ll build monasteries on the tops of mountains and he’ll shout curses at the Buddhas and the patriarchs!” the meaning is not clear. Was he displeased with the man? Or did he actually imply that this man was going to be one of his Dharma heirs? Which was it? Or was it neither of those, but something else? Hmm!

It’s a beautiful koan. Now you can spend retreat after retreat thinking about that one. But the way to solve koans is not through thinking about them but rather through trying to place your self in the picture.

John CrookIn our Western Chan Fellowship, we have created a way of working with koans that we think suits the Westernized mind. Why? Well, we Westerners, together with Chinese who’ve had Western educations, are taught to think. To think, to reason, to argue, to rationalize, to explain. Above all, to explain. Everything has to be explained. The media are always on about explaining why this happens, why that happens, why so-and-so did this, always why, why, why, explain, explain, explain, explain. One day I went to Shifu (I was thinking about my own practice as a scientist) and I said to him, “The trouble with me, Shifu, is that I’m always trying to explain everything!” And Shifu said, “Exactly, John, that’s why your practice should be silence.” Thank you, Shifu. End of interview.

Well, knowing that not only I, but at least most high school-educated Westerners, and certainly most university-educated Westerners, have this tremendous addiction to explaining everything, and because koan stories are not easily explained, I thought well, why don’t we resurrect all these old koan stories and let people try and explain them, and see what happens when they get totally stuck. That would be interesting!

There was another reason why I wanted to do this, and that is that nowadays the full koan story is not often used on retreats. Shifu, for example, although he will talk about koan stories in his sermons, prefers to use huatou in actual retreats, and of course, we also often do the same. Huatou are very useful. But I wondered why, why don’t we also make use of these extraordinary old stories?

So I thought, lets have a retreat in which we present a number of different koan stories and let people choose which one they want to try to understand? So, we created a list of about eight koan stories, all of them pretty tricky, and asked participants to go away with this piece of paper, read these stories, and choose one of them as the koan to work on for a ten-day retreat, or, usually in our case, a six-day retreat. People have a whole morning to go outside and read these koan stories. Eventually everyone has chosen a koan story.

Now what’s happening here? What is it that causes somebody to choose a particular koan story rather than another one? Participants have been asked to choose a koan story by finding out which story seems to be telling them something. You may not know what it is, but it’s hinting at something, it’s telling you something, it’s intriguing, it’s puzzling, it’s difficult. Now, only you can do this, no one else. Therefore, when a koan interests you in that way, it is actually triggering something concerning your “life koan.”

Do you see the point? Nobody else can choose your koan, only you can choose your koan, so when you choose a koan, it’s you that does it, and there must be some kind of relationship between your life koan, that’s to say, the whole of your life story, and this koan, which is saying something to you, even though you don’t know quite what it is.

Participants are then asked to sit with their koans and they are told, “OK, you’re all Western-educated, now, explain this koan!” So they all set to work thinking about it. After a while we say, all explanations are going to be wrong, but keep trying. You will find you can explain this story in about ten different ways. How many have you got? Five. How many have you got? Three. And every time you’ve got an explanation, realize that it cannot be the full story because you’re not dealing with something that can be explained rationally-these stories are paradoxes. We need to know what a paradox is. A paradox is something like a riddle because it’s pointing outside itself at something else. What is it hinting at? And this will be something to do with the solution of your life koan. By the time you’ve worked six or seven days on a koan and discarded all the experiences and all the explanations that have come up, you end up in the “great doubt” that is described for classical koan work. You end up fixated on maybe just two words of the story. Hmm. Really stuck.

Those words have got stuck in your head. You can’t get rid of them. They go round and round and round. The story has almost disappeared. You’re in what’s called the great doubt. And that great doubt is something which becomes deeply personal, it’s in your own heart and you don’t know why or wherefore. It’s working at levels of the mind that are not accessible to reason. But then, something happens. It twists around, and you say, Oh, of course! And I can’t tell you what, because actually the “Of course!” in its first manifestation is not in words.

I put it to you that what has probably happened is that the participant has dropped out of time. Matters of past worries ands future hopes have disappeared and in the moment of dropping out of time, he or she sees the present moment colored by the mystery of the paradox they’ve been working with. When in interview the master asks , “What is it?” they’ll come up with some phrase or expressions which may show insight. If the master feels, yes, it fits, he’ll say, fine, three prostrations to the Buddha, and have a nice day, enjoy-or no, take it further or whatever.

These koans become very involving. This evening I could cook up some koans and we might all try to explain them, but we haven’t got time to work through a koan to this extraordinary moment when, in the intensity of the great doubt, the thing dissolves and drops away and leaves us timeless, spacious, gasping out some word that will just have to do. How does the master know? Not verbally. It’s in the non-verbal appearance that he sees whether one is released into a realization. The koan is gone. The eye energy is brilliant. The facial expression is totally-how shall I put it?-different. Maybe delighted, maybe just very, very open. Maybe an expression of wonder.

When people solve koans in this way, the real test as to whether it’s a solution or not is whether it has any subsequent effect on their lives. And people for whom the solution of the koan has really and truly worked say, “The Dharma is no longer a puzzle to me, I understand the Dharma. It’s quite straightforward.” Or they will say, “Life is actually OK. I may have trouble again, but I know that life, basically, is OK, in spite of the fact that it’s still difficult.” In other words, some kind of space in life itself has emerged, and we could call that a fruit of the Dharma, this sense of belonging to life and manifesting life. And of course, when you’re in that frame of mind, you can’t make a mistake because such a frame is closely related to love, a very curious kind of love which is disinterested, a love which is for everything and everybody. When you meet people and you are in that state of mind , you’ll be surprised that they will start talking to you as if they’ve known you since you were born, because intuitively they will sense that you are completely open to hear what they have to say. You no longer have a side, no prejudice.

But let us be careful, we’re in danger of speaking idealistically here, because these insights, after all, are quite rare. It also has to be said that they may be of rather short duration, because the difficulties of life don’t get away so easily. But, once one has seen something of that kind a Dharma truth has arisen and one can work with that.

I’d like to finish this talk by talking about one or two of these koans. Its worth looking at them even in this quite trivial way because there are different kinds of koans. When I say there are different kinds, I mean they often work in rather different ways. So, although we cannot solve these koans here-I warn you, we’re not solving koans here. We cannot solve them because that’s beyond words, and I’m just talking words. We can however explore their nature and what they point towards. Here’s a nice story:

It was a beautiful summer’s day, really lovely. The windows of the Chan hall were wide open, and the monks were all sitting there waiting for the arrival of the master. The master arrives, looks around the Chan hall, climbs into his seat and raises his fly-whisk to begin his talk. At that moment, a bird in the garden begins to sing. The master holds up the stick. The bird goes on singing. The monks all wonder what’s going to happen next. The bird goes on singing. Finally, the bird stops. The master puts down the fly-whisk and says, “O monks, that is all for today,” and returns to his room.

Hmm, did any of the monks get it? You can imagine these monks. There will be those monks who think, what is the old so-and-so on about? This is ridiculous! Why doesn’t he give his sermon? They hadn’t even heard the birdsong, of course. Other monks will think, well, he must be in a peculiar mood today, maybe he needs an aspirin. Other monks, however, might hear the birdsong and they might think that that’s better than any sermon, and they will experience something new. Maybe what they will experience is the total presence of the birdsong in the presence of that present moment, and in that total openness to that flowing now-ness, they may see something which goes beyond the Chan hall, beyond the bird, and indeed, beyond the master. Meanwhile, the master has gone back to his room, and I’ll bet he’s having a chuckle.

Now, what kind of a koan is that? Well, it belongs to a kind of koan that evokes a state of mind. You see, it’s not like the “bah!” one. It’s not that the master has made some statement that can be interpreted in one of two ways. It’s not that sort of koan. This is a koan that deliberately evokes the state of mind of someone who is able to fall into the beauty of the present moment and catch what the master is pointing out. We could call that type of koan an “evocation of a state.” And because it’s rather a poetic story, we can, I think, get some sense of its meaning. It’s a beautiful story.

Here’s another one. This belongs to a type we might call “insight through a word.” The story goes like this: The Buddha was out walking with the gods. They were walking along, having a good chat, when the Buddha lifted up his finger, pointed to the ground and said, “That would be a good place to build a sanctuary.” And Indra, the king of the gods, picked a blade of grass and stuck it there, and said, “The sanctuary is built!”

End of story. Hmm. What is the sanctuary? Why is a blade of grass sufficient for the sanctuary? What was the Buddha up to? That koan has actually turned out to be quite a popular one in the group I lead in Bristol. There’s one lady there who was very troubled with her life, and was saying, I want to know what the Buddha refuge is. So I gave her this koan. She loved it! She’s still carrying it around with her so far as I know. She discovers a sanctuary in her mind every time she tells the story to herself. The sanctuary? Well, of course, herself! Why not? Where else? If you have a sanctuary, where else can it be? Only one place.

Here’s another one. This is really quite tricky, because it refers to Buddhist philosophy, but I’ll give it to you because some of you might have been reading a bit of philosophy and might enjoy this. How does it go? Oh yes. It’s about the start of the Mahayana. You know, there’s the Theravada, and then the later schools of Buddhism, the Mahayana, developed. So, the gods were having a wonderful celebration because the Mahayana had started, and they were all rushing around, drinking orange juice, saying to one another, “How wonderful today! This is the second time the Tathagata has proclaimed the Dharma! Whoopee!” The Buddha was sitting next to Subhuti. He nudged Subhuti and he said, “It’s not the second time, Subhuti, because there never was a first time.”

John CrookHmm. How about that? This points at emptiness. So, here we have a koan that requires you to pick up a Dharma insight. You may or you may not get it, but it’s a good koan.

Here’s another one. Its a story of great Master Joshu who came to see equally great Master Linji. So Joshu comes into the monastery, and he finds that Linji is washing his feet! And Joshu, a bit clever, says, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?” which, after all, was a very common question. Linji says, “Oh, just now I happen to be washing my feet!” So Joshu came closer, expecting to hear more. Linji looks up and says, “So! Do I have to toss out another ladleful of dirty water!?”

Hmm. This is a koan that points out that actually the experience of Dharma is wordless. We’ve been talking about timelessness and spaciousness of the Dharma. When we see into Buddha nature, there are actually no words, because the seeing itself is beyond language. So we try, we struggle, to create words to talk about it, but actually there are no words. There’s timeless spaciousness.

Last one to leave you with something to take away. I give you this one because it’s about Shifu when I was with him in London. In telling the story I will refer to myself as Layman John. Shifu and Layman John were walking in Westminster Square, which you may know is in the heart of London. A great swirl of traffic was passing around it, the engines were roaring, the horns were hooting. Suddenly, in amongst the turning wheels, Layman John saw a pile of horse dung, neatly stacked exactly as it had fallen, and quite undisturbed by the traffic. It seemed incredible that a living horse could have passed that way in all that traffic and left so clear and neat a testimony to its passage! Layman John drew Shifu’s attention to the unlikely pile, saying, “Shifu! Look! Here’s a pile of horseshit! But, where’s the horse?” Shifu looked at it and said, “What need have we of the horse?”

by John Crook