The Zen practice of koan study
A monk asked Yun Men, 'What are the teachings of a whole lifetime?'
Yun Men replied, 'An appropriate response.'
-Blue Cliff Record, case 14.
The essence of Zen is questioning
One of the most well-known practices of Zen is its use of koans - typically presented as illogical riddles designed to frustrate the thinking mind. That's one way to look at them, but it's perhaps more helpful to think of a koan as a kind of question - an inquiry which, if pursued deeply enough, can lead us to profound breakthroughs and realisations which change the way we see the world. Each koan represents a pivotal encounter, and we are invited to use it in order to reach a pivotal experience of our own.
All modern Japanese Rinzai Zen lineages (as far as I know!) descend from the 18th century Zen master Hakuin, who revitalised a tradition which had been in decline for some time. One of Hakuin's principal achievements was to take the vast body of koan literature and organise it into a curriculum, with koans grouped into various categories according to their purpose and the stage of training for which they're most appropriate. This is a powerful approach - my own Zen teacher has said that the Japanese Rinzai Zen curriculum is a remarkably complete approach to contemplative practice, one which leaves no stone unturned and ultimately provides a thorough education not just in coming to one's own realisation but also in being able to communicate it to others.
Korean and Chinese Zen take a different approach, in which typically a student will work with a single koan for life. Perhaps this seems limited compared to the comprehensive syllabus of the Japanese approach. But it works, and the fact that it works tells us something important about koan practice. It can be tempting to see each koan as a kind of puzzle which, once solved, has nothing more to tell us - so we move on to the next, and the next, and at some point we finish the syllabus and we're done.
Really, though, the essence of the koan - and, I would suggest, of contemplative practice in general - is not so much the answers that come to us, but the questioning itself. Engaging with a koan requires us to put down our preconceived ideas - what we 'know' about Zen practice, what we 'expect' to find, what 'makes sense' and what is 'nonsense'. Koan practice requires us to let go of our certainty, and enter what is traditionally called the Great Doubt.
Great doubt, great awakening; no doubt, no awakening
The idea of 'Great Doubt' can sometimes be puzzling or even unappealing, and it can be a little confusing for people who have been exposed to the early Buddhist list of Five Hindrances - five obstacles to contemplative practice, the fifth of which is often simply given as 'doubt'. In early Buddhism, this doubt is seen as something to be overcome, rather than something to be actively cultivated.
But the doubt of the Hindrances is what's called 'sceptical doubt' - a lack of confidence in oneself, in the teacher or in the teaching, an insidious doubt that undermines our willingness to commit to the practice. This is not the kind of doubt that Zen is talking about - and, in fact, Zen also talks about 'Great Faith' as an antidote to this kind of lack of confidence.
Rather, Zen's Great Doubt is about having the willingness to make a leap of faith - to step beyond the confines of our familiar ways of looking at the world, our need for certainty. The idea of letting go of fixed views and thereby finding freedom goes back to the very earliest teachings of the historical Buddha; that theme was picked up and further elaborated by the 2nd/3rd century CE Mahayana teacher Nagarjuna, and it continued to flourish as the Zen tradition came into existence in the 5th century. Modern-day teacher Stephen Batchelor describes the purpose of koan practice as 'burning away the habit of finding answers', and instead resting in the feeling of uncertainty - bafflement, astonishment, even awe.
Dead words and live words
When we first take up a koan, we can't help but approach it on a conceptual level. We might work with a whole koan, trying to understand the entire story, or we might be invited to focus just on the pithy essence of the story - a short phrase or question which we are invited to investigate. Either way, though, the koan is presented to us in the form of words - words which represent shared concepts that we can use for communication. As such, the exploration of a koan typically starts on the conceptual level - we think about the question, we come up with ideas, we mull it over and try to get to the bottom of it in the way that we normally do when faced with any question or puzzle in life.
After some time, though, this approach runs out of steam - the question seems to lose all meaning. The words become nonsensical; we feel that we've explored every possible avenue, looked at the problem from every angle, and nothing makes sense any more. In the Zen tradition, this is called the stage where the question becomes 'colourless'. Now, further progress seems impossible, because there's nothing left to investigate - and yet we're asked to find a way to keep moving forward anyway.
In the Korean Zen tradition, they talk about 'dead words' and 'live words' as different stages of working with a koan. You might think that the words of the koan are 'live' at the beginning, then become 'dead' when they reach this latter stage of 'colourlessness' - but actually it's the other way around. In the beginning, the words are dead, because we're still approaching the question on the level of concepts - the same old concepts we had before we took up the koan. Nothing new has happened yet; we're just juggling our concepts around, trying to find an arrangement that makes sense of the puzzle.
Concepts are basically abstractions - a way of taking the full complexity of a living, breathing animal and boiling it down to the three-letter word 'dog'. Concepts are really useful because they reduce the amount of detail that we have to navigate in the world, and they're reusable, so we can apply this one word 'dog' to all sorts of dogs, not just a particular Golden Retriever called Snuffles. But the more abstract the concept becomes, the more specificity and richness is lost from the actual experience - the dynamic, vibrant, ever-changing reality is frozen in place, tagged with a label, and then forgotten.
So it's only when our concepts cease to be of value - when our question becomes colourless, when all the meaning drains out of it - that we move beyond the dry, sterile framework of 'dead words'. What lies beyond that is, by definition, impossible to articulate conceptually - the very attempt to do so immediately loses the essence of the experience. Nevertheless, it can be experienced - and this is the realm of 'live words', the realm of Great Doubt.
Facing the great questions of our lives
So which question should we take up? Well, traditionally in Rinzai Zen the teacher will assign a koan for you to work with, drawn from one of the many koan collections that have come together through the centuries.
Another approach is simply to see what our personal questions are - what is it that we want to know? The great Rinzai Zen master Bankei was actually quite critical of formal koan study, which he regarded as an attempt to 'fake' a doubt that wasn't really there - but his own life of practice was driven by a quest to understand a line from a Confucian classic: 'The way of great learning lies in clarifying bright virtue.' It could be said that all of his years of travel and study were his way of exploring this question. Similarly, we could see the historical Buddha's entire teaching as coming out of his investigation of the question of suffering - why we suffer, and what could be done about it. Stephen Batchelor has pointed out that there's a great tendency to focus on the answers to these questions - the specific practices and methods developed by the great masters, the language those teachers used to express their own personal revelations to others - but actually what is perhaps more useful for each of us is to go through our own personal process of questioning.
We can even see the approach of koan study as a way of life - one which is based in continual engagement, never-ending exploration and questioning, not content to settle on dogmatic answers or stale, rigid ways of being in the world, not blindly accepting someone else's 'truth' just because it seems to work for them, but instead continuing, moment by moment, to inquire into this moment, to see what - in the words of Yun Men, constitutes an 'appropriate response' to the situation at hand.
What is your appropriate response, right now?
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!