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Beth Joshi Mulligan - Working with Koans

January 19, 2016 by Jokai

David Blackwell Rev. David Jokai Blackwell
Yokoji Zen Mountain Center

It has been 6 weeks’ yesterday since the fall training period ended. I’m home on this cold Monday night writing in front of the wood stove in my living room while a group of practitioners are sitting in the Buddha hall during the first evening of the New Years’ Sesshin. It’s the first time in several years that I am not participating in it. I am still catching up on work and spending some time with Hugh and other family and friends. That is my practice right now. And I am sitting everyday at home.

I thought I’d share some observations I have, and things I learned about koan study, which might seem odd since I am such a novice, but who knows it may help someone who was as hesitant as I was to begin. I always told myself that I was not smart enough to practice koan. It didn’t matter that people I respect told me that intelligence has nothing to do with it, that was my story and I was sticking to it. I was afraid to even try. Once I “worked” on Mu for about 5 minutes and gave up.

Many Sunday’s when Roshi begins his talk by reading a case koan and then asks us what we think, I have absolutely no idea what has been read. Then as soon as he starts talking about it, I am brought right in, I get it. It’s about our lives. That is Roshi’s gift. When I teach Zen Meditation Instruction I sometimes try to prepare the newcomers. “At the beginning of the talk the teacher is going to read something which may make no sense to you, or it might, but just hang in there, because in a very short time he is going to make it, not only understandable, but really compelling and relevant to your life.”

A lot of times on the way home I say to Hugh, “Did you understand the koan?”, and he would reply, “Yes, it’s was about non separation.” And then he would elaborate. I still like him but, really??

Once I committed to be head trainee I knew I was going to have to start working with a koan. I bought the Book of Equanimity and before I could start scouring it for the perfect comprehensible koan, Roshi assigned me one: “Ungan Sweeps the Ground”. I went into Dokusan in early September and said, “Roshi, I don’t know how to start, can you help me?”. “No”, he said, “you’ll find a way.”

I left a little bit stunned and confirmed that I was in fact too stupid to proceed, but I was kind of stuck, I had committed, and this time I couldn’t give up. I read the koan over and over as well as Gary Shishin Wick’s commentary. Then I started to ask my friends. “Chigen, how do you work on a koan?” “Well it is kind of hard to describe. You can read about it, but be careful about using the commentary even though sometimes it can be helpful, it can also not be helpful. “Perfect, great, thanks.” “WaYu how do I do koan practice? I feel so stupid and lost; I’m just kind of swimming in inadequacy feelings. “Sounds like you’re right on track. Honestly Joshi that is what it feels like. That being said,, try to put your self into it, express it directly, you can’t think it through in the usual way.” Oh great, I know just how to do that, I thought. And then I started to get a glimmer of something. Once training period started, I had to go into Dokusan and present it. I turned out to be good at memorizing so that part was easy ,(for all the good it did me) I trotted out some of Shisin Wick’s ideas and, as Chigen warned me it got me absolutely no where. I tried saying what I thought it meant and Roshi would always stop me and say, “You’re explaining, you’re already good at that. Try putting yourself into these guys’ shoes.” Well he didn’t actually say shoes, but something like that. “Use the intuitive part; this will help you relate to situations spontaneously and effectively.”

I tried things; I was told,” no, too explanatory”. I left, I cried. WaYu assured me this is normal Yushin said something great, “I just tell myself, I am going to go in and have an interaction.” I really appreciated that! It took it out of the context of right and wrong. I could do that; have an honest if somewhat confusing interaction. Finally, I had exhausted my intellectual attempts and my explaining and tried something completely new. Then finally there was some movement. I moved to the next line of the koan. Hard to be too excited when there were about twenty lines to go, but something was happening! I passed one line!

One day when I was going for a walk with Hugh I told him, “There is something fundamentally wrong with me and the way my mind works.” He has a pretty deep understanding of many things which include - me. “Bee, because of all the trauma in your childhood you developed a fairly rigid linear way of seeing things to create safety and order, and the thing is, in many ways it serves you well.” Then he bent over and started to draw a picture in the dirt. (This is a very regular occurrence if you are out with Hugh or even at the dinner table, only it will be pen and napkin.) “This is what your mind, your way of thinking looks like”; he drew what looked like a castle buttress. “You peek out between these stone protections every now and then and this practice is asking you to come out from behind the fortress. To look all the way around. “ This actually made sense to me and it felt true. I told WaYu, “I feel like I am being disassembled, my whole way of being and thinking”. “You are he said, “but in a good way. This is what we signed up for Joshi.” And I knew that was right. So as the process unfolded and I continued the practice on this and several more koans (with plenty of crying but the good kind) I realized, this is exactly what I signed up for, to see things in a new way, without so much of these old defense systems in place. And little by little I came out from behind the fortress and felt free. So if you’re scared or intimidate by koans don’t be, you might just find freedom right under Ungan’s broom.


  • Alston:

    21 Jan 2016 13:44:56

    Thank you for this, Beth.

  • Riba:

    22 Jan 2016 18:18:05

    Yes, thank you, Beth.

    This is lovely and comforting (and brave). :)

  • Adele:

    23 Jan 2016 21:33:46

    Beth, I don’t even know what a koan is. What I do know, is that was beautiful and you’re smart enough to do anything you set your mind to. My high school counselor told me the same thing and I had a hard time believing it.

  • Genku:

    28 Jan 2016 11:35:56

    This blog was so amazing. You wrote a Koan of a Sangha broom: a broom with one straw cannot sweep. I must be peeling onions right now or something.
    Deep Gassho,

  • iris:

    23 Feb 2016 01:22:23

    An uplifting post to hear of your diligence, persistance and eventual discovery on a new way of seeing things without defences. When wrong perspectives was brought to my attention/awareness I was blown away. How deeply seated our old mechanisms can be, so entrenched they appear as reality?? Many blessings for your continued practise and thank you for sharing your experience.

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