Sunday, May 31, 2009

'formal' koans

In response to a comment I made on his blog, a friend sent along a koan from the Mumonkan: "Wuzu asked, "Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of another. Tell me, who is that other?" The koan was, as my friend said, apropos of the small communication we were having.

And it made me think how poorly-informed I am about Zen collections and pointers. The downside of my ignorance is that I am missing handy tools. The upside is that I can be delighted when those tools are laid out before's sort of like an adult playing peek-a-boo with a very small child who is endlessly surprised, even by endless repetition. Peeeeeek-a-boo!

It's too late for me now to return and ingest the information of a direction that I have spent quite a lot of time on. "Too late" means, as much as anything, that I am simply too lazy to hang in my memory banks the vast Zen teachings that can delight me when they are presented. I have loved Zen practice, but what is love if not the willingness to be surprised?

When I started out on spiritual adventures, I had an interest in Hinduism -- specifically Vedanta. I read up a storm ... tons and tons of books and scriptures and I knew so many long words and interconnecting reflections that I am surprised my head didn't pop. But that's how things begin, isn't it -- studying up on what is so alluring, finding hand-holds and satisfactions and, somehow, control of the matter?

But I was fortunate in all this study, all these books and longings and delights: One day, I had a serious epiphany when I realized I didn't know squat and that, although I didn't know the injunction then, it wasn't so important to do as the master did, the important part was to know what the master knew... and knew from experience, not just from the library. The epiphany consisted of the question ... how the hell do you DO that?

Anyway, by the time I switched gears and got into Zen and its emphases on zazen or seated meditation, I was pretty much read-out. Yes, I read some books in the same way I had read up on Vedanta, but I read with less verve, less assurance, less conviction. I wasn't anti-intellectual, but I was wary of my own intellectual confections. A part of me said, "Let someone else read those books." I had enough on my plate dealing with my knock-knees and the fact that they burned like fire when I crossed my legs over an extended period of time.

And that wariness of my intellectual confections extended to formal koan study. Somehow I felt that if I started down that road, given my wily abilities, I was entirely likely to go off the track. Yes, some teacher presented me with the koan "Mu" and yes I strained like a stevedore and yes, there were some bright moments attested to by those in 'teaching' roles, but ...

I think it was and probably remains enough for me that life writes or proposes the koans. It's not that I dislike or disdain the role that formal koans can play. I trust those old guys and their efforts to point out the quickest way home. It's just not something that really enveloped my heart. Life -- with all its love and surprises and goddamned fiery knees -- was enough for me.

But now, so many years later, I can delight and be warmed by the wonders of the formal koans that conform so exactly to whatever surprises have surprised or continue to surprise me. It's like finding out that "ou est mon chien" in French is the same as saying "where is my dog?" in English. I'm not trying to say I can or could waltz through a course in formal koans. I'd never make it. And I'm not trying to say that "life writes enough koans -- why screw around?" is the best or only or even a very good approach. I am saying that it's nice to meet friends ... loving friends ... you know, the kind of friends who surprise you and make you laugh.

"Wuzu asked, "Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of another. Tell me, who is that other?" How neat is that?!

It's no neat-er than a dandelion, but dandelions are pretty neat too.

Maybe one day I will be educated to the wonderful formal teachings of the teachings I have stumbled along behind. But I doubt if it will be in this lifetime.

But there's nothing saying I can't be delighted, right? :)

"Chacun a son gout" is the same as saying "to each his own" or "taste is taste."

Maybe I am entirely wrong about all this, but I've been wrong before. Being wrong is not so bad.

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