Updated: Oct 31, 2022
[A] koan [is] a Zen paradox, not to be solved by intellect, that may bring about a sudden dissolution of logical thought and clear the way for seeing into the heart of existence…
- Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
Perhaps koans come easily for some people. I don’t know them. Although it seemed to me that everyone who studied with Roshi Bernie did koans.
As far as I could tell, everyone who studied with Roshi Bob did koans. But last Spring, I heard some of Maezumi Roshi’s direct successors say that they do koans with relatively few students. Koans are not for everyone. I was shocked. But it makes sense.
I never got much instruction in how to work with koans. Probably my most valuable lesson came from a fellow student, the actress Ellen Bursteyn. Trained at the Actors’ Studio, Ellen shared with a number of us that in approaching a koan, she would use the same method acting techniques which she used in approaching a role. She would plunge in, letting go, become the person she was preparing to actualize on screen or stage. I tried this. It seemed to work for me. I passed Mu with Roshi Bob by becoming the dog. It was years before I was able to enter through the monk and many more before I could enter through Chao Chou.
I have shared Ellen’s approach with my students, but I don’t think it has helped much. So many students have such a hard time letting go of thinking. After years, so many are still trying to solve the koan with intellect.
“Just notice the thinking and let it go. Return to the breath. Return to the koan.”
Students do as suggested but seem unable to stop trying to figure it out.
A New Approach
I am experimenting with a new approach. I am not sure why it has arisen now. Perhaps it is finally reading The Snow Leopard after so many years. I loved Nine-Headed Dragon River, have read parts of it three times. The middle section is an excerpt from The Snow Leopard. Muryo, Peter Matthiessen, who wrote both, was Bernie’s first Dharma successor and a wonderful teacher. I am not sure why it has taken me so long to dive into this Himalayan trek journal. Perhaps the time which has opened in retirement, perhaps the joy of walking more. The space to listen.
How to listen? Is this as vague as letting go of thinking? I am taken back to the Year-Opening Retreat in Litchfield, Connecticut, in January, 1999. Roshi Jishu had died the previous March. Morrigan, our daughter formerly known as Jamie, was born in July. Roshi Bernie did a swarm of empowerments that weekend at Litchfield. He gave Dharma transmission to a number of his students including Genro and Eve, both now Roshis. It was a big weekend for me. A bunch of us received Denkai, the final step on the path to ordination as Zen priests. Bernie made a few of us Dharma Holders, his recognition that we were on the path to becoming teachers ourselves. He also gave Inka, the final seal of approval, to Pia Gyger and Niklaus Brantschen. Bernie and Jishu both admired Niklaus and Pia who they felt, overcoming enormous odds as Catholic religious, had formed a partnership in the Dharma which Bernie and Jishu had taken as a model for themselves and their new life beyond Greyston.
We were all gathered on the stage on the final evening of the retreat, Bernie and all of us who had received empowerments during the week, and Pia gave a talk. She talked about her life of prayer and the way in which she listened in the silence to the voice of God.
It is a long time ago, and I don’t remember now, whether someone in the audience challenged her or if she posed the question to herself. “But how do you know it is the voice of God? How can you be sure it’s not just your imagination or the Devil?”
Great question, I thought, but Pia’s answer was simple and direct. “When I hear the voice of God, there is absolute certainty. There is no doubt.”
I am not sure how but I understood. What do I know about the voice of God? My parents were Jewish atheists. I had no religious training as a child. I came to Buddhism in a mid-life crisis. There is no God in Zen. But I get it.
The word does not matter. “God.” “The Universe.” Methods of making references to that which cannot be named. And yet it is possible to hear the voice. I get it. That makes complete sense.
Ok, how do you teach Zen students to hear the voice of God, of the Universe?
Stop trying to figure out your koan and just listen.
How do you listen? The Zen Peacemakers have been working with Council for many years now, and there are instructions on how to listen from the heart. I think they are wonderful but it seems to me that so few people get them. Telling people to listen from the heart feels a lot like telling people to stop thinking. Often people, people who have memorized the Council instructions on speaking and listening from the heart, are, nevertheless, speaking and listening with their brains.
There is also a burgeoning literature on what is called in worlds of organization and personal development, “active listening.” People who have trained in these techniques do often seem to become better conversational partners.
Can these instructions help with listening to God? In this context, some sound humorous. One of the most common active listening instructions is “Make eye contact with the speaker”. So how do you make eye contact with God? I laugh and then I remember that one basic zazen instruction is to keep your eyes open. Are we saying the same thing? When you close your eyes (or look away), your mind is likely to wander. Make eye contact with the speaker. Keep your eyes open when you are doing zazen.
“Keep an open mind” is another common active listening instruction. We are not really listening when we are listening for what we hope to hear, a very common practice in prayer. We think we have figured out the solution. We are just looking for God to give us what we want. We are listening with our brain rather than our heart.
“Try to feel what the speaker is feeling.” This is the common call for empathy. Pay attention to the feeling. Listen with your heart. Hear the feelings.
“Don’t interrupt.” How do you interrupt God? That’s easy. Cut your meditation short. You’re just so busy. Or too busy to sit at all today.
Listen For what is Not Said
And my favorite common, active listening instruction, “Listen for what is not said.” Roshi Bob Kennedy, Zen master and Jesuit priest, tells two of my favorite stories about listening to God.
People often complain to him, he says, that their prayers are not being answered. “Perhaps,” he tells them, “your prayers are being answered. Perhaps the answer is, ‘No.’” Listen for what is not said.
And sometimes when their prayers are answered, Bob says, the prayers pushes away the gifts. “Nothing this good ever happens to me. It must be a trick.” Or “It must be a fraud.” “Too good to be true.” No open mind. No open heart.
For many years, teaching zazen, I have evolved a basic instructions, “Shut up and sit still.” Starting from that instruction, many people have learned to do zazen. They look wonderful on their cushions but they struggle with their koans. Maybe it’s all actually working, and maybe I am just impatient.
But I am trying out a new instruction, “Sit still and listen.” And I remind myself, “Keep your eyes open. Pay attention.”
Sitting with this instruction has been wonderful. Will the new instruction help anyone else with their koans?
Sit still and listen.