A visiting Zen monk asked, “In the Rinzai School of Zen they introspect koans. In the Soto sect we are taught that introspecting koans in meditation only leads to intellectual understanding and diverts us from true, objectless meditation. Do you think that koans are even necessary in Zen?” Actually, both Soto and Rinzai schools utilize koans. It depends upon the roshi and the level of the student to determine how and when they are used. Most consider “empty-mind meditation” or Shikantaza to be too difficult for beginners and start with easier, less frustrating forms. It depends upon the student. One way is not better than the other.
Louie Wing said, “Zen without koans would be like Christianity without Christ. The koan literature and practice methods are really the only major factor that distinguishes Zen from the other Mahayana Buddhist schools. If you are attracted to a path that does not utilize koans, fine, but why call it Zen?” Well, as described below, zen is not defined by any physical practice (koans, meditation, archery, whatever). It is defined by how we do the things in our life. Thus, meditating, does not make you a zen buddhist but doing something wholeheartedly and compassionately does.
The monk said, “We don’t disregard koans; we just don’t use them for
objects of meditation.”
Louie Wing said, “If you distinguish meditation from no meditation then you turn meditation itself into an object.” Yes, that is an awesome way of putting it. Don’t objectify, just do it.
Image from http://mojo1000.com/1000cuts/koan-1000-jaws.html
Below from http://flatbedsutra.com/flatbedsutrazenblogger/ Ted mentioned this…and I thinks he brings up an important point… (Red and italicized are me)
Zen isn’t defined by koans anymore than it is defined by zazen or by the sutras or anything else that you may see buddhists do. Zen is defined by its approach to the tools we use. In essence, everything is a tool for realizing enlightenment; whether it is meditation, sutras, koans, roshis, work, family, gardening or doing the dishes. They are all the same. What differs is how much attention we put towards these activities. And at that point who cares if it is termed Zen or not. It doesn’t matter what you call it, the end result is the same – Enlightenment.
This insistence on naming or categorizing tools just leads to the annoying statement “zen and the art of…….whatever” or “Zen and ….”. A better statement would just be *insert activity here* because if done correctly (with mindfulness and moderation) the action itself is zen and is no different from anything else.
Don’t get attached to things because they seem more “zen-like”. Just do what you need to do when you need to do it. If you fish then FISH. If you run then RUN. If you meditate then MEDITATE. If you concentrate on koans then DO IT.
Just please don’t tell me or anyone else that because you do it then it is zen and that others should do it as well. It simply doesn’t work that way. We are too different.
Some of my most “zen-like” experiences have been playing with my daughter in the morning because she is up and any chance at zazen was shot to hell. But I see the action of playing with my daughter just as integral to my practice as sitting in zazen. No difference, just the same. All those actions of mine are all just tools towards my practice (not really Eliza, Daddy’s just kidding). I know that sounds so cold but it is true. It doesn’t mean that those actions don’t illicit an emotional response.
Take home message: Don’t get attached to things. They are tools. If koans work then use them, if not then don’t. In the end, if my axe breaks while using it, I don’t build an alter to it and revere it. I throw it away and find a different axe. Maybe similar, maybe different but its usefulness is over.