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Lions Roar : September 2019
ILLUSTRATIONSBYCAROLEHÉNAFF FROM THE MOMENT LANGUAGE blinked into existence, humans have tried to hold onto the words that accompany our mysterious moments of insight. We’ve etched them on bones, written them on papyrus scrolls, attached them to the refrigerator with a magnet. A bit more than a millennium ago, people in China started to call these words koans. They were sayings, records of conversations, bits of verse, and sto- ries. It appears that koans came out of a very old tradition of improvised, spoken word poetry, art that crystallized out of a particular moment of insight. Soon there were great collections of koans, and people discovered that meditating on them was a transformative practice. Koans came to be a way of com- municating understandings about the nature of reality. HOW TO PRACTICE Koans Koans, says Zen teacher RACHEL BOUGHTON, are a gate into the never-boring world of what we don’t know. (Or do we?) When I first heard about koans, I imagined them as obscure spiritual puz- zles for argumentative monks. That didn’t seem very appealing. But then I met an actual koan, and it was good company. I turned it over and over in my medita- tion. I let myself inside the world of the koan, and slowly, unexpectedly, it started softening me up. I became fond of my life, even the difficult bits—the grumpy children, the impossible problems. The French poet Paul Éluard explained it this way: “There is another world, but it’s inside this one.” Koans gave my prac- tice a new kind of energy. I found there was something in me that understood what they were talking about. Ever since, I’ve always had a koan with me. A koan is made of evocative words and images. It’s not generalized spiri- tual advice, or even a good idea; it’s a response to a specific moment, and that moment is happening now. Each koan is different and takes us on its own journey. Take this koan that I’ve worked with: Step by step in the dark, if my foot is not wet, I’ve found the stone. I can enter the koan through the stone, the dark, or the water. And when I do, it’s possible to see how this moment is like so many others: “I’m in the dark again, looking for a stone. I’m walking, taking one step after another.” I can see that dif- ficult situations are part of the condition of being human. We find ourselves in the dark because it’s in our nature to, and yet it’s also in our nature to find our way. The eternal and the ephemeral are connected. Koans will show you something, and it will never be how you or the world is wrong. Your criticisms and judgments, your plans for escape, for revenge or redemption—none of that matters to the koan. It will show you the vast web of everything, the net of jewels you’re a part of. Koans are a gate into the never-boring world of everything you don’t already know. Here’s a way to enter. RACHEL BOUGHTON, ROSHI is the director of the Santa Rosa Creek Zen Center. LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2019 21 CULTURE • LIFE • PRACTICE