HOW TO WORK WITH A KOAN
There is no right way to work with a koan. You’ll find your own way with it. The koan will help you do that. Hearing a bit about what others do is also helpful. So here’s a bit about what I do and what others have told me they do.
The first thing about working with a koan is to have a meditation practice.
By a meditation practice I mean you take some time most days to sit down, notice your breath, feel your body, listen to what’s around you and then just be there where you are. How long is up to you. How informal or formal is up to you. Maybe you get special cushions; maybe you just have an informal tea break. The main thing is having those moments of your life that you are calling your meditation. Without meditation, you have the surface only. Words but not the meaning. In meditation you give attention to your experience, yourself, your world.
The second thing is to be curious.
Where does this koan show up in your life? Maybe the koan says, 'Stop the sound of the distant temple bell.' What is that in your life?
A koan will often surprise you in some way. If you ‘get’ it and stop there, or are not much touched by it, there’s more there for you than you’ve noticed. Has your heart been opened a bit? Stay curious.
Let the koan come to you.
You don’t need to go after it and wrestle with it. (But you can do that if you want, and you might do it whether you want to or not.) Let it have you. It will find you. It might not come to you in words. It might come more like a hand on your shoulder or a gust of wind.
Notice your reaction to the koan.
When you first meet it, what happens? Whatever your reaction, it isn’t wrong and you don’t have to do anything to adjust it. It’s already the koan working with you. Maybe it feels flat, boring. You might not like it. It might move you in some way. Is your first thought telling you you’re too stupid to understand? Do you feel frozen? Determined to solve this thing? Is your mind immediately analyzing the koan? Just notice. You’ll be noticing something about yourself, something interesting.
Notice what you’re noticing. What’s showing up?
Go for a walk. What are you noticing? Where does your mind go? Wash the dishes. What’s your body feeling right then? Even if you’ve forgotten all about the koan on your walk or while washing the dishes, what tugs at your attention might be the koan showing you something.
Especially notice any images or memories floating up into your awareness. Notice how your body feels, physically and emotionally. And notice your dreams. Koans love to show up in dreams.
Letting the koan come to you and noticing what you are noticing is meditation.
Meditation is a combination of attention and curiosity that includes everything, even distraction and boredom. Distraction can be noticed and that allows curiosity about it. Curiosity about boredom is possible and invites us to wonder about it. When there is attention, there is some space and openness. When there is curiosity, we look more closely, more widely, and more wildly, freely. What’s that bird over there? If I don’t just give it a name and stop there, I look at its colors and shape and beak. I see the forest it’s flying in. I hear it’s call. It might move me. I might be surprised.
And then there’s this: a koan often activates a place inside you where you’re suffering.
That is, it hooks you into a place where you’re stuck, closed off, frustrated, turned away from life—though you might not have noticed. It’s not that the koan is making you stuck. It's showing you where you’re already stuck, where you’re suffering. To see that you’re stuck—stuck to a point of view, habitual ways, a fixed image of who you are, a defense department you carry around with you, etc.—is uncomfortable. Why? Because you’re seeing the ways you don’t let yourself have your life, including how you’re not finding it easy to be kind to others. You’re seeing how you make yourself small, and thus how you’re not letting yourself be the whole unique individual you are nor the vastness you are: you’re pretending you’re not Buddha.
-- D Allen
“I DON'T GET IT”
Most of us tell ourselves we live on this side of understanding what this life is really all about, not able to see what’s hidden on the other side. What this life is for, what I am, what this world is…we believe, and feel in our tensed bodies, that the understanding of these things lies over there, on the other side of where we are. If we practice meditation, we may be waiting for insight or enlightenment to bring us the understanding we lack. And we want that understanding because we believe our fulfillment as human beings depends on it.
With koans, I often feel I’m confronted with something that I don’t get, and my desire and intention is to get it. Not surprisingly, many koans are about not getting it. Here’s one example, part of a koan called Sweet Olive Blossoms:
A poet and her Zen teacher friend were enjoying tea when it occurred to her to ask him, “What is Zen, anyway?”
“Do you know that old saying,’Do you think I’m hiding something from you? I’m hiding nothing from you.’ Zen is like that.”
“I don’t get it,” replied the poet. And they left it there.
We may think that understanding of the most fundamental and important kind is hidden from us. Just like we might feel that our own true life is hidden from us. Here in this koan, the Zen teacher is saying nothing is hidden from us even though we think it is. What we don’t get is that nothing is hidden. What we’re trying to get is right here in front of us.
The koan continues:
The next day the poet and her teacher friend were out walking in the countryside.The air was filled with the fragrance of sweet olive blossoms. “Do you smell the fragrance of the sweet olive blossoms?” her friend asked her.
“I do, yes, I do!” replied the poet.
“You see, I’m hiding nothing from you.”
Her heart and mind opened; she wept and was filled with joy.
The koan goes on from here to where again the poet finds herself ‘not getting it.’ In this later situation, what she doesn’t get is what death is and what happens after we die.
Do you get it?
Here’s another ‘not getting it’ koan:
A Zen teacher, after giving some teachings, said to his students, most of whom were serious meditators:
“If you get it the first time you hear it, you can be a teacher of buddhas and bodhisattvas. If you get it the second time you hear it, you can be a teacher of gods and men. If you don’t get it until the third time you hear it, you won’t even be able to save yourself.”
A student asked, “Tell me teacher, when did you get it?”
“It's after midnight and the moon has set. I walk alone through the town,” was the teacher’s reply.
When did you get it?
I’ve spent most of my life not getting it. After decades of meditation, retreats, interviews with amazing teachers, scores of inspiring books and teachings, I still didn’t get it. And I mean not only that I don’t have answers to the Big Questions, but also that I still sometimes explode in anger, don’t listen well to others, feel anxious, and am often distracted from being-here-now. When I finally let myself acknowledge how mediocre I am, even that I’m a spiritual failure, I felt quite a sense of relief. It didn’t feel like giving up on ‘getting it’ as much as feeling that maybe ’getting it’ wasn’t the sort of thing I thought it was.
On a morning walk about this time, I found myself saying to everything I was seeing, “I don’t get it.” In looking at a bush along the path: “I don’t get it.” In looking at a fallen leaf: “I don’t get it.” Watching my dogs romp through the trees: “I don’t get it.” Holding my coffee mug and tasting the coffee: “I don’t get it.” Seeing my reflection in the morning mirror: “I don’t get it.”
Sometimes these things spoke back to me. The bush said, “I don’t get it either.” So did my coffee mug. My dogs didn’t stop long enough to say it, but I could tell they didn’t get it either and couldn’t care less that they didn’t. Or maybe they got it so well they just were it.
I noticed this: As my ‘not getting it’ sunk in deeper and spread though my body, the leaf and cloud and path and dogs revealed themselves more vividly, more alive, more beautiful. And each thing and being, no whatever what or which or who, was simply and naturally of equal value, equally precious, here. That included myself. Me the failure is no less precious than the most inspiring guru or Zen teacher or flower. Now it's hard for me to distinguish what’s ordinary from what’s extraordinary. The homeless woman, whose dog lunges at me as I hand a few dollars through the car window, is not worth one bit less than Buddha or God, even if she sometimes pretends she’s not Buddha.
Zen teacher Steve Hagen said in a talk that nothing we ‘get’ captures what is most fundamentally true (what he calls Reality with a capital ‘R’.)
What are we trying to get, and what do we get if we get something? Are we looking for something we can put in a box--perhaps a set of words--to carry around with us as our security, a salvation of sorts? To be our wisdom? What else could ‘getting it’ be?
What I’ve noticed, both in my earlier role as a philosophy teacher and through years as a meditator, sometimes getting one new thing after another, is that conceptual understandings, however valuable they might be, don’t by themselves bring intimacy with reality, with my life. Which is to say, those ‘gets’ don’t bring intimacy with the leaf, the cloud, the dog, my friends, a dying neighbor. Nor with the vast and boundless whatever-this-is that I don’t get. But which is palpable, clear, undeniable.
David Weinstein, a Zen teacher friend, was once asked at the end of a talk he gave about ‘not getting it’ whether he gets it. His reply was, “No, I don’t get it. And I hope I never do.”
-- D Allen
THE STONE WOMAN GIVES BIRTH in the MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
At one point in my life I was obsessed with India. I felt a great attraction for that country, its culture and its spirituality, and I tried to travel there every year. I went alone, as a backpacker, and as happens to many people who visit India in that way in almost every trip I got sick.
One winter, while staying in Pushkar, a small town that surrounds a sacred lake in the desert state of Rajasthan, I got bronchitis and had to stay alone for 10 days, in a very simple little room in a hostel on the lake. I only went out to eat and to the balcony to watch the pilgrims doing their mornings rituals and taking a bath in the sacred waters while thousands of doves circled the lake. It was a hard time, especially because of the fear of being alone and not knowing what would happen to me in that place so far from my comfortable and known life. When I was not desperate, I wrote and tried to meditate. A few months ago when I came across the koan of the stone woman, I remembered that experience in Pushkar and the goddess Savitri came again to give me strength and reminded me of what I am.
I had to take antibiotics and as soon as I was stronger I felt the urge to visit the famous temple of the goddess Savitri built on a steep hill from which the entire desert landscape of Rajasthan is overlooked. In Hindu mythology Savitri is the consort of Brahma; all the indian deities have their partner because they represent the masculine and feminine aspect of each divinity.
The legend says that one day Brahma, the god of all gods, wanted to do a spiritual practice at Pushkar Lake, but since his wife Savitri had gone for a walk he asked the goddess Gayatri to accompany him. When Savitri returned and saw Brahma with another goddess she was enraged and cursed him, saying that from that moment no one would ever build him a temple. (It is said that this is the reason why there are no temples dedicated to Brahma in India). Like any woman who feels cheated, Savitri was very angry and announced that she was going to meditate at the top of the mountain to calm herself. She stayed there and in that place they built her temple.
One must climb 200 steps to the top and I was panting when I got to the temple. At the entrance was a brahmin, one of the priests who take care of the place. Usually they ask the visitors for a money offering for some kind of ritual, but this one kindly opened the door and left me alone. I was with the goddess inside a poorly illuminated room with the dirty walls painted in bright green.
It was the first day after my illness and I was very sensitive and weak as I stayed for a while in front of the altar of Savitri. By her side there were two other smaller goddesses. The great Hindu goddess Savitri was only about two feet tall and looked more like a coarse doll dressed in brightly colored nylon fabrics. Her face was white and round, like a tortilla. She had elongated eyes made of silver with black obsidian pupils, making her gaze was expressionless, fixed and penetrating.
She was surrounded by a set of Chinese lights of different colors, red, yellow, blue, like those used for holiday decorations. They turned on and off and made intermittent circles. The whole scenario was quite weird. It looked more like a stand at the fair than an altar in a temple. I was shocked to see the goddess looking so ridiculous, terrifying and so vulgar with her corny gown with gold trim, her dried flower necklaces and her multicolored nylon veils. It did not fit at all my concept of a “goddess,” and while my mind tried to make sense of what I was seeing Savitri remained impassive, mysterious, ordinary, ruthless and sacred. She was a stone woman. I felt strange, restless, not knowing what to do, and without thinking I just clasped my hands to my chest in a namaste gesture. I bowed before her and said, “thanks for helping me out of my illness.”
Looking at her black obsidian pupils I suddenly felt that she was speaking to me, the stone woman giving birth in the middle of the green room…
She said to me:
"The Chinese lights that seem to you so out of place and so ridiculous are precisely where they have to be and everything here fits perfectly, because I, the goddess, I am also the ridiculous and vulgarity of life. I represent death, love, suffering, I perfectly represent this world and I am also you and I am your disease and your fear and I am your dreams and your longing to find out what this life is about. I am what is, without pretending otherwise, without hiding or denying anything, I am the green dirty walls of this room, the ragged beggars you see in the streets of Pushkar, the dark faces of desert women, and I am the immense desert plains of Rajasthan with their camel caravans!"
And suddenly, standing there in front of Savitri, my world was no longer divided into the sacred and the non-sacred, into what has worth and what does not have worth, into good and bad, vulgar and polite, beautiful and ugly. Everything became immensely vast and perfect and the lemon green color that surrounded me was the most beautiful color I had ever seen. It was like giving birth after a 10-day pregnancy in the dark. Suddenly I felt a jolt, an explosion of energy, an emotional overflow, a kind of inexplicable joy. Then someone else was coming to see the goddess, so I left the room and spent the rest of the morning sitting outside the temple contemplating a newborn world.
I write all this 10 years after this event, at Christmas time at the end of a long year of pandemic, and on these cold nights the Chinese lights illuminate many houses here in the area where I live in the city of Oaxaca. It has been a long year of illness, pain and confusion, many people have died, the world is no longer the same, and my life as I knew it has changed and I no longer know where I am going.
Last night I sat to meditate on the patio and in the distance in a house in front of mine I saw some little lights blinking, blue, yellow, white. While I watched them as if hypnotized I remembered the nights where I felt so vulnerable and alone in that small Pushkar hostel and suddenly the image of Savitri came to me, reappeared with her round face and her big silver eyes with black pupils like deep wells.
The stone woman reappeared from the fears and judgments of my mind and helped me give birth in the middle of the night. I am Savitri, the consort of Brahma, and I am Brahma, I am the goddess on top of the mountain, and the dog sleeping by my side, I am the stone woman who gives birth in the middle of this dark night, of confusion, pandemic and uncertainty and my deep and infinite eyes illuminate the blackness of this eternal, unique and wild moment.