Koan (Chinese: 公案; Korean: 공안 kong’an; Vietnamese: công án) is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen practice, is paradoxical to the thinking mind and agitates the discriminating/thinking mind in general, is used to provoke the “great doubt” and test a student’s understanding of Dharma. Koan training is integral to all Rinzai Zen lineages and many Soto Zen lineages. Traditional koans leave our intellectual minds bewildered. And that is the point.
Each koan is a wild, nuanced and a brilliant tool to teach or understand dharma. After one point, though, one begins to see redundancy in koans because there are over 3000 koans. Mumonkan, Blue Cliff Record and Book of Serenity are common koan collections for early years of Zen training. Different teachers approach koan training in slightly different ways. One aspect of koan training is true for most lineages, however. Usually teachers test the students for their ability 1) to stay with a paradox without falling into trap of analyzing it intellectually, 2) to go beyond the duality in the paradox and look at the same paradox from the viewpoint of the shunyata (non-dual zeroness referred to as Mu in Zen tradition) and 3) to demonstrate a unique understanding in the interview room without reliance on intellectual analysis.
Traditional koan practice starts only after the student has stabilized their minds by breath perception as well as Mu practice. Zen practice is usually very narrow focus in early years in that it asks practitioners to focus singlemindedly on just one thing (outbreath) to the exclusion of other things. Mu is the first and fundamental koan and is also very “narrow focus” concentration practice. It teaches us “wholesome concentration”: a key aspect of the Eightfold path. Once the student has learnt to inhabit Mu, the practice opens up and is no longer “narrow focus”. Different koans make us mindful of different aspects of reality (Wholesome mindfulness). Koans highlight different aspects of reality or our inability to live in accordance with that reality one by one. Without stabilization of mind and a deep understanding of Mu, other koans are not as transformative as they could be. It is usual for Zen students to spend several years of this first koan. Some teachers think of Mu as the Mahayana version on annata/shunyata but it is not just a state of heart-mind but rather an intrinsic TRUTH. A short talk on the importance of Mu koan is available here.
Koans work in unconscious and subconscious (archetypal) ways. Some teachers, especially initially, ask students to repeat the key phrase (also called turning phrase) of the koan like a mantra at each out-breath while also focusing on hara (center of our being, nerve center below navel that activates vagus nerve; please see the vital importance of breathing from hara below). I have worked with teachers who place more importance on arousing deepest level of curiosity about the central paradox of the koan instead of and/or in addition to mantra-like repetition. Sooner or later, with varying degrees of hints from the teacher, students grasp the underlying paradox in the koan intellectually. Once the paradox is understood, the key tasks that remain are facing our attachment to the duality in the paradox, transcending that duality and presenting the understanding of the paradox from the viewpoint of Mu. It can takes months, weeks, days or a few hours for the koan to work itself out. We can’t be hasty!
Importance of koans and breathing from hara
Breathing from hara (lower belly, gut brain) is vital for koan training. Please consider getting basic instructions on posture and breathing from hara (watch introductory videos). Long meditation sessions are essential for koan training. Zen retreats can be quite tiring for our physical bodies and our thinking minds (which is excellent). The result of the this tiredness is that deep memories including troubling psychological issues that are usually hidden from our conscious mind, bubble up. When such issues arise, they are often associated with body sensations that are not pleasurable. Some of us who follow the mindfulness of sensations as a practice technique and are able to compassionately but non-judgmentally watch these sensations evolve or be held in a wider consciousness of space around us. Some of us, however, feels very agitated by emergence of unsettling memories and resulting sensations. Breathing from our hara can be extremely helpful in such circumstances because it activates vagus nerve (see below) and calms us down. Because of our traumas and stresses, we are blocked from accessing reality in different conscious and unconscious ways. Koans unblack us step by step.
It is the longest nerve of autonomous nervous system. It helps us “rest and digest” (parasympathetic response) as opposed to “fight or flight” (sympathetic response) and controls our emotions. It innervates much of our viscera (all of our internal organs) with the notable exception of the adrenal glands. It is the critical nerve in the expression and management of emotions in both humans and animals, connects central nervous system with autonomous nervous system and considered to a gateway between our conscious thinking minds with our subconscious and intuitive minds. When the mind is strongly excited it instantly affects the state of the viscera (the whole body) through vagus nerve leading to unpleasant physical sensations. It is these physical sensations that are unbearable for those among us who are anxious. Some people can become more agitated when they are taught be mindful of their physical sensations. Artificial Vagus Nerve Stimulation, through electrical impulses via a surgically implanted pacemaker like device, shows promising results in reducing depression, anxieties and even conditions such as epilepsy and obesity. Here is what do we can to calm the Vagus nerve ourselves: holding the breath and tensing of abdominal muscles (including during laughter, coughing and even sobbing). Meditation traditions that focus on abdominal breathing might not have consciously utilized this understanding of Vagus nerve in their practices but it works. Anyone who has ever gotten Zen meditation instruction knows how much importance is given to deep bated breathing from abdomen (Tanden, Dantian or hara) which induces deep stillness and energy. Yes, working with hara alone without overall compassionate mindfulness can lead to spiritual bypassing and many kinds of problems that we have heard about. Simply breathing from hara can not be of assistance in itself. It can be a transformative tool for some people in a safe, caring and energized environment.