A koan can be anything that disrupts our usual way of being. Have you noticed that happens a lot in life? Eve Myonen Marko and Wendy Egyoku Nakao explain how we can use our personal koans to experience reality in a new way.
The Mom gives instructions.
The boy looks at his shoes and dances.
The Mom repeats the instructions.
The boy looks into the air and continues to shuffle his feet.
The Mom gives instructions for the third time, her voice rising in frustration.
The boy dances away and says, “Mom, why do you have to be such a bitch?”
The last word got the Mom’s attention like nothing else. Tired and overworked, she might well have lost her temper when her son called her what he did. Instead, the word bitch caused her to stop and go silent. Her thoughts and feelings, her anger and frustration all came to a sudden halt. What remained? Bitch. So she plunged into bitch, her householder koan.
When we work with koans, searching for an answer or solution by using our rational mind or usual way of thinking gets us nowhere. Koans demand that we forge into ways of seeing and responding that have nothing to do with analysis, or even reflection, and everything to do with spontaneity, playfulness, imagination, patience, and most important, a radical acceptance of life as it is.
What are the fundamental ingredients of our life?
A life situation becomes a koan when it has jolted you out of your usual linear way of thinking, out of the dualistic observer/observed modality that we are so conditioned to use. It becomes koan practice when you no longer think about the situation but instead close the gap between the subject and the object, between yourself and what you are facing.
Instead of contemplating the circumstance of your life, you plunge into the very sound, smell, taste, and feel of it, and you stay with that in the face of the temptation to back away into the safer zone of observation and commentary. Stories and feelings will probably swirl in the beginning, as they usually do when we first start to meditate, but eventually, with patience and steadfastness, a different kind of realization dawns, arising from the very marrow of things rather than from the superficial mind.
What are the fundamental ingredients of our life? Change, interdependence, cause and effect, and the fluid nature of everything that we refer to as emptiness. These are not just timeless Buddhist principles; they underlie our very existence as human beings, day by day, hour by hour. We find them everywhere: My son is addicted to opioids, what do I do? I am an aging, lonely woman, and am afraid of the future. Approaching such situations as koans demands that we align our subjective life, including all its attachments and wishful thinking, with life as it is, unfolding all the time. A gap is implied here; plunging into this gap, we come into visceral contact with impermanence, karma, no-self, and the interdependence of all life.
Instead of asserting our ideas about what should be, we learn to discern wisely based on what is. “Close the gap between yourself and Yourself,” wrote Taizan Maezumi, founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. As you settle into Yourself, your capacity to love and respond to suffering—yours and that of all beings— swells and expands.
Koan: What Is Best?
—I’m leaving home.
—I beat him up because he called me names.
—I’m too fat so I’ve stopped eating.
—I want to drop out of school and smoke dope.
If you know what to do, you fall.
If you can’t decide, you fall too.
If you lie awake at night staring up at the ceiling, how does that help?
As a mother, Barbara often had to make decisions for her children: When would they be ready for kindergarten? Which school would be best for them? How late could they stay out as teenagers? One often behaved differently from the others: resisted going to kindergarten, made too much noise in school, was too quiet, etc. Often teachers, family, and friends had clear opinions about what to do, while Barbara and her husband felt they did not know.
She had the same koan for many, many years: What is best for you, my child?
How many sleepless nights do you suffer when your child doesn’t follow the rules? How many arguments do you have with your husband or wife about your children? How many concerned discussions do you have with teachers and counselors? How many exhortations, appeals to common sense, and promises of sticks or carrots do you make until you finally collapse on a chair in exhaustion, stare into outer space, and wonder if there’s anything harder than being a parent?
Aren’t we supposed to be a little more detached? Many people think that’s what Buddhism is all about: some way of making things clean, calm, and clear. But does clarity emerge from seeking an optimal, perfect solution, or from letting go of the delusion that such a thing exists?
Returning to a state of not-knowing calls you to let go of self-centered habits and concerns, such as: Am I a good enough mother? Am I too strict or too loose? Why doesn’t he do what I tell him?
We can become tense, anxious and angry, or we can make things more workable. We look deeply at our ingrained habits and tightly held beliefs, such as always having a clean house; always serving a healthy meal; always being available, perfect, and in control. Letting go, we open up the hand that clutches at idealizations of the perfect child and the perfect parent.
Even less helpful are the comparisons: He is not like the others, she is in the bottom fortieth percentile, he doesn’t participate enough, she has ADHD, etc. Data-based generalizations may have some value, but often have nothing to do with the uniqueness of your child. She isn’t like the other kids on the block. Not only isn’t she like the others, she’s not even the way she was a minute ago. Can you bear witness to her individuality and ask how she could bloom into the fullness of herself? How he or she can become exactly who he or she is?
How closely attuned are you to the unique and distinct aspects of your child? To develop such attunement, you may have to let go of others’ comparisons and advice. Is there a personal agenda you’re trying to implement here? An ambition or vision of your own that you wish to actualize? Can you step back from all of that and ask: What is best for you at this moment? When the answer arrives, hold it lightly and ask the same question the next day, opening to a new answer again and again.
Judging, comparing, measuring, testing, and evaluating have their uses. But when they take all the oxygen in the room and shrink-wrap life into a statistical formula, we lose vision and confidence in our child and ourselves. Letting go of that delusion of expertise and perfect knowledge is not just a great relief, but also helps us return to not-knowing.
Sit for five minutes and breathe. Your life is challenging, and at the same time workable. Your child’s life, too, is workable. Bear close witness to its fluidity, individuality, its unexpected twists and turns. Instead of trying to make it perfect, just ask over and over the question: Who are you, my child? What is best for you?
When you let go of certainty and perfection, what’s left? How do you feel when you tell yourself that you don’t know what to do? Can you smile when you say that?
Used by permission of Monkfish Book Publishing Company.