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Buddhadharma : Summer 2015
54 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 2015 Forum Joan sutherland • bodhin KJolhede • Judy roitman THE USE OF THE KOAN as a formal teaching tool entered the West through the efforts of pioneer- ing teachers such as Soyen Shaku, who taught Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Russell and their family at their home outside of San Francisco in 1905. (It seems that Mrs. Russell was the first person in the United States to undertake koan study.) Soyen Shaku’s student Nyogen Senzaki compiled his 101 Zen Sto- ries in 1919 and used koans in his teaching in San Francisco at least from the 1920s onward. Sokei-an Shigetsu Sasaki, a Rinzai master who pioneered the Zen way in New York in the 1930s, made use of koans with his students, including Ruth Fuller, who became his wife. Ruth Fuller Sasaki’s contribution to the development of Zen in the West through her translations of major Zen texts, including Zen Dust: The History of the Koan and Koan Study in Rinzai (Lin- chi) Zen, is inestimable. However, koans have always been with us, and always are. They arise natu- rally in life situations and out of the dilemmas we face. At times of crisis, as when we lose someone we love through death or separation, we can find that we are facing ultimate questions such as What is the purpose of life? In the instance of the death of a loved one, we may find ourselves asking, Where has the one I love gone? At such times, we may somehow find the tenacity to stay with a fundamental question until it resolves. Beyond the koans that arise spontaneously from our traumatic experiences, we can find or cre- ate koans from within the weave of our lives. My father, while not a Zen practitioner in the formal sense, exemplified grace under pressure, that abil- ity to deal lightly and freely with what is painful and difficult. When he was in his eighties, he was knocked down by a delivery van. In the hospital they put him in “treatment” prior to admitting him as a patient. Although no one could find time to get him a bottle to piss in, during the three hours he waited there, four staff members came round with their clipboards to ask him his age. He generously gave each of them a fresh response: “twenty-one,” “ninety-eight,” “forty-seven,” and, finally, “two hundred!” This story, treated as a koan, is rich in possibilities concerning time and the mystery of words. Verses, stories, dialogues between teacher and student, lines from the Bible, dreams, folk stories, and stories of our lives in love and work all fur- nish us with rich resources for the beginnings of a Western koan tradition. The koan literature we have inherited comes to us almost entirely out of patriarchal monastic traditions, so understandably there are lacunae, especially regarding relationships, family, love and sex, childbirth and child rearing. As Zen teachers and students, we have an opportunity as well as a responsibility to develop koans that reflect these aspects of our lives. Suggesting that we can discover or create koans in Western contexts does not mean we should aban- don the noble koan traditions that come down to us. Such a legacy is a matter of wonder and is tre- mendously efficacious. We shouldn’t abandon tradi- tion; rather, we should feel free to extend it. In the following panel discussion, a rare meeting of teachers from different koan traditions, we are invited to glimpse the world of koans—how they work, and how their practice is taking shape in the West. Koans How we work with Them How They work on Us introduction by ross bolleter ROSS BOlleTeR is a Zen teacher in the Diamond Sangha tradition and the senior teacher of Zen Group of western Australia in Perth. The author of Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment, he is currently compiling a collection of western koans. illustrations by marK t. morse