What is the point of kong-an practice?

Kong-ans (the Japanese call them koans) are those extremely brief stories (often just a few lines) and associated questions that are unique to the Zen tradition. No other school of Buddhism uses them. And Zen practice depends on them — these stories deliver Zen teaching far more than sutras do.

 

You can make kong-an practice sound very mystical but in fact it is very practical. We are always hit with situations whose basic assumptions are just plain wrong. But we’re socialized to go along with whatever misconception is at the root of the situation and not to cut through it. It’s like trying to untie the Gordian knot — you can’t. But Alexander the Great took his sword and cut through it. That wasn’t mystical. It was very practical. It worked.

 

Here’s an example. A long time ago in China a famous sutra master heard about monks in south China who only meditated and didn’t read sutras. He was outraged. So he travelled on foot for thousands of miles to show these monks their mistake. At one point he found himself in a small teashop. He was hungry and wanted to buy lunch. The owner (herself a Zen student) said to him, “You are a great Diamond Sutra master. Answer my question and you will have lunch for free. Otherwise, no lunch for you.” “Ask me anything,” the monk replied. “Okay,” the woman said. “The Diamond Sutra says that past mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped, and future mind cannot be grasped. With what kind of mind will you eat your lunch?” The sutra master was stunned. He could not answer. All of his studying and lecturing couldn’t help him. He got no lunch. But the woman sent him to her teacher, and the sutra master eventually became the great Zen master Dok Sahn.

 

That is how kong-ans work. Just like Alexander and the Gordian knot, we are faced with something that our standard intellectual techniques cannot begin to deal with. We have to cut through with our mind sword. Over and over we have to find the appropriate mind sword to cut through the particular knot that is facing us. After a while we learn to do this not just in kong-an interviews, but in our lives. We learn to cut through the knots that bind not only us but everyone around us.

Why all the prostrations?

If you live in Korea and ask your local Zen teacher what you should do when your life is falling apart, you will probably be told: do prostrations! 500 a day! 1,000 a day! Which may seem surprising — isn’t Zen about sitting still? And how can something that looks like a cross between squats and child pose be relevant to your spiritual life?

But you know how when you sit in meditation your mind goes all over the place? It seldom does that doing prostrations. Doing prostrations is a method of practice that bypasses the frontal lobes and goes straight for the central nervous system. At the bottom you’re in a posture of total submission, a posture of complete humility — that’s why we talk about bowing in repentance. But then at the top you’re upright and ready for anything. Down. Up. Down. Up. Over and over again. Over time it’s as if you’re rewiring yourself, changing your synapses. Your center becomes stronger. Your heart becomes more open. You don’t have to think about it. It just happens.

 

Why Do We Practice With Our Eyes Open Instead Of Closed?

There are several schools of meditation in which the eyes are closed, the idea being to turn the awareness inward and shield it from sensory distractions. Sometimes this is called pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. There is even a yogic mudra in which the fingers block the eyes, ears, and nostrils.

But in Zen our direction is to wake up to this world and perceive directly that there is no inside and no outside, that we are not separate from all beings. Zen Master Seung Sahn taught that when we sit everything that we see becomes clear, everything that we hear and smell and taste and touch, every bodily sensation, pleasurable or painful or neutral — all becomes clear. A Buddha is literally someone who is fully awake. Being awake to this world as it actually is naturally gives rise to compassion. So if we sit with our eyes open, our ears open, all our senses open, our minds and our hearts will also open.

Why do we say the four great vows? They seem so impossible.

Here are the four great vows:

 

  1. Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all.
  2. Delusions are endless, we vow to cut through them all.
  3. The teaching are infinite, we vow to learn them all.
  4. The Buddha way is inconceivable, we vow to attain it.

 

Every morning practice at the Zen center begins with the four great vows. My morning home practice always begins with them. I strongly recommend that people start their practice by saying them. They remind us of our direction, that our practice is not about ourselves, that it’s not about our likes and dislikes, that it’s not about feeling better. They remind us that our practice is a lot bigger than our usual idea of our lives.

 

And yes, taken literally they are impossible. That’s the point. There’s no time and place where we can say: okay, got it, done, finished. When the Buddha saw the star and awakened, he didn’t go back to the palace and hang around with his buddies drinking the ancient North Indian equivalent of Bud Light. When the Buddha awakened he realized how much work there was to do and he started doing it. That’s our job too. The four great vows remind us of this.

Why should I practice at a Zen Center when I can meditate at home on my own?

Sit on your own and you can achieve all kinds of mental states, some of which feel really good. Sitting with other people also can feel really good. But hang out long enough with anyone and your karma will appear, boom. There you are, really annoyed at someone. There someone is, really annoyed at you. You know where this usually leads, and it isn’t any place you want to be.

But in a Zen center, when this happens the context is a practice of liberation, not just of ourselves but of all beings. Instead of getting solidified, our karma can start to dissolve. Most of the time we live in a hall of mirrors. Escape isn’t easy. It’s by practicing in community that we can break free.

To practice Zen do I have to believe in rebirth?

The short answer is: no. There are no doctrinal requirements in Zen practice.

 

The longer answer is: what is there to be reborn? I.e., what is your fundamental nature? what is my fundamental nature? what is every human being’s fundamental nature? That is the basic question, independent of any belief or disbelief in rebirth. Zen practice is a way of perceiving our fundamental nature, fully realizing it, and acting accordingly. This nature is independent of any doctrine, independent even of speech and thinking. There are a lot of words and explanations out there about it. But you have to find it yourself.

Does Zen give you any special powers?

Stories about magical powers are certainly not unheard of in Zen — tales about great bodhisattvas and Zen masters who were able to do such things as make waterfalls flow back upstream or transport a woman to the Tushita heaven. These powers are sometimes classified as “freedom from cause and effect.” They are said to appear after long practice and the attainment of deep samadhi, a trance-like state in which everything is experienced as oneness or zero. But they are not the point of practice. Wanting them or attaching to them is a problem. Magical powers are in themselves delusional or lead to delusion. We practice to attain our true nature and help all beings. And if our minds are clear we see that the natural world and our ordinary activities are wondrous just as they are. All of this is beautifully summed up in the Kuo-an’s last poem accompanying his ten Oxherding Pictures. It is called “Entering the Marketplace”:

Barefoot and shirtless, enter the market

Smiling through all the dirt and grime.

No immortal powers, no secret spells,

Just teach the withered trees to bloom.

Why should I practice with a group? After all, Buddha awakened after sitting on his own. Isn’t it more authentic to simply meditate without any other religious trappings?

 

Yes, Gautama Siddhartha Shakyamuni sat on his own before being known as the Buddha. But this was after many years of practicing with teachers in community. His first teacher was Alara Kalama, who eventually asked Gautama to co-teach with him. But Alara Kalama’s teaching did not resolve Gautama’s deep questions. So he left and practiced with another teacher, Uddaka, who also eventually asked Gautama to co-teach with him. But again, Gautama’s deep questions were not resolved. It was only after many years of practice in communities of renunciates headed by recognized teachers who both acknowledged the maturity of his practice that Gautama went off on his own.

 

There are good reasons for this. Without community our practice can very subtly reinforce our sense of self and reinforce our karmic habits. Without guidance from people who have deep experience with practice our opinions can seduce us into thinking we have understanding. As for what this question calls religious trappings, these are simply practice forms that arose in order to provide a container for our practice, a container that is not dependent on our personal likes or dislikes, our opinions, or our ideas. The ones that have stuck around are the ones that people have found useful. In Buddhism these are called expedient means, and it is said that there are 84,000 expedient means. This means that there is a wide variety of forms and a wide variety of communities in which to practice — if one doesn’t happen to fit you, you can probably find another one that does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How do I begin practicing Zen? Is there something I should do first?

The best way to start practice is… to start practice.  Yes, there are meditation forms to learn, bowing forms to learn, how to walk during walking meditation — we even have a form for holding the chanting book. These forms support our physical and mental stability. Most Zen centers have dedicated opportunities for beginners to learn their forms — ours is at 9 a.m. essentially every Sunday (unless there’s a retreat or ceremony). You can come and learn these forms and then stay for practice. No other preparation is necessary.