The Buddha, The Dharma, The Sangha

"Spiritual powers and their wondrous functioning--hauling water and carrying firewood." --Layman Pang, upon his realization

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Texting & Koan Practice

My dharma brother texted me the other night, and this was what he had to say:

Hey, how are you? This is what I'm working on--An ox passes through the window. His head, horns, and four legs all go through. But why can't the tail pass too?

Oh, yeah, koans. The stuff of legendary paradox, upheaval and enlightenment! I've always been slightly afraid of koans...I'm the one person in the room who has to really think about the punch line of a joke before "getting it", and laughing, and sometimes "getting it" doesn't really happen but I laugh anyway, mostly at myself.
But a koan isn't a joke, or is it?
The point is, when presented with something I'm supposed to "get", the "getting" doesn't always happen, because I think too much about that "getting".
I've always thought I would completely clam up with a koan on the table before me, and simply whimper logical suggestions. This would be a very wimpy koan practice.

But it turns out that koan via text, sent by my dear brother who never judges me and is not staring me down in dokusan, is pain-free and fun! We played with the language, I called him a baby, he said he was an ox who couldn't get his tail through and I said, "when you drop self consciousness you have no tail...."

"That's it!" he texted. "You got it!"

We spent several more minutes joking, inventing new koans, playing. I was feeling feisty! And he had time to spend, which is rare.

Wu-tsu Fa-yen's Ox Through The Window is a famous koan, considered to be one of the most difficult in koan practice. Around 1304, it was assigned by Zen Master Nanpo to his student Daito, who, newly ordained, was also quick-witted and flexible. Daito had several comments about the koan, the first being, "Crooked mind is apparent", and as he got closer to "solving" the koan, Nanpo, urged him ever deeper.

"To listen to the empty words of the fortune-teller", was Daito's second response.

Like a children's game, Daito's master simply said, "You're getting closer."
No one really knows how long Daito worked on his koan, or how much time he had with Master Nanpo to work with it.
Everything Nanpo and Daito did was face to face, which was of course, a big part of the practice. If your enlightened master is staring you down in a cold temple, waiting for evidence of your clear mind, then damn, you better be able to demonstrate it! If not, you're sent away to slog on, sometimes whacked with a big stick, almost always humiliated, and probably freshly befuddled and twisted.

Is it still a koan practice if it's done through texts?
Is THAT a koan?
Standing in my kitchen late after dinner and sparring with my dharma brother over my iPhone key pad? Does that count as "practice"?
Could I have delved deeper if I had been sent away to continue unraveling my own tangled mess? Or could it be that simple, after all?
No one muttering,"You nearly saw it but went right past"?

Zen is of course exactly that simple, and exactly that unencumbered, though as my mind tangles, so it goes further from shunyata! This I think, is unbearably true....

My dharma brother sent me another koan to work on, but that is still percolating. Maybe the point is that percolating is the death nell...we'll see.
And as for "solving" these things, I don't think that's the way to describe what happens here. I think you just get a little closer to being who you are.

Thanks C!

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