Wednesday, January 20, 2010

King Kong-an Interview

I missed Zen practice with the Kansas City Zen Group last night. Actually, I missed my bus which set my entire evening back such that I would have arrived an half-hour late. Really, it's no big deal, missing a sitting. People may wonder where you are but everyone knows that life is busy. They also know that I commute to work and when I take the bus, it takes me ninety minutes to get home. But last night was our monthly interviews and I really don't like missing them.

So what is an "interview"? Well, an interview goes like this: you sit in front of the teacher and s/he reads you a small story and then asks you questions pertaining to that story which you answer. Sometimes you answer correctly but usually, you answer wrong. The stories are known in Korean as a "kong-an" ("koan" in Japanese) and have a rich history in the Zen tradition, especially with Rinzai.

Here is a famous example of a kong-an from the Kansas Zen Center's website:

A monk asked Joju, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joju answered “Mu.”

That’s the kong-an. Then there are questions attached to the kong-an, for example: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”

So what is the point of kong-an practice? People sometimes say that the purpose of kong-an practice is for the teacher to check the student’s mind, but that’s not the point. The purpose of kong-an practice is to help us cut through our thinking (see KZC's website). You see, you cannot reason your way through a kong-an. Trust me. I've tried. Thinking about it doesn't work. Answering a kong-an often requires us to use intuition, although I hesitate to use that word.

So basically, it's a situation in which you are being posed a question where to answer it, you must cut through the meaning of the story and applying it to your situation right then, right there. For someone who holds degrees in philosophy, law and information science, where thought, reason and critical thinking have been nurtured and honed, kong-ans are tough. But I will tell you this: I have never, EVER left an interview with a frown on my face. It is not unusual that I have a good laugh at myself and my reactions.

So fear not the kong-an interview! Do as many as you can! It's at least good for a nice chuckle.

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