Eventually we understand that all solutions come to us by themselves, if only we stop trying to control. – Stephen Mitchell
I’m no good at koans. Which is as it should be. I tend to live most of my life in my head rather than fully centered in my situation, and a correctly answered koan is basically an indicator of someone who is completely present in the moment. Every now and then, the zen master will lob me a softball, and if I’m having a good day, I might be able to clip it off the corner of the bat. During the ten years I’ve been practicing, I’ve learned to take heart in the humble honesty of demonstrating exactly where I’m at, and after leaving a koan session, I no longer slink back into the dharma room with my tail between my legs and my head full of “I should have saids.” I’ve attained enough to understand that this is not an intellectual exercise; if I’m trying to “come up with an answer,” then I’ve already missed the ball. And yet I keep trying to think my way out of koans…
I recently stopped into a new independent bookstore in my town. In the “Spirituality/Philosophy/Religion” section, I happened upon an enticing volume titled “Zen Koans With Answers.” I opened to the page titled “Man Up a Tree,” a classic koan that I’ve been wrestling with for years. As I’d suspected, there was no answer, just a couple of things that clever students could do or say to try to fool the teacher into thinking that they were not clever students. Things that I’ve already tried, only to be met with a response of “No, thank you” by the zen master. The one thing that I haven’t done in a while is sitting meditation… not on a regular basis, anyway, and that is most likely the key to “solving” the koan. Of course, a koan is not a riddle to be solved, but a situation to be held in the cradle of “don’t know” mind.
What does it mean to hold a koan? It does not mean to search for an answer, but to wait for a response to appear, which, for me in most cases, means sitting in that “don’t know” space and becoming comfortable with it. When I approach a certain anonymous friend of mine seeking help with a problem, he’ll often say “that’s your koan for the week” as he reflects that problem back to me in the form of a question. This does not mean that he is expecting to hear an answer to the question, or a solution to the problem, next time we speak, although that might happen. As Zen Master Bon Haeng puts it, “if an answer appears, then an answer appears.” If not, then we become more curious about this “don’t know.” This is good practice. If I’m actively searching for answers, then I’m in trouble. As Zen Master Seung Sahn would say, “Big mistake.” When I remember that my job is to stay present, then I’m in good shape. If an answer appears, I’ll be there with a cup of tea saying “nice to see you.”
Master Hyang Eom said, “It is like a man up a tree who is hanging from a branch by his teeth. His limbs are tied and bound, so his hands cannot grasp a bough, and his feet cannot touch the tree. Another man standing under the tree asks him, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from China?’ If he opens his mouth to answer, he will lose his life. If he does not answer, he evades his duty and will be killed.” If you are in the tree, how do you stay alive?
from The Whole World is a Single Flower, by Zen Master Seung Sahn