Archive for September, 2014

2014/09/28

not-yes, not-no: Answers to Common Koans

Koans are puzzles or problems that are presented to students in some branches of Zen, to loosen the mind of concepts and attachments, and hasten enlightenment. Students can spend months or years on a single koan, before the teacher (called sensei, or for teachers who are more senior or are politically connected, roshi) judges the student to have “passed” at a dokusan (face-to-face meeting), and to be ready for the next koan.

But for the busy student who cannot afford to spend months or years on some weird riddle, we present answers to a few of the more common koans here as a service.

(Holding out the shippei, the teaching stick.) “What is this? If you say that it is a shippei, you negate its essence; but if you do not, you deny the fact. Now, what is it?”

This is an elementary koan, intended to determine whether the student can move even a step beyond words. The proper response is to reach out and grasp the shippei yourself, and give it a firm shake. The teacher may yank the stick away when you reach for it, but persist! Higher marks will be given the more doggedly you pursue the teacher and the stick around the room, and even out into the zendo if necessary. If running is necessary, be sure to hold your robes high to get maximum speed.

A monk asked Master Joshu, “Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?” Joshu answered, “Mu!” Now show me this Mu!

This koan tests the ability to go beyond words in a way that spontaneously reflects the student’s inner nature. Accordingly, you should spontaneously do whichever of these best reflects your inner nature:

  • Say “No monk, no Joshu, no dog, no Mu” (avoid smugness),
  • Sit silently until the teacher relents and admits you have passed the koan,
  • Scream “Mu!” in a loud harsh voice, while doing that thing with your arms and shoulders that monsters always do in anime,
  • Strike the teacher in the face (always satisfying, and applicable to nearly any koan, but do not use it more than once),
  • Flash your boobs (most commonly used by female students, but if you are a male student and it reflects your inner nature, spontaneously go for it).

“Why did Bodhidharma come from India to China?”

The proper answer to this koan depends upon the season.

  • Spring: “The sun shines, and buds appear.”
  • Summer: “Water flows cool in the night.”
  • Autumn: “The wind blows, and leaves rustle.”
  • Winter: “Damn, it’s cold in the zendo; I’m freezing my ass off!” (note that if it is winter and you are not freezing your ass off in the zendo, it is not a real zendo, but some Disneyfied version, and you will pass the koans regardless of your answers, because they want good reviews on Yelp).

“Find your original face, before your parents were born.”

This is a very difficult koan; accordingly you should fail to pass it for at least a month (or at any rate at least a week), or Roshi will be suspicious. After several dokusans at which you admit you have not yet found your original face, you should either burst into spontaneous open-hearted laughter (best with the “jolly” or “nurturing” teacher), or suddenly strike the teacher in the face (or, if you have used that answer previously, strike yourself in the face).

Some teachers will pretend that the student has not passed the koan even when the correct answer has been given once; in this case give the same answer again at the next dokusan, and the teacher will pass you this time, thus appearing especially enigmatic.

Wuzu Fayan said, “It is like an Ox that passes through a latticed window. Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. So, why can’t its tail also pass through?”

There is no correct answer to this koan; it has been assigned to you because your teacher hates you.

Next week: “Spirit in the Stillness: Tips on flirting during Sesshin”.

This is of course satire, poking fun at the idea that koans have straightforward answers; it is not intended to poke fun at Buddhist teachers or students or anything. Not that there’d be anything wrong with that. In a nice way. But anyway, the reader is advised not to try using any of these on actual Zen teachers; results are unlikely to be pleasant.

I’ve never done koan practice of any kind, and have a hard time imagining what it’s actually like. Presumably rather than looking for any particular answer, the teacher looks for something in the face-to-face interaction that shows that the student has achieved some particular level of insight from working on the problem. But I dunno! The silly paragraphs above just popped into my head while doing normal ol’ zazen last weekend; they sounded funnier while revolving in my head when I should have been just letting them go, but here they are anyway.

:)

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2014/09/21

A thing I did!

So I have been offline since last Thursday sometime (I know, unthinkable, right?) and didn’t know whether Scotland was independent or the Stock Market had crashed or zombies taken over New York City or anything until I walked in the door coming back home not too long ago and M told me (well, she didn’t mention the zombie thing, but I assume she would have, right?).

Mt. Tremper that way

The reason that I was offline is that I was up in the wilds of North-of-Here New York State, at Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, where a mere eight years ago I did their Introduction to Zen Training Weekend (not the particular one linked to there).

I’ve been sort of vaguely considering doing a weekend-of-sesshin up there ever since, but never quite dared (sesshin sounds scary!). Then this year I noticed this new Basic Space Meditation Intensive, which is a sort of natural variation on sesshin weekend, and is new, so everyone would be doing it for the first time, and it has a nice name (“Basic Space”, although I keep writing “Open Sky” instead; same thing really), and it’s right before my birthday so obviously I signed up.

Zen Mountain Monastery, meditation hall

There is the Meditation Hall, behind some trees, taken actually from the parking lot as I was on the way out (the cellphone had to stay in the car the entire time of the retreat, natch). That is where I spent most of the time, up in the dorm room (the same one as eight years ago, in fact, and in basically the same part of the room, although they’ve rearranged the beds), and down in the zendo and the lounge and the dining hall and kitchen, and also in the nice circular-stairs area where you can see some people sitting on the right side of the picture under the trees.

I ate most of my meals out there on the circular stairs, because the weather was delicious the entire time, and it was good to be outside.

Not including, of course, the meals eaten in the zendo: that’s right, I have now done oroyoki: the famous formal Zen meal with the little bowls and the special knots in the cloth and the chanting and the putting of the spoon in the right place at the right time and the bowing to servers and all!

It was great. :) Everything was great, actually, including my early-on “dark night of the soul” moment when I was tense and miserable and my legs were in terrible pain and I was sweating and sure I was going to fail utterly.

I want to write about it all before it all escapes me, but I’m also (despite a couple-hour nap after getting home) really really sleepy, so I think I will just do this one overview post with the pictures in it, and maybe leave myself an unordered list of other things I might want to write about later in more detail, like say:

  • oroyoki,
  • Silly things I thought of,
  • Ceremonies and chants and stuff,
  • How I always end up washing bathrooms,
  • Also weeding,
  • Dokusan with Ryushin Sensei,
  • Footprints of the Ox,
  • Walking very slowly for an hour,
  • How marvelous everyone was,
  • Falling thump on one’s bottom in the zendo,
  • Buddhism and the Map and the Territory,
  • Moss the Cat

So I might include some of those in some more other postings later.

Meanwhile, here is the sign leaving, for the drive back!

Exit

(Not the best-quality picture ever, I fear; try to ignore the weird fingers lower right. The big sign says “Zen Mountain Monastery / Doshinji”; I keep meaning to look up that Doshinji, maybe I will do that…)

2014/09/15

We were sad today

Today we were coming out of work, riding in and driving taxis, going in and out of the coffee shop, up and down the stairs, at the corner of 8th Avenue and 15th Street. And we had stopped pushing the shopping cart into the intersection, a little bit onto the street, and we were down on our knees, crying, our tears on the pavement, crying out in a language that might have been Spanish, or Portuguese, or even French or Vietnamese.

We stopped to ask if we could help, a small young woman with a skateboard, a large hobbit-like man with a backpack, a dark-skinned white-haired man in shorts. But we were too sad, a thin brown-skinned man, not young or old, with white earbuds in our ears and everything we owned in the shopping cart (in a few plastic grocery bags and a broken suitcase), and we just cried out more, and beat our fists on the sidewalk.

We flagged down a police car, and we pulled over to the curb and got out, and came over and said “get up, get up!”. And we finally looked up from the ground, and saw us standing there with our uniform and our nightstick and gun, and we stood up unsteadily. “Get up,” we said again, and then we said something that might have been “Go home” in very bad Spanish. And we rolled our eyes and looked angry, tears on our cheeks, and we beat our hands on the crossbar of our shopping cart, and pushed it across the intersection and with a furious energy off down the avenue.

And we looked at each other and said “hard day” and shook our heads, we went back to our police car, we walked on down the street, hitching our backpacks up on our backs, carrying our skateboard down into the subway, poking in the patches of earth around the trees for spare change or deposit cans, feeling the air. And we made our way home.

And we hope that whatever was wrong, we can be less sad soon.