Hakuin Ekaku, the 18th century Zen master who brought the Rinzai school back to life, grouped all koans into five categories. He dubbed eight “nanto,” which means something along the lines of “difficult to pass through” (a/k/a really frickin’ hard). As James Ford and Melissa Blacker note in The Book of Mu, these seem to be the koans Hakuin personally experienced as difficult.
Those particular koans may or may not seem difficult to you or me, but most students experience some koans as more difficult to pass through than others, and some of these as especially difficult.
Here’s one that kicked my butt, for example, Muzhou and the Thieving Phony (Case 10 from the Blue Cliff Record):
Muzhou asked a monk, “Where have you come from?”
Instantly, the monk shouted.
“That’s a shout on me,” said Muzhou.
The monk shouted again.
“Three shouts, four shouts, what next?” asked Muzhou. The monk did not answer.
Muzhou gave him a blow with his stick and cried, “Oh, you thieving phony!
Muzhou’s opening question is an old Zen teacher’s trope. In Case 15 of the Gateless Gate, for instance, Yunmen asks his student Tung-shan, “Where were you most recently?” (The Gateless Gate is a collection that precedes the Blue Cliff Record in the Harada-Yasutani tradition in which BoWZ participates). Tung-shan replies, to his teacher’s disapproval, that he has just returned from the village (or some such).
Yunmen was looking for a different answer, which I knew by the time I met Muzhou and his shouting student. When Muzhou asks the question, however, his student’s response seems to come from left field. And Muzhou doesn’t exactly disapprove of it – at least not initially. Muzhou’s early reactions are more descriptive and curious.
What’s going on?
(I’m not going to say, of course. A joke explained is not funny, as Shakespeare observed. A koan exposed by others is not your koan – and it is your koan, after all.)
Anyway, I tend to learn a lot about myself – often about my own less reflective, default orientations to the world – when a koan kicks my butt, as this one did.
Koans aren’t riddles. I think of them as little slices of life: sightlines, from varying angles, on this experience of living and dying.
When a koan exposes a sightline that is new to me, however, it sometimes can feel much like a riddle, and I may experience it as challenging (even to the point of being maddening) in all the ways a good riddle can feel challenging.
In time, difficult koans that have this riddle-ness feeling invariably help me see that the riddle is my life, and that there is a way beyond the riddle-ness, a way to meet the challenge. They shock or prod me out of some unexamined or habitual way of knowing and being.
Then there are koans that one doesn’t experience as particularly challenging.
It’s too easy – at least it was too easy for me for a time – to appreciate them, to even be inspired by them in one way or another, perhaps even to be amused by them, but to think they don’t have much to teach, and even to feel a bit self-satisfied about passing through them.
As I reflect back on these koans, however, I see how much I’ve learned by encountering them (individually and collectively).
For starters – and this is just about me and my particular programming and neuroses – they’ve helped shine a light on the downsides of some of my Type A-ness; on a certain greediness, manifesting, in this instance, as a desire to achieve; and perhaps on my (very human) desire for recognition and approval. Certainly they’ve shined a light on my grasping for an anchor and shown me that being rooted in the rootless rock-solidness of the here-and-now ultimately offers more security than any other anchor I might imagine to exist.
One soon learns that the practice of presenting koans to a teacher is not about recognition and approval – at least not in the sense of seeking and receiving pats on the head. In my experience, it’s more about recognition in the sense of offering two people – indeed, teachers and students throughout time and space, and, more broadly, all of us – the opportunity to encounter one another genuinely. The koan provides the pretext and context for an honest and open look at, and mutual recognition of, some important feature of human experience.
Besides, there are so many koans in the Zen tradition. We use something like 500 of them in our little branch of the family. If one does the math, it quickly becomes clear that it will take many years to pass through them all, even if one is living in a monastery and has multiple opportunities to meet with a teacher each week. (I’m not, and I don’t.) So, why not focus on enjoying the ride instead of the brass ring one imagines to be dangling at the end of the line?
There’s no brass ring anyway, and, as Melissa once said to me with a wry smile, there always are more koans.
Whether one experiences them as easy or hard, koans offer us something more precious than a brass ring: a gold mine of insight and potential for transformation.