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Buddhadharma : Summer 2015
summer 2015 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 63 an orthodoxy. They’re a living tradition; they’ve always changed as they’ve moved from one culture to another. They meet with the genius of every group of people that takes them up. I don’t see koans simply as words on a page or as a particular story or question but as the interaction between that story and the people who take them up. I am part of a reimagining of what the koan tradition is, which is based on a couple of things: trying to listen to what the koans seem to want and understanding what’s actually happening in students’ experiences. About twenty years ago, we noticed that stu- dents were responding to the koans in ways that went beyond the traditional answers. The question became, Do we try to stuff the koans back in the traditional box and insist only on the traditional answers, or do we let the koans jump free of the box and see what happens? The last twenty years for me have been a process of paying attention to where the koans themselves seem to want to go and to what’s actually happening in people’s practice with them. I only started talking about this recently because I didn’t want to sound like I was putting forth a competing dogma of what koans are about. But it really is the great adventure of my lifetime to be able to witnesses this tradition I love so much blossoming and flourishing in a new way. JuDy ROITMAN: Is it changing? My response would be yes and no. I’m a big traditionalist. I like to feel connected to ancestors, which I do when I go to synagogue and when I practice Zen. In the Kwan Um School, because we have so many teachers and because we encourage students to work with differ- ent teachers, the teachers communicate with each other about koans and our approaches to them. We try to keep enough of a common understanding that when a student gives a response to Teacher B that has already been approved by Teacher A, Teacher B doesn’t say, “Oh, that’s stupid.” We want to keep a common understanding of the koans to keep stu- dents from being confused. What’s interesting to me is that even with this commitment, there’s inevitable drift. Even my husband and I, who are both Zen masters in this school, find that we start drifting away from each other in our approaches and understanding. So while I want to keep to precedent, where I feel that an answer a student gives is one that could have been given one hundred, two hundred, or even five hundred years ago, at the same time I recognize that there’s this human drift we just can’t help. I might have a different answer for a question I received twenty years ago. But I do personally feel a kind of responsibility toward a core tradition that I want to somehow uphold. BODhIN KJOLhEDE: I have great respect for the public case, for precedent, and I worry about too much emphasis falling to a teacher’s personal interpreta- tion. It’s wonderful that there are so many different approaches—sometimes I write down what a stu- dent has come in with because I think it enhances my understanding—but only as long as the tradition of our predecessors remains foundational to the teaching. JOAN SuThERLAND: I don’t think there needs to be a choice made between a deep rootedness in the tradi- tion and a willingness to allow things to unfold in different ways. What I see as my task is to try to understand the spirit of what our predecessors were doing, then to look at the ways in which there has been cultural overlay on top of that. Orthodoxies have grown up around expressions of a particular time and place that don’t necessarily relate to us now. What is our expression? I think our respon- sibility is to deeply understand the spirit of the ancestors, then to do everything we can to find the expression of that spirit here and now. Koans by their nature are not an orthodoxy. They’re a living tradition. They meet with the genius of every group of people that takes them up. —Joan Sutherland