The first time I read a description of a Zen Koan I was very excited. “That’s what I do!” I thought, “who knew that something I naturally do has a description! And a name! And other people do it too!” You know that excitement that can only be born from a moment of realizing that you are not alone in this world.
That was three or four years ago now. Not all explanations of Zen Koans speak to me in this very clear way…but unfortunately, I can’t find the original piece I was reading. (I’ll probably search up some links and add them to the bottom of this post for you to check out!) I have never really studied Zen Buddhism, nor have I ever practiced it but I want to explain my spiritual practice, which sounds a lot like a Koan to me.
Koans are not easy to define or explain. They are a way for me to seek deeper meaning from every day events or words. It is a way to quiet my thinking mind and listen for spiritual truth. I often see “what” is going on around me, Koans are a way to ask “why?” Often the question is simple and sometimes there is an obvious answer (part of the practice is putting down the answer so new thoughts can emerge!).
Discovering the answer is a bit more like practicing communication than thinking through a problem. Well, I think through the problem too. I’ll look up words, definitions, stories, and as I come up with more questions that tie in, I look those up too (I know…not very Zen!). But I am a grad student I think through a lot of questions…what’s different is the way in which I listen. I listen to my spirit and the subtle, quite hints, that may not seem to tie in, but somehow I feel like they do. It ends up being a conversation between my active thinking mind and moments of listening to the quite whispers of my soul. Besides thinking and listening to my soul, I am also seeking clues in my day. Suddenly sermons are answering my question, leaves falling from trees, conversations with friends, they all seem to speak to my question, hinting towards an answer. Even when I am not really thinking about my Koan, it seems to hang in the air. In some ways, I would say it is practicing awareness.
Finally one day I understand. I would say, “one day I have an answer,” but I don’t usually end up with an answer, often it is just an understanding. Even then, questions often come back in a new form or needing a new understanding.
All of this to say a mentor and guide (hi!!) gave me a Koan, even if I am not sure if that’s what she meant to do or not! My new Koan is: “What is authority?” Which I will post about in the day and weeks (months? years?) to come.
I really like the “Life is a Koan…!!!” Blog post (link below). It is not all about how a Koan is supposed to be done, but rather it is more about the goal/purpose of a Koan.