A small and increasingly vibrant literature about Zen’s koans is beginning to emerge within our English language. I have added a word or two to that body of work myself. The quality of those contributions will have to be judged by others. But, one of my favorites among these, one that I find enormously helpful, is a new book by Ross Bolleter, the Crow Flies Backwards & Other New Zen Koans. What follows here is his lovely, lovely invitation to the koan project.
“In a certain sense, koans – like poems or jokes – can’t be defined precisely. However, we can say broadly that a koan is a formulation that, when deeply explored in meditation, provides us with a means to awaken to who we truly are, as well as to express, deepen, and embody that awakening in our lives. Koans are protean; they can appear, for instance, as a verse, a folk story, a teacher’s words, or a dialogue between teacher and student. Here is a traditional koan in verse from unknown sources that intimates the mystery of the Way:
“From a well that has never been dug,
water ripples in a spring that does not flow;
someone with no shadow or form is drawing the water.“Sometimes people encounter the Way in times of crisis, such as the death of a loved one or a life-threatening illness or through intense physical and emotional suffering. On such occasions, deep questions may surface: “Why do I suffer?” “Who am I without my loved one?” “Who am I in the face of my own mortality?” “What purpose does my life have?” Any such fundamental questions can be taken up as a koan – and our anguish spurs and gives us the tenacity to stay with the koan until it resolves.
“It needs to be said at the outset that koan is not a mere synonym for “dilemma.” And yet when we sit in meditation with certain dilemmas of our lives, we can wear out the intellect in the cat’s cradle of opposing considerations and end by sitting with just our not knowing. If we can endure there, continuing our questioning, clarifications may arise unexpectedly out of nowhere.”