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Buddhadharma : Summer 2015
summer 2015 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 59 as a teacher, I don’t see how it’s possible. We do Skype interviews and email dharma combat, but it’s always with people we know personally. Since koans require you to cut through your own think- ing, how can you do that without guidance at hand? BODhIN KJOLhEDE: You need someone to guide you who’s not part of your own loop, just as in psycho- therapy you don’t decide to psychoanalyze yourself; you have to have someone who brings both experi- ence and a measure of detachment to the situation. The very nature of this practice requires working with a mentor of some kind. JOAN SuThERLAND: This is a very vexed question because with so few koan teachers, there are very few opportunities for people to stumble across that kind of relationship. I do agree that a teacher brings a perspective that is incredibly valuable; it’s not something you can reproduce in any other way. But there are some ways to bring the richness of the koan tradition to people who can’t have a one-on- one relationship with a teacher, such as having good translations of the koans. As a translator, I can see that some of what seems mysterious about koans is not actually a feature of the koans themselves but of the translations. And good commentaries can give people a more direct and immediate relationship with the koan tradition. BuDDhADhARMA: Once you’ve given a student a koan, what are your instructions in terms of how to work with it? BODhIN KJOLhEDE: The most common first koan we use is Mu. I tell my students that mu is another word for our true nature, just as desk and lamp and stick are all words for our true nature. But in the case of mu, you want to have your awareness merge with it as much as possible—not just while sitting but also in activity. In a perfect practice, a student would be absorbed in mu all the time, but that’s very difficult to do when the discursive mind is engaged in conversation, reading, or discussion. So I suggest that students go to mu during simple activi- ties that don’t require the use of the discriminating mind. One of the most effective ways of entering mu is framing it as a question. When you’re ask- ing What is mu? you’re really asking what your true nature is. But focusing on that question What is my true nature? can elicit discursive thoughts. The value of the word “mu” as a koan is that it has no meaning in English, which helps shut down the discriminating mind so we can access what lies beyond. JOAN SuThERLAND: That’s an interesting difference between our approaches. We actually translate mu to “no,” because for a Japanese person, mu does have meaning, and we’re trying to get closer to the spirit of that experience. To constantly say no, to bring it into your meditation and into the rest of your life, is a very strange, subversive thing to do that often brings up a lot of resistance. Why would I want to say no all the time? The destabilizing quality of that is a fruitful, powerful part of the practice. Another means of working with the koan is to drop away the concentrated repetition and bring in a question like What is this “no,” I wonder? Repeat it a few times, let it fall away, and notice what happens. The koans are interested in the dynamic quality of the mind, but if aliveness around the question disappears, or if the discursive mind is tak- ing over, you can come back to “no” as a concen- tration practice. You can also ask What is “no” in this moment? or What is “no” here?, inviting it to reveal something in every situation. You’re always keeping company with your koan, even in sleeping and dreaming states. People fall asleep to no. They dream no. They spend all night with it. You’re look- ing for the throughline underneath sitting, walking around, waking, sleeping—all of those temporary You’re not looking for an “answer.” You’re using the question to attain your true nature, to cut through conceptual thoughts just like a hot knife through butter. —Judy Roitman