The Zen Koan’s Life Challenge

There is an unbridgeable gulf between the therapeutic dispensation and Rinzai Zen. While the former seeks to “cool your jets” and help you “cope” with secular life’s vicissitudes, the latter wants to show you how to turn up the temperature on your own dis-ease with a view to your fundamental, direct realization of your being. Matsuo Abe beautifully puts the essence of Zen thus: it is a “direct pointing to man’s Mind.”

But that direct pointing can only be felt and registered once one’s dis-ease has become more and more present to one–that is to say, has become an irresolvable life-problem that burns and burns in, and into, one’s very core. Cooling your jets sidesteps the dis-ease, ultimately prolonging it when not actually evading it.

In this post, I turn to the Zen koan as one skillful means of turning up the heat with the idea of getting the practitioner to see his or her own inability, qua ego-self, to resolve what must needs be resolved.

Existential Opening

Before one can even be address the koan, one must have had what I call an existential opening.

In his lecture series, “Zen Koan from the Inside,” the Rinzai Zen teacher Jeff Shore interprets Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness as follows:

Nishitani goes on to state that the question “What is religion?” can only truly be asked, let alone answered, when the question has been deepened to the extent that it gets turned around, turned inside out. That is, only when the questioning deepens to include the very questioner himself–when the question of what religion is for transforms into the question of what I am for–does one enter the realm of the religious: “When we come to doubt the meaning of our existence in this way, when we have become a question to ourselves, the religious quest awakens within us.”

This is strikingly similar to the formulation of an “existential opening” that I gave in a public talk I delivered in 2019:

What I experienced then [i.e., in 2009] could be called an “existential opening.” By the latter, I mean whatever it is that breaks one open in such a way that the questioner is turned back on herself. That is, an existential opening is, well, what opens me to my existence. Rattled, shaken, partially awakened, I look at my face, my hands, the world, and wonder–maybe–whether it is all just a dream. All this, yes. But, even more, once I’m existentially opened, I bend each question I ask back on myself because, if only dimly or inchoately, I know that I am implicated in what it is I seek. In the beginning and in the end, the one I seek is myself. Henceforth, I cannot bracket myself from my investigations.

The existential opening precipitates the religious question Nishitani points to yet often in a slow burn sort of way. By “slow burn,” I mean to suggest that the religious quest may not yet be like a great fire leaping into life. One may feel within oneself soft embers glowing and flickering without yet being grasped completely and single-mindedly by the Great Matter of Life (or Birth) and Death.

Often it may take years be the slow burn becomes something much more: a central pursuit that one must get to the bottom of.

Dynamics of the Koan: Problem and Challenge

Shore argues that the koan’s dynamics can be understood in terms of problem-challenge and probe-expression. The koan, in fact, ranges across all these. In this post, I’ll only, and that very briefly, be discussing the problem-challenge aspects of the koan.

Let’s suppose that the existential opening has begun to open more and more. Then what is one to do? How is one to go deep in one’s explorations of this matter of ultimate concern? Indeed, how is one going to begin the process of looking straight-on at the matter, let alone truly get to the very bottom of it?

Shore provides us with a textbook case of a natural, living koan:

Bodhidharma [the first patriarch in Zen] sat in zazen [seated meditation] facing the wall. The second patriarch, who had been standing in the snow, cut off his arm and said, “Your disciple is not yet at peace. I beg you, my teacher, please give me peace.” Bodhidharma said, “Bring your self forth, then you shall have peace!” [After some time] the second patriarch said, “I have searched for my self and I am, finally, unattainable.” Bodhidharma said, “Now you have thoroughly found peace!”‘

For now, set aside the second patriarch’s startling, direct realization (“I am, finally, unattainable”) and come back instead to how the story begins. Notice the second patriarch’s articulation of his basic life problem: I am not at peace. (Or: my mind is not at peace).

Let’s be even clearer: he’s not suggesting that sometimes his mind is perfectly content while at other times it is not. No, what he is saying is that he has surveyed the course of his life and plumbed the depths of his experiences, and what he has discovered is the central theme that, no matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, no matter how often he changes circumstances, still–still!–he is not at peace. Perhaps this formulation of the problem merits bolder treatment: I AM NOT AT PEACE!

And does Bodhidharma just listen nonjudgmentally to this guy? No! Does Bodhidharma provide him with coping strategies? No! Does he tell the man, who by the way has just cut off his arm, that everything will be all right? No! Indeed, does he do anything to mollify or console or cool down the one who is in the grips of dis-ease? No! None of these! Instead–get this!–Bodhidharma challenges the fella: “Bring your self forth, then you shall have peace!” That is, don’t worry about peace per se; instead, go on and look as hard as you can for this ego-self that is not at peace. Go to the root, the very source of your dis-ease. Get behind it all.

The key to the challenge feature of the koan is that it takes this energy we call suffering and then invites that energy to become even more intense as well as pointier. Gives it energy and focus. In effect, “Take all the energy you have, take all that dis-ease you’re experiencing, and pour it into this one search. Just this one search and no other. Intensify it until you bring the water to a rolling boil. And whatever you do, don’t dissipate it and don’t let it go!”

To our contemporary ears, this sounds crazy. But, I assure you, we are the crazy ones for it is our dis-ease that continues simmering, occasionally flashing up in horrific acts that make the news while often showing up sideways in acts of cruelty and unkindness that we’re barely conscious of.

As the bodhisattva vow says, “Delusions are endless; I vow to put an end to all of them.” In the case of our dis-ease, it is truly, i.e., ultimately, a matter of all or nothing.