I find koans very helpful and useful when I am trying to make a teaching point, using a koan to bring out a particular point. So I might be talking about, let’s say, karma, and then talk a little bit about how Hyakujo used the fox and related it to cause and effect and karma. So I will quote that koan and give my understanding of it, but the koan system I’ve never been that happy with.
In 1978 or so, Roshi said to me, ‘I want you to revitalize the koan system.’ In 2008 I kind of found a way to do that: I started doing Big Mind with koans. And that has evolved through ten years now. I feel my way of revitalizing koans is the way that I work with them in Big Mind. In fact I feel that by taking a voice, say Pride, and then asking to speak to its opposite, the opposite of pride, unawakened — that’s a koan. Because nobody knows what that is. Why? Because you can’t. When there’s no pride, there’s no understanding, it’s ungraspable. So to me, this is what Roshi asked me to come up with, but not how either he or I had thought of it. He could not have visualized it, nor could I, but I do feel it’s an answer to his request to come up with a revitalized way of doing koans. And I feel in some ways it’s superior, and in some ways not.
I still feel traditional koan study is important, and the way we do it can be important. But it complements the Big Mind work, and the Big Mind work complements the koan work. I don’t feel either one replaces the other; they are complementary, along with shikantaza, or sitting. Nowadays when I sit, I often sit shikantaza. Sometimes I work with something in the Big Mind way. And sometimes I’ll even look at a koan I did back in the 70’s, and I’ll come up with maybe a different or a new way of appreciating it that I couldn’t see back then. I mean in the 70’s I was in my twenties and thirties. Now I’m in my seventies, so of course I see it differently and appreciate it, I feel, from a much deeper place.
So I don’t put a whole lot of emphasis on koans. And I hardly have anybody working with me on them, maybe two, three people occasionally. Not regularly, like we did at ZCLA or Salt Lake where it was every day. So people have not been working with me in that way recently, probably because they sense that I’m not all that excited about koans. But I do love koans, just not the way we used to work on them. It’s more an appreciation of individual masters, seeing through the eyes of the master, seeing through the koan that comes out of the master, like say, when a monk comes to see Joshu, and Joshu is somewhere between eighty-four and one hundred twenty-four, and the monk says ‘I came here expecting to find the great stone bridge of Joshu, and all I find is a broken down wooden bridge. Where is this great stone bridge of Joshu?’ And Joshu answers, ‘right here in front of you.’ And the monk says, ‘well I don’t see it.’ Joshu says, ‘it’s right here for asses and donkeys like yourself to cross over.’
Now, I have great love for what it took for somebody like Joshu to get to the place where, one, he’s not shiny any more like a great stone bridge, he appears to be just an old broken down wooden bridge. And, at the same time, with such a beautiful way of expressing the teachings.
(from a Zen Teacher Retreat, November 2018)