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This is the stone,
drenched with rain,
that points the way.
For a wonderful introduction to koan practice in the Open Source tradition, we recommend Joan Sutherland’s book “Through Forests of Every Color: Awakening with Koans.”
What are Koans?
Koans developed in 9th century China as a language of and path toward awakening. Koans often take the form of a dialog, or lines of poetry, and they point directly to the reality that is always present in each thing. They use the language of the liminal, intermediate zones of experience to help us enter the window into the great dream of our lives.
When Buddhism came to China in the 6th century, it came into intimate contact with the indigenous religion, Taoism. The result of this mutual influence was Chan (Zen), a school of Buddhism that emphasized lived experience over doctrine, and the primacy of teaching as a dynamic relationship and vehicle of awakening. In Chan, enlightenment is situated in relationship, and depictions of these encounters are passed down to us in the koans. The Chan tradition puts emphasis on meaningful improvisation between people as the vehicle of insight. In these encounters, illusions are cut through and barriers drop away. The koans can jump start our consciousness in just such a way, and especially so when they are taken up with others.
Many koans are profoundly relational. They take the form of a dialog, perhaps between master and student, perhaps between fellow followers of the way. They are moments when someone brings her most important question, the place of her suffering, to another person for help. In this way, when we listen to the teacher’s response, we are hearing a very deep interpretation. These koans often depict the moment when one person has a profound influence on another, when awakening happens in the context of this relationship.
Koans are records of moments when someone fell through a gap, a time when everything opened up. They also show us how we might undertake the same journey, in our own way. In this way they illuminate moments of awakening, and also point the way toward cultivating such moments of our own. Our koan way embraces the bodhisattva path, a way of living our awakening once we find it and bringing this practice out into the world.
There are lots of ideas that people have about koans, that they are nonsensical or primarily paradoxical or riddles to solve. But my experience of koans is stranger than that. Koans actually take up a sort of shamanic depiction of the unconscious. We take this strange thing into our meditation, into our psyche. We see what we do with it, and what it does with us. To really work with a koan, you respond to it with your body, emotions, relationships, and also with your unconscious process. Through koan work we develop a sort of grammar of the unconscious, in its largest sense. We find a bridge into a world that at first can feel a little tippy, a little precarious. Koans describe the unconscious from the inside, and so they too feel timeless, strange, tilted. Sometimes it is a world of wonderous beauty, or of collapses of categories like me/you or inside/outside. They ask us to resonate our state, of body, mind, and feeling, with that of the koan, which is a depiction of a deep structure of the psyche.