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Buddhadharma : Summer 2015
summer 2015 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 57 JuDy ROITMAN: Part of the tremendous power of koans is that the student’s personal story is com- pletely irrelevant. One of my teachers, Zen Master Su Bong, once said to me that to work with koans, you have to be a great actor. What he meant was not that you pretend, but that you completely become the koan. So if someone is hanging from a tree branch by her teeth, it’s you hanging from that branch, and you are hanging there completely. If you are given one of the famous cases involv- ing an encounter between two monks, you become one of those monks, or perhaps a witness on the scene. Although obviously you bring your life to the koan, you become the situation, not limited to your own life at all. When people give wrong answers to koans, their karma appears. They can see their karma very clearly and recognize that it’s not relevant to the situation. Being able to recognize and look past your karma is a critical aspect of this work. BODhIN KJOLhEDE: Every koan, in its own way, points to this original nature of ours. By inhabiting the various roles in a koan, we are called upon to inves- tigate our true nature through the specifics of that koan. JOAN SuThERLAND: Early in my own study, I worked on the question Why can’t a person of great strength lift up his leg? When I couldn’t find a way into it, my teacher changed the pronoun, so it became Why can’t a person of great strength lift up her leg? Such a simple change, but it made me realize Oh! This is about me. The first realization, This is about me, is hugely important—but also not sufficient in itself. I saw that it was about me, but I also saw that it was about every other being that appears in the koans: the cypress tree in the garden, the donkey, the old man—all of them are me. So the koan is a way of getting us out of our constricted sense of self, not by denying or cutting off that self but by expanding it so infinitely that it ceases to have the limited meaning it once had. BuDDhADhARMA: How does one enter into formal koan practice with a teacher? JuDy ROITMAN: In our school, you walk in, have an interview, and that’s it. You don’t have to formally become a student; you don’t even have to have practiced before. Koan practice is open to anyone. That’s very different from other schools. BODhIN KJOLhEDE: I follow my teacher’s example, which involves having students first stabilize the mind through breath practice, which could be for weeks, months, or even years. Every once in a while I might nudge someone who seems particularly ripe for koan study toward the practice, but I almost always leave it up to the student to raise the subject. JOAN SuThERLAND: In our community, we don’t have one relationship with the koan, but rather what you might call a koan culture. There are a number of different ways in which someone might encounter a koan: through hearing one discussed in a talk; through koan salons, groups we formed to study koans together; or perhaps by asking me for a koan to help deal with a particular difficulty, such as their mother dying, which I’ll give to suit that situation. I sometimes suggest to students that they might be ready to begin koan practice, but usually I wait for requests for formal study. We’ve found that hav- ing different kinds of relationships to the koans can support and enrich one’s understanding and practice. BODhIN KJOLhEDE: Are your koan salons composed of people who have had a breakthrough with their first koan or can anyone participate? JOAN SuThERLAND: They’re made up mostly of people who are seriously committed to the practice, who haven’t necessarily had a first breakthrough but are becoming immersed in koan culture. But we also include in the mix people who are new to koans, because that’s really valuable. Most often the inter- est comes from people who have some kind of cre- ative practice, who are artists in some way. So we have the depth that comes with people immersed in the practice and also the freshness of those who are attracted to koans because it speaks to them in their creative lives. BuDDhADhARMA: Is there such a thing as informal koan practice? Thinking of our readers, most of whom will never have the privilege of working with a teacher who is trained in this way, how do Buddhist practitioners interested in koan prac- tice explore the spirit of this kind of inquiry for themselves? JuDy ROITMAN: I don’t know that they can. I don’t like saying that; I wish it were different, but look- ing at my own practice, both as a student and (lEFT—RIgHT):JenniFeresperanza,sashapulleyn,tracyrasmussen