Nature of the Rinzai Koan Practice

Koan” has become a familiar word for most people. It is generally described as a question and answer “riddle” to help practitioners grasp the paradoxical nature of reality. If, however, a Rinzai Zen teacher was right now looking over my shoulder, he would jump out of their seat, and interject “koans are not “riddles,” because riddles are solved by the discursive mind, and koans cannot be solved by the discursive mind! And they would add “reality is not paradoxical, it is our minds that make it look that way.”

Having originated from exchanges between master and disciple in ancient China, koans were considered to be expressions of the truth. On the first page on Dogen’s Genjokoan, I quoted Okumura explaining how koans originated in the Zen tradition. The word “koan” is derived from the Chinese word “gong’an” used for “a public document placed on the desk of a government office, and in ancient China it referred to a law issued by the emperor. Such a law was unchangeable and unquestionable, applying to all the nation’s subjects.” Likewise, the stories told in the koans were “an expression of unchangeable truth.” Included in “gong’an” as an official document was the connotation of “public” and with it, that of “equalizing inequality … To make something public meant to make something equal.” Another etymology breaks down the word into “ko” as the equality (unity) behind the diversity of the things we see, and “an” pointing instead to the particularity (uniqueness) of these things. “Koan” would then mean that “Reality, or emptiness, includes both unity and difference.”

In his text on the “Nature of the Rinzai Koan Practice,” Victor Sogen Hori describes the koan as “an artificial problem given by a teacher to a student with the aim of precipitating a genuine religious crisis that involves all the human faculties – intellect, emotion, and will.”

As an “artificial problem,” the koan has often been regarded as a skillful means (upaya), “that deliberately poses a problem unsolvable by the rational mind in order to drive the mind beyond the limits of rationality and intellectual cognition. This approach views the koan as a psychological technique cunningly designed to cause the rational and intellectual functions of mind to self-destruct, thus liberating the mind to the vast realm of nonrational and the intuitive” (Hori).

Hori argues that this instrumentalist approach “deprives the koan itself of meaning. The koan, it is said, cannot be understood intellectually; it gives the appearance of being meaningful only to seduce the meaning-seeking mind to engage with it. This interpretation ignores the mass of evidence contradicting the idea that the koan is no more than a meaningless, blunt psychological instrument … It is much more sensible to begin from the assumption that koans disclose their own meaning (though not necessarily an intellectual one), once they have been properly understood.” Another difficulty is that “the instrumental approach introduces dualism and dichotomy back into the picture again.”

To this instrumental model, Hori prefers the “realizational” model, a term he borrowed from Hee-Jin Kim. In the crisis of self-doubt triggered by failing to grasp the meaning of “the sound of one hand” or the “original face before father and mother were born,” “one experiences the koan not as an object standing before the mind that investigates it, but as the seeking mind itself. As long as consciousness and koan oppose each other as subject and object, there are still ‘two hands clapping’, mother and father have already been born. But when the koan has overwhelmed the mind so that it is no longer the object but the seeking subject itself, subject and object are no longer two. This is ‘one hand clapping’, the point ‘before father and mother have been born’. This entails a ‘realization’ in the two senses of the term. By making real, i.e., by actually becoming an example of the nonduality of subject and object, the practitioner also realizes, i.e., cognitively understands, the koan. The realization of understanding depends on the realization of making actual.” Such an approach allows us to say that the koan is not merely “a blunt or meaningless instrument.” It also possesses “a meaningful content of its own which can be apprehended intellectually.” We could say that non-duality must be “real-ised,” i.e., made real as an experience, before it can be “cognitively understood.”

Does this mean that when you attain a kensho, that is, a “taste of enlightenment,” you have a direct apprehension of reality “without any intellectual or conceptual activity”? When Nagarjuna describes the way we “superimpose” a layer of concepts that conceals reality as it is in its suchness, we tend to imagine that we need to remove this layer of concepts in order to see reality in its suchness, and its non-duality, in the same way we would clean a window to see more clear what is outside. This is not so. Hori writes: “Within the experience of the nonduality of subject and object, there is still intellectual cognition … One sees the world through concepts like “here,” “there,” “tree,” “table,” “red,” “loud,” “bowl,” “book,” etc … Without the investment of conceptual activity in perception, the phenomenal world would become a blur of amorphous patches of color, sounds that we would not recognize as speech, sensations without meaning. The mind of a Zen master is not booming, buzzing confusion. The fact that the world continues to be clearly perceived and that one’s surroundings can still be described in ordinary language indicates that the experience associated with Zen awakening cannot be a ‘pure experience’.”

When given a koan such as “the sound of one hand” or “what is your original face before your father and mother were born,” our frustration at not being able to make sense of it eventually forces us out of our usual mode of thinking, and throws us into a deep existential crisis. The doubt about our ability to solve the koan grows into the Great Doubt, which in the end becomes the Great Death of the ego-self, following which arises the Great Joy of enlightenment. Dogen taught that we should “forget” the “sense of” self. The Rinzai koan practice literally “blows up” the (sense of) self.

Hori notes that “the experience of realization in a koan is indescribable, but only in the very ordinary sense in which all immediate experience is basically indescribable. The resistance of the koan to words is no stronger than the resistance of the aroma of a cup of coffee is to verbal expression … To know the sensation of hot and cold is one thing; to explain it to one who does not know it is another … When I speak of the aroma of a cup of coffee and the sensation of hot and cold, other people know what I am talking about because they, too, have smelled coffee and felt the sting of hot and cold.”

The initial barrier koans, such as the Mu koan and the “sound of one hand” are the first koans given to practitioners and it may take years before the practice triggers a kensho. But even when this takes place, this is not the end of the story. A “post-kensho,” or “post-satori” practice is required to ensure an integration of the new experience into one’s life, with many more koans having to be passed.

Shohaku Okumura – Realizing the Genjokoan
Victor Sogen Hori – “Nature of the Rinzai Koan Practice,” in Sitting With Koans, edited by John Daido Loori

The Myoshinji (Kyoto): one of the main Rinzai Zen temples in Japan