A somewhat less effective version of the teacher/student relationship.
I like kong-an practice. There. I admit it, okay. I have fought it for years but, almost like a stalker, them damn kong-ans kept bugging me and bugging me until I gave in and you know what?
Sometimes a stalker does know what’s best for you.
I sat a retreat this past weekend at the Kansas Zen Center. Actually, I was House Master (or as I prefer to be called, Haus Meister Meisterhaus).
But that’s not really relevant. I just wanted to share the “Haus Meister Meisterhaus” line because it makes me giggle.
Anyway, this retreat was led by guest teacher Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barbara Rhodes), guiding teacher of the Kwan Um School of Zen. This means she’s the top-cat. This also meant that she would be doing interviews. It’s at these interviews that you are asked kong-ans.
For those who don’t know what a kong-an is, here is how it is explained at the KZC website:
Kong-ans (Ch.: kung-an, Jap.: koan) have their origin in records of encounters between Zen practitioners in ancient China. In kong-an practice, the teacher asks questions and the student answers them. People sometimes say that the purpose of kong-an practice is for the teacher to check the student’s mind, but that’s not the point. The purpose of kong-an practice is to help us cut through our thinking. It is an essential part of our practice.
Here’s a famous example:
A monk asked Joju, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joju answered “Mu.”
the kong-an. Then there are questions attached to the kong-an, for example: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”
You then answer the question. Got it?
For me, this has been the most nerve-wracking part of practicing Zen. And sitting in an interview with Zen Master Soeng Hyang was bound to produce all kinds of anxiety, right? Well, no, actually. ZM Soeng Hyang very eloquently explained to me the purpose of the kong-an interview. You see, it’s not so much about giving the right answer. It’s about being present, hearing the kong-an, looking at the situation and allowing yourself to answer with full confidence. Not unlike a child.
Ask a six-year old how much 1 + 1 is. “2.” Now tell the child, “No it’s not.” What’s her response? “Yeah it is, now get me some ice cream!”
What if you do the same thing with an adult? “1 + 1 does not equal 2!” They will begin to question themselves. Maybe 1 + 1 does not equal 2! Maybe I’ve been lied to this entire time! Maybe 1 + 1 = 3 because you have two numbers (2) and one answer (1) which equals 3!
The confidence that the child has in answering the question and sticking to her guns is something we all should strive for in our every day lives. Kong-an practice helps build this.
So what can I say other than, “I loves me some kong-ans!”