The Buddha, The Dharma, The Sangha

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

Friday, June 17, 2011

Koan Study-Rounds 1 & 2

Koan study, the hallmark of the Rinzai Zen tradition, is not something I've had a burning desire to practice, yet it is something I need to practice.
Sensei gave me a koan to work on just before Hanamatsuri, and it's been at various times, a swarm of mosquitos whining in my ear at 2 a.m., a butterfly as big as a truck leading me deeper into the garden, a 20 gallon bucket of honey without a lid, or a small, heavy iron box with no way in, cuffed to my leg with chains that I have to lug around with me through out the day.
My descriptions of course don't do koan study justice, it's all of this and more.
And none of this.
That's the practice for you.

When I got the koan, the zendo was a-buzz with final preparations for Hanamatsuri--lots of samu, the sound of the vac on the rugs upstairs, someone hammering, someone washing dishes in the kitchen around the corner, the lawn mower powering through tall grass in the back yard.
It was like getting a koan in a construction zone, and I thought it was really funny.

Sensei explained that if I answered the koan properly, he would bow, I would light incense to Kannon. If I needed more time to work on it, he would ring the bell and I would exit....what he didn't say was that needing more time would be the real koan, not the answer itself...well maybe he did say that, but was I paying attention?

Because what happened next was classic to my conditioned self: Sensei rings the bell, smiles, dokusan is over.
A part of me rises, bows, goes out to see where I can help with Samu.
Another part of me is agog; Are you ringing the bell?!? What do you mean that's not the proper answer? Hu? I thought it was a great answer! I always get things on the first try, wait, wait, I've got another answer and THIS one is what I really meant to do/say! Don't ring the bell like that, I know what I'm doing.....

Yeah, now there's the koan, just watching all the swampy stuff come to the surface.
An ancient monster rises out of the swamp of the unconscious, trailing foul smelling muck, weeds and slime, awakened by something that should have remained locked away for good.
Haven't I been spent a life time trying to keep all this scary crap under lock and key?
Look out world, the monster is unleashed!

The monster lumbers through her days.
She showers, washes her hair and shaves her legs, carefully puts on a nice outfit, earrings, a splash of tea tree spritz.
The monster recites the Vow of the Kesa, recites the Vow of the Bodhisattva, lights incense and reads the Heart Sutra. The monster gets on the raft and travels across the river, but unconsciously caries the raft with her, in case she needs it again. It is heavy and cumbersome and useless.

And slowly things begin to fall away.
Slowly the monster sheds the slime.
It may happen in a moment of clarity, it may happen through a lifetime of practice. It proceeds in fits and starts.
And the monster never fully leaves, it simply becomes transformed in the crucible of practice, considered time and time again through the lens of the True Self.
No need to send the monster packing.

Round 2

I tried again yesterday, tried to express my understanding of the koan Sensei had given me, but the bell was rung anyway.
My body holds all the excitement, terror, hope and drama of these moments.
How can my hands be so shaky? Why does the pit of my stomach reach up to grab at my pounding heart? Does it really matter anyway?
I think of the pithy, mysterious answers given by those before me when challenged by their koan.
What do they mean, and how does one come to these words or these actions that seem so absurdly remote.
I can't find the thread.

But the thread is there.

To my surprise, after the bell is rung, I can feel big tears welling up, and I watch as they tumble into the lap of my robe.
Oh Man!
I get up, bow to Kannon, bow at the Butsudan, bow to Sensei, all the while snuffing up snot and feeling my face get hotter and hotter, alive in my own little hell realm.
Really? Are you sure?
Tears on the floor.

Sensei says kindly, don't take this so seriously. Have fun with it. Hold the koan like a baby. Rely on the Sangha to help you with the process.
And I murmur okay.
Nothing else to say.

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