In this podcast I’d like to say a little bit about the idea of the koan. We know the word koan from particularly Zen Buddhist practice in Japan, China and Korea.
The origin of the idea: back in olden times in China: a trainee might be given the task of studying the life of an ancient master. Each of the great masters of Buddhism - the people in the lineages of transmission - each one has had their particular spiritual problem or spiritual barrier that they had to overcome or break through. It is not the case in Buddhism, that a person becomes a more and more good person, a more and more wise person in a steady linear progression. This is not what happens. A person has a besetting problem and they eventually break through it in one way or other, not in the way that they quite expect. Generally speaking, we can say that the problem defeats them and this defeat actually becomes an opening door. It becomes a door that opens to humility, to an acceptance of faith, to an overcoming of the egotistical idea that one can do and achieve by one’s own power. So, the koan is the breaking of self-power.
But it happens in very different ways for different people, and a trainee might be given the task or studying the life of some former master, so that he or she comes to understand how it was that that master arrived at this breakthrough. Because that study might well help that trainee or that disciple with their own spiritual problem or spiritual obstacle.
Now, when the practice of Buddhism moved to Japan, this method was not quite so easy, because many of the people who were being trained, who were practising, were illiterate, so you couldn’t send them off to the library to study many books about this and that. So, it became the practice, that only the essence of the story, the punchline, if you like - the moment of realization - was presented, not the whole life story of the person in question. So, koans became brief, punchy, very much to the point; and it became the practice in some schools of Buddhism, such as Rinzai Zen, to give people a series of koans to study in this way; and when they broke through one they would move on to another.
Or, in Korea this developed in a different way. In Korea, people are given a single koan, usually for life, the same koan, so these Korean Hua Tou (or Hwadu) koans deal with more, you might say, existential questions.
More generally, we have come to use the term koan to refer simply to the spiritual problem in a person’s life; and it will be different for each person. There is an appreciation here of how the spiritual path is not one-size-fits-all and each person has their koan.
So, there are innumerable koans in one sense, though, in a certain way, all the koans come back to the problem of impermanence and the suffering, the dukkha, that comes with impermanence. By this, we are alive. By this, we are able to love. But by this we have all our problems. And this is the koan. It takes a different form with each person and therefore, the breakthrough of the problem is different for each person. The satori is different for each person.
So, this gives you some idea of the meaning of koan.
Namo Amida Bu
Thank you very much