A student asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not? Zhaozhou answered, “No!”
On a regular basis I have people asking me “what is a koan and how do I use it?” That seems to be one of those questions that has an endless stream of answers.
Life meets Life
While on retreat a few years ago, I made friends with a beautiful mare. On a walk I noticed her in the sun lit paddock that she shared with a mule, a donkey, and two goats. Imagining myself as a sort of horse whisperer, I thought that we might get acquainted. I moved to the fence and she looked over and walked over to where I stood. Right away I noticed a sort of call and response. I see her and move towards her, she sees me and does the same. Soon we are standing our faces just inches from one another, her face just to the side of mine both of us looking carefully at one another. She moves her nose from one side of my face to the other, barely touching me as she shifts. I dare to pick up my hand and touch her cheek. She backs away a bit and I remove my hand. She moves closer as I again touch her cheek. She lets me rest my hand there as I begin to stroke her cheek and then touching her forehead. I move down her neck, stroking it and am soon patting her shoulder. I am beginning to feel quite good about this encounter and about my new friend. Awash in self-congratulations of a horse well whispered, I lose some of my focus and she moves away. In fact, she turns her back to me. Now I am looking at her backside.
What I noticed about my encounter with my equine friend was that it seemed as if when my heart softened, as I began to open to the wonder for her being, perhaps she softened a bit opening to me. There is a call and response, a reciprocity. Life responds to life, opens to life. This is something we know and experience every day with lovers, friends, dogs, cats, the crow who notices you from her high-wire perch over your driveway.
The further we move into life and the more we trust the life before us, our hearts open and soften into connection, into deep comm-unity. Here we find a unity and integrity in things, an interpenetration of being where boundaries shift and the seamlessness of life/things/the world and universe becomes apparent. Life becomes one.
When Zhaozhou spoke of this he said simply, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”
Koans in this deepest sense are alive.
Koans – Postcards from Awakening
Koans are words strung together. One popular definition of a koan is to call it a riddle – a problem with an answer, something to be solved, hacked into to reveal its wisdom. As we define problems we tend to view them as something “out there” that needs to be changed, or figured out, or fixed; maybe manipulated to fit my agenda. We treat koans as things that we can use to get what we want, i.e. enlightenment. Just solve the riddle, fix the problem, get enlightened. Would that it were that simple.
Not a Thing
Koans are not things. A koan is a living text. These words live and breathe. They move and shimmer with vitality. And like a postcard there is a message, “Wish you were here!” The universe calls out to us in the koan. Like the horse shining in the sun on my early morning walk, the koan calls me into relationship. They are living words that open to an encounter and relationship with life as it is, not as remembered or imagined. But, simply, as it is.
Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote of two relationships – I – It and I – Thou. I-It is the relationship of manipulation, of fixing, of moving something from point A to point B. I-Thou is the living encounter, a conversation and dialogue. I-Thou is the beginning of intimacy, an opening to transformation. It is the call and response of life to life, a movement towards awakening, towards the coherence of things.
I like to say that working with a koan is like sitting on the couch with your dog. The koan is a living thing and your life in relationship to that living thing is different than your life not in that relationship. Our lives are changed as we make connections. In relationship the heart softens and opens and with that softening and opening the boundaries that we depend on betwixt self and other are not so strong. Indeed, we find the limitations within which we define “self” are not as certain as we believe them to be. In conversation with the koan, barriers and walls collapse, and hearts open to the vast expansiveness, into the well of freedom that calls us ever more deeply to where my heart and the heart of the world beat with one pulse.
How does this happen? Rather like my conversation with the horse, I think. The koan shows herself in the sun as I move to check her out. “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” she asks. “No!” she says. So, I move closer. She turns towards me. I reach in her direction. She touches my shoulder. Then I notice the goat nearby. I move in its direction. The koan shifts and turns her back. I pull a carrot out of my pocket, she turns towards me. I touch her muzzle. Again, she nudges my shoulder, her nose resting there. This koan and I have met. Soon, this strange koan about a dog, is barking at the goat as she steals my carrot. Woof!!
Life is not a problem. It is not a riddle. It is lived organically. Alive, life itself beckons me with its call. As I move in response the conversation never ends, we find our place in the shape of things. Call – Response, Life flows.