Koans and Practice


You know, I have no real understanding of koans. I’m sure some wit will respond here that neither does anyone else but what I mean is that I just don’t really get, in any intuitive sense, how they work. I’ve read descriptions of how they are given to people but I’ve actively avoided the various books of koans out there (such as this). That is because I expect, sooner or later, that I will engage in koan study. I’ve been told before that it actually makes things more difficult if one is given a traditional koan that one has read up on, including commentaries. It is better to not have all of that information rattling around in ones head.

I’ve only been given a koan to practice on one occasion and it was at a retreat. I cannot really comment if I did well at attempting it or not so well (which is beside the point, really) but I did find it a bit weird and frustrating. I’m a pretty cerebral kind of guy and koan study seems to be the kind of thing likely to send such people for a real loop. But, after all, I know diddly about koans so I could easily just be showing my ignorance here! My primary teacher, on the other hand, loves koans and he’s probably as cerebral as I am based on our shared conversations and experiences.

Perhaps I should rectify my understanding (or lack thereof) of koans. I expect that I’ll wind up working through them, probably for years, so I doubt I’ll really need to explicitly seek out a koan focusing teacher. In fact, it may just arrive unasked at a retreat, as it did last time. (No, to my teacher who reads this, I’m not necessarily making a request.)

This gets me thinking about my own practice and where it is going over time. I’m a young Buddhist in the sense that I only took refuge in 2002. My background has primarily been in esoteric Buddhism, especially through the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Tibet. This has shifted more and more away from this over time. The draw of ritual was much clearer when I was transitioning out of many years of being a Neopagan practitioner and a Hermetic magician. Switching over to ritualistic or esoteric forms of Buddhism just made sense to me and seemed fairly easy (which, in truth, it is not). I wonder if that was just the glamor of doing neat and strange rituals rather than the Buddhism, itself.

In a number of ways, my practice is much more on the Zen end of things these days and less on the esoteric Buddhist side. Part of that is the lack of opportunity to practice more on the esoteric side and part because just sitting has more and more appeal over time for me. I fully hope to study Tendai and, perhaps, Shingon in an official setting at some point (though probably in Japan during my doctoral work in stages) but there is almost no opportunity to do so at this point. Those doors are not open to me in spite of my attempts to open them. My academic work is focused on these and I find them interesting on both a personal level as a practitioner but also as a scholar. That doesn’t make them accessible to me in a practical sense given the lack of trained and teaching priests of Japanese esoteric Buddhists sects in America. While those doors have been fairly closed (even though I am lucky to have any exposure ot them at all), various Zen connections and opportunities have become more and more available. I am a believer in perseverance in the face of difficulty but also in not having to have a tree fall on one in order to notice that it is there. It’s a mighty strange trip in the end but I’m following the current and we’ll see where it all winds up.