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Buddhadharma : Summer 2015
56 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 2015 That practice was koans. Initially, koans were simply stories about things that had happened—a record of a conversation, usually between teacher and stu- dent, though sometimes between two students or other people. Over time, additional elements such as poetry and references to popular culture were folded into the developing body of koan texts. The understanding of a koan includes individual experience, but it’s also held in the collective. That’s the public nature of the “public case.” In working with koans, we strive to find our own expression of that collective understanding that has come down to us through the centuries. When we experience the gap before vast empires of thought and feeling arise in reaction to a moment, that too is the field of the koan, which includes but isn’t limited to our individual selves. What’s so astonishing and beautiful about koans is that they aren’t intended to describe something to us or even teach us something but to invite us to take them into our lives so that we can experience the same state of consciousness as the characters in the story. BuDDhADhARMA: So in a sense, the student is step- ping into the story and trying on someone else’s realization. BODHIN kJOlHeDe is abbot of Rochester Zen Center in Rochester, New York. He was ordained by Roshi Philip kapleau in 1976 and installed as his dharma successor in 1986. JOAN SuTHeRlAND is one of the founders of the Pacific Zen School, which takes an inno- vative and contemporary approach to koan study. She is the author of Acequias & Gates: Miscellaneous Writings on Koans and a translator of koans from Chinese. JuDY ROITMAN received authorization to teach from Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1998 and transmission from Zen Master Dae kwang in 2013. She is the guiding teacher at kansas Zen Center and several other centers affiliated with the kwan um School of Zen. (lEFT—RIgHT):JenniFeresperanza,sashapulleyn,tracyrasmussen BODhIN KJOLhEDE: The word “koan,” or gongan in the original Chinese, means a public case or prec- edent. We look back to the precedent, to the under- standing of the masters, as a starting point. Teach- ers may add their understanding when working on koans with students, but those early guideposts are the basic frame of reference. JuDy ROITMAN: One of the striking things about working with koans is that you’re using language to cut through language. The phrase “before speech, before thinking” refers to an aspect of mind that is much more fundamental than what we’re used to paying attention to. Through koans, you begin to develop the ability to cut through ordinary precon- ceptions and ways of thinking, to respond not from the intellect or emotions but from that more funda- mental place. JOAN SuThERLAND: A new form of Buddhism was developing in China about 1,300 years ago, and it needed a new kind of practice in order to flourish. B uDDhADhARMA: The word “koan” has crept into popular culture, usually to mean a riddle or unsolvable question. So perhaps we should start with the most basic ques- tion: what is a koan?