Personal Koans

Kyogen-computer-1Transcript of a Dharma Talk by Kyogen Carlson

“Koan” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word “kung-an,” which means public record. This was a Chinese legal term that referred to records of cases that set precedent, like “case law.” In the Zen tradition, koans are records of particular events such as an exchange between master and disciple that have particular dharma significance. Often they include a story that set the stage for the exchange. We can learn a great deal through careful study of these stories. However, there is a method by which koans are investigated at a deeper level. A student is assigned a koan in order to open to a particular view, or understanding. Part of the method is that the master does not to tell the student what the point is. You have to find that out yourself. You bring what you think it’s all about into the dokusan room, the teacher listens then says, “No. No. That’s not it.” You keep working, basically feeling your way in, until you uncover it.

Sometimes a student memorizes the koan story, and is instructed to boil it down to the pivotal matter. Eventually you may be assigned a hua-tou (wado), which means “word end.” The pivotal matter in the story is held in a word, even just one syllable, which is taken as the focus for zazen. An example would be the classic koan, “Joshu’s Mu.” In Japanese “mu” means no. A monk asks Joshu, “Does a dog have buddha-nature?” The set-up for this is someone grappling with the teaching about buddha nature, because the Buddhist texts say that all beings have buddha-nature. The monk comes with this question and Joshu says, “No!” This is surprising when you consider the Buddhist teachings on this. So the koan is not about whether a dog has buddha-nature, but about why did Joshu say no? This is a breakthrough koan, and the student ends up focusing on that one word “no.” You may hear Zen monks “mu-ing,” chanting, “Muuuuuu…,” sometimes at the top of their lungs. They are working on this koan.

Another breakthrough question is “What is your original face before your parents were born?” That one doesn’t have a story that goes with it. It is a constructed koan that came later in the history of the practice. As with all koans, there is no right answer per se. The answer is expressed through the student’s struggle with it. The answer is experienced, and it is that experience that you have to demonstrate to the teacher. Breakthrough koans are about the fundamental point, about an absolute view, about big questions. We might say they are about the why of it all. The thing is, there is no ultimate answer to any “why,” question, and yet there is a way to demonstrate an answer.

When I was college student, I sort of stumbled into the “big view.” I had an accidental glimpse of perfection – everything exactly as it should be, a tranquil sense of everything just right. It seemed to be “the big answer,” but at that point I hadn’t fully formed the question. I hadn’t done the work, so I couldn’t hold this answer, and I could feel it slipping away. I desperately wanted to understand it, to connect the dots, to make my own life in the everyday, relative world harmonize or mesh with the absolute view I had stumbled into. Of course, I found out later that this is what practice is – simply harmonizing this life, this breath, with this large view. But I knew nothing about that, so this view, this perception faded away into a memory, no matter how I clutched at it. And yet this experience did raise in me a deep way-seeking mind.

Then I read about zazen practice. There was something about it that rang true. I thought “yes, there’s a bridge here, there’s a way over this chasm, a way that this everyday life can come into harmony with the perfection I saw.” So after graduation I was off to the monastery like a shot. I decided I was going to stay for a year to immerse myself in zazen practice. Ten years later I realized I was never going to quit, so here I am. That’s because my search wasn’t just about learning to sit zazen.

I remember hearing my teacher Roshi Kennett say something about the questions people bring into dokusan or sanzen where students meet their teacher formally. She said there is a question on the surface, then a question underneath that, and then finally there is the fundamental question. And really, all questions resolve into this one, almost wordless question. In my case, I had come to the monastery looking for zazen, but the question under that was, “How do I harmonize myself with what I had glimpsed?” And under that was the fundamental question.

Some of my koans were formed when I was very young. (I’ve heard it said that the reason that parents can push our buttons so well is because they’re the ones that installed them in the first place.) There were a lot of positives in the way I was raised, in a household with a strong religious practice. It was a Christian Science household. Christian Science is a very idealistic religion. One of its teachings is that we are a part of God’s perfect idea. In a way this is similar to the Buddhist mind-only school, which teaches that everything is just “mind.” In Christian Science, God’s perfect idea is what we really are, and everything real is part of this. So all problems can be overcome ­– that includes sin, disease, old age and death – when we see that they are just illusions that arise within and obscure this truth. There’s an elaborate theology about how those illusions arise that I won’t get into here, but basically everything earthly, all compounded things, are not real. They are illusions in a way that’s similar to Buddhist teaching. But the Christian Science view is that if you really demonstrate this, if you stay in touch with this perfect view, then you can rise above it all. This is a kind of “ascension,” based on the new testament account of Jesus’ story. This ascension is something that can be accomplish in your own being; you become Christ-like. It becomes rather literal in that you should be able to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the leper and cast out demons. Metaphorically there’s something rather nice about this, but trying to make it concrete and practical creates a real problem. It runs headlong into a confrontation with the truth of dukkha. I’ve come to think of Christian Science as conscious, deliberate, and very highly refined practice of denial.

As a child I was being taught that I should demonstrate this practice by rising above earthly illusions by not ever being sick. In fact what happened was I went to school sick a lot. When I couldn’t demonstrate as expected, I knew I was a disappointment. I disappointed my parents, particularly my mother, because she had a lot of hope for me, and she really wanted me to be able to do this. It’s hard on a child to be deeply aware of disappointing a parent. When I look back on it I can see there was a great deal of hope and aspiration for me, but that doesn’t help much when what you want is a little sympathy, a bit of comfort and understanding, and you know you’re just aren’t going to get that. On the positive side I saw my parents work through a number of issues such as conflicts and life questions using their religious practice, and it’s a good method for that, it actually served well. That was good for me. I saw that there is benefit to seeking, to practice, to working in spiritual way. I did learn from that.

A lot of my fundamental koans came out of this situation. I realized early on but in an unconscious way that I could never meet the expectations of perfection held up for me – it just wasn’t going to happen. By the time I was in High School I thought, hey, all the Christian Scientists that ever lived died eventually, so they all failed. Which is OK, everybody fails, but as a young child, this really had me trapped. I could never measure up to what my parents held up as most important.

This whole issue churned around in my young mind and bubbled up as a very odd kind of a question, which could be phrased this way: “In God’s perfect world, with everything having a place and a function that is in harmony, what’s with flies and mosquitoes? How do they fit in this perfect picture?” It seems odd and funny now, but this just bugged the heck out of me – they were the fly in the ointment, so to speak. I really puzzled about it because it was a question that came out of the tight bind I was in. This is the early formation of the koan that took me to the monastery. I had had a view of something perfect, yet I was an imperfect person, so how does this harmonize? What do I do with this? In other words, “What should this world look like? What should this life, my life, look like? What am I really supposed to be?” Practice in the monastery didn’t resolve these questions. Instead, it intensified them. Eventually they clarified into the fundamental point question, which for me could be phrased as, “What is the measure of perfection?” Sitting still with that brought me to the wordless one question. This is a place where everything stops, and it’s getting really close. Breakthrough happens right on the other side of that wordless block.

long-shortSo I sat with this personal koan for a long time. Eventually I heard a story that addresses this question in an interesting way. A monk asked an old master what he had learned in his years of practice, and the master answered, “One stick is as long as it is, one stick is as short as it is.” When I heard that I thought, there’s something here, something about this that’s important. Later I heard a teaching from Koho Zenji (my teacher’s teacher), who was very small even for a Japanese. He would say, “A daikon is still a daikon, even when it is very small.” In Japanese, daikon means “big root,” and it’s a kind of radish which grows like a big fat carrot. But a daikon is still a daikon, a “big root,” even when it is small, and one stick is as long as it is, one stick is as short as it is. Stickness and daikoness are not measured that way – and this was getting to my question about measuring and perfection. Eventually the insight came that it’s true. We have to make an effort, but there really is nothing to gain. We don’t have to be a bigger stick or a bigger daikon – we’re already there, we just need to accept it completely. And yet, there is always something to do. It’s a very simple formula, but finally I really, really knew it.

There’s a phrase from our old translation of the “Kyojukaimon” that said, “The wheel of the dharma is always turning and lacks for nothing, yet needs something.” Everything is perfect as it is, and yet every moment needs something. This is about our effort, the way we turn the mind, the way we take this next step, the way we address this moment. Each moment “needs something.” After I had an opening about this, I heard a story from another monk practicing at the monastery. She explained that when she first got to the monastery and discovered practice, she was full of enthusiasm for deep acceptance. She was amazed by how we can get past so many issues when we accept things as they are. You could say she was an evangelical convert to all-acceptance practice. One summer she left the monastery to work in a convalescent hospital for people with spinal chord injuries. Many of the patients were paralyzed. She was eager to bring the practice all-acceptance to that environment. But of course they were having none of it, and she got the message loud and clear to bug off. Then one day a quadriplegic came to visit. His work was going to hospitals like that to talk to newly injured people who were grappling with their situation. The monk said that when this man entered the room it was almost as if the light in the room increased. He demonstrated profound and real acceptance, and as he met each person they couldn’t help but responded to him. He was on the other side of the very thing they were grappling with, so he was able to say everything she had wanted to say, but with real effect. What struck me about this was that in this situation, she was the one who was handicapped, not the quadriplegic. One stick is as long as it is, one stick is as short as it is, depending on the circumstance. I had the idea from my childhood that I had to be perfect in some way – but what way? What is the measure of perfection? I had to drop my rulers, because it can’t be measured that way. Perfection is about being ourselves without opposition, meeting conditions as best we can, long in some situations, short in others.

My question about the measure of perfection is a variation on that traditional koan, “What is your original face before your parents were born?” I could have been assigned that koan, and I probably would have related to it, but finding my own internal koan made it urgent to me. It arose in my life from the questions and the formations that I had. It was mine and it was vitally important to me. I want to impress on everyone that all of our confusions, all our issues, our stumbling blocks, arise because of a fundamental paradox in existence itself, the root of dukkha – that life and things and situations are both complete and incomplete, both perfect and imperfect, and they require effort and yet no effort at the same time. This is also the essence of Dogen’s koan, “Why is practice necessary if we are already innately enlightened?” He had his reasons for asking it that way, and I had my reasons for asking it my way, but it all boils down to that one thing – we’re already there, and yet practice is necessary. He solved it when he realized that practice is how we express it.


Jisha-kesa-tyingThere is a second type of koan, in addition to fundamental point koans. They are upaya koans, or function koans. They apply within the relative view, they’re the smaller questions about particulars, about how or what. I find that they all relate back to the fundamental koans, but they deal with how to take action moment by moment, appropriately, in the circumstance as it arises. For me, any kind of a double bind brings up an upaya koan. For example, authority versus self-determination – when they clash, it puts me right on the edge of this. What is right action in that situation? It used to happen with my teacher a lot – she had a very different mode, a different way of being in the world, than I did. I was a jisha, one of her primary attendants, and she would assign me to do something in a way that would make me think, “No, I can’t do that.” She would want me to do something that I might not think was right, or at least not right for me. My idealism would struggle with the actuality of my situation. Where’s perfection then? What should I do? Is the stick long or short? Should I assert my view, or surrender to this other view? Sitting still within that, dropping the judgement and getting past either-or, I could usually find a way. Each answer was not some “final answer,” it didn’t tell me I should always do it this way in this circumstance, always do it that way in that circumstance. But I learned that when I was caught in a conundrum, if I sat very still the way would appear. I could meet the situation in a way my teacher could recognize and was still true to myself. I could answer the koan. Can you see how these questions relate back to my fundamental question?

These are daily life koans, which you have to meet over and over and over, and for which you never find a final answer. After all these years I can find myself wondering, “Why do I have to deal with this question again?” Well, we’re all human brings, and this is life, so we may as well get use to it. When we do that we learn to keep dropping our opposition to things as they are and to meet events in a useful way, in a way that functions and expresses the fundamental point, or “genjokoan.” With a balance of acceptance, courage and assertion we find a way. This is the essence of the middle way between yes and no, between my way and another way, between assertion and surrender.


Examine your own life and look deeply at the questions and conflicts that bug you – the ones that really get you. Look at them very carefully. Then clear away irritation and opinion – “I don’t like this,” “That shouldn’t be” – let all that drop away. This doesn’t mean you surrender to what you think is wrong, but you sit still with it and drop all the extra baggage. Be very still and let the underlying question arise. Then you sit still with that until you come to the one wordless question. The answer to that cannot be put into words, you simply open to it. Just like you can’t tell a paraplegic how to accept his situation – but someone can demonstrate it. That’s what it’s like.

It helps to do this work in a community of people who understand this, who realize what this is about and support it. It may not always be in the way we want to be supported, but that’s probably for the best. Practicing with community or with a teacher helps because it is essential to have the process seen, to have your struggle with it witnessed, which makes it visible to you. It’s hard to do this by yourself – it’s kind of like shaving without a mirror, you need something that reflects back. You can do it on your own, but it just takes a whole heck of a lot longer. Living in an intense practice environment in a monastery it only took me ten years. I am joking about that somewhat, because actually it’s a lifelong process. So, it’s good to get going – decide to pick this up and really investigate it. Our lives are full of our own deep questions.

This means you already have everything you need to study the buddha way. It appears in your life just as it is. It can be a lay life, it can be monastic, it can be temple life. You can be married, single, engaged in a career, it doesn’t matter. Koans are everywhere and our method is simply to point to what is already there and to help bring it out and clarify it. Look at your life and your experiences just exactly as they are, and then use precept study, zazen and mindfulness practice to clarify what these questions are about. They definitely appear. Sit very still with them and let them clarify. This is everyday life koan practice – genjokoan. Your koans are already there – they’re already well installed. They are really just aspects of the fundamental koan, the paradox of particular and universal. I encourage you to get going.


Q: Sometimes I don’t know whether I am stepping back, or whether I am tuning out to the problems that face me.

A: When you are sitting and tuned into yourself, there’s an inner knowing – I think of it sort of like a light – and when I’m moving away from where I’m supposed to be it goes out. Or you can think of it as a hum, a sound. It’s like there’s something that’s alive and when I move away from it, I lose contact with it. Sometimes stepping back is actually going towards this – you stop, sit still, and the light brightens. But sometimes you step away from something that you need to be addressing and the light dims. So that guides us back toward engagement. If you cultivate your awareness of that feeling, it’s not that you won’t make mistakes, but if you get way off, you’ll know. When you are really on point, it will be really alive, really there. Sekito’s “Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage” is about this. He called it “the old man in the hut,” a quiet knowing. It doesn’t guide by telling you what to do, it simply sends signals like, yes and no, red light, green light.

Q: It seems like the way we are talking about this, you have to get into it, move forward, dig in. But in a way it’s hard to know what to do – should we count malas, what should we do?

A: When it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. When things feel right, just relax. Then notice when your sense of balance is off, pay attention and consciously look at your inner workings. When things get really messy, you’ve got lots of good material to work with. Roshi Kennett used to say that assigning a koan to somebody is like a phrenologist knocking someone over the head in order to raise a bump to read. Assigning a difficulty in order for someone to have something to overcome is, in some respects, kind of stupid. Examining your life closely, looking at what’s going on, is all you need. But… understand that looking deeply is really important because our koans are essential. There is no such thing as a perfect way to be in this world, and because of that, koans are everywhere. If someone thinks they’ve got it figured out, they’re deluded. Investigating koans is everything. Just look – it’s all you have to do.

Q: Can you say something about how elusive koans can be sometimes? I had this vision of all of us concretizing what you were saying and going around and asking each other, “Hey what’s your koan? My koan is…” My experience is that I’ll be able to put a personal koan into words one day, and then the next day the words don’t apply anymore.

A: In telling my story, I chose particular examples that I have had time to digest. Those are the things that I can name pretty clearly after 35-40 years, but the stuff I’m working with at any point in time is not so easy to say. Some of the double bind koans are very difficult to explain because the reason things affect me that way are specific to my karma. I think what’s important about this is knowing what the feeling is – suddenly not knowing what to do, or feeling anxious, agitated, frustrated, then identifying whatever it is that puts you in that position. Once you know what that is, you begin to know how to practice with it. Investigation is everything, getting the feeling of it, knowing it in your body and knowing how to be still in it, that’s what all this practice is all about. That’s far more important than being able to talk about it twenty-five years later.

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