Kong-ans (Ch.: kung-an, Jap.: koan) have their origin in records of encounters between Zen practitioners in ancient China. In kong-an practice, the teacher asks questions and the student answers them. People sometimes say that the purpose of kong-an practice is for the teacher to check the student’s mind, but that’s not the point. The purpose of kong-an practice is to help us cut through our thinking. It is an essential part of our practice.
Here’s a famous example:
A monk asked Joju, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joju answered “Mu.”
That’s the kong-an. Then there are questions attached to the kong-an, for example: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”
Sometimes the kong-an and the question are the same, for example: The whole universe is on fire; through what kind of samadhi can you escape from being burned?
Associated with kong-ans are short commentaries, sometimes in the form of poems.
Some kong-ans go back over 1500 years, others are created by the teacher right there in the interview room.
Some schools recommend using the kong-an as a focus of meditation. This is not our style. The kong-an will often come up naturally in practice; and even more often it won’t. Don’t worry about this. If you practice sincerely, the interview room will take care of itself.
There is a form to use in the interview room, involving bows and prostrations. The teacher will help you through it your first time, and as many times as you need afterward.