Can a koan be explained?

I had the good fortune to do a retreat with Korean Zen master Seung Sahn before he died. Two things stood out for me during his dharma talks. The first is that he said that kensho (a brief glimpse of enlightenment) is no big deal and that he could give anyone kensho. The second is that he was teaching us about the unity of experience and the experiencer, which is a description of kensho.

On this particular dark and stormy day (No joke.It was intense weather), I enter the room reserved for dokusan (individualized instruction). It is very stark. The walls are unadorned and white. The carpeting is gray with a couple of cushions sitting on it. Soen Sa Nim (How we addressed him. It is Korean for Zen Master) sits on one of the cushions holding a crooked stick he borrowed from the Head Dharma Teacher.

All Rinzai Zen teachers seem to have a stick. However, this stick is very crooked. It is bent into almost a question mark. It makes sense that the Head Dharma teacher who is very playful and quirky would have a quirky stick.

This is the very stick Soen Sa Nim used to poke me in belly the day before. “What on earth possessed him to do that?”, you ask. He was showing me in most kinesthetic way possible where I should place my attention while meditating. I do not know it yet, but today I will start koan (a riddle used to shock you into kensho) practice.

I sit on the cushion across from him, he pointed to the stick and said, “Are you and the stick the same or different?” Having listened to his dharma talk, I knew the answer. I said, “The same.”

“Correct!”, he said. “But you use your mouth and that is a mistake. Now you ask me am I and the stick the same or different.”

I said, “Soen Sa Nim, Are you and the stick the same or differ…?” WHAM! He had slammed his palm against the floor as hard as he could.

He then said,“Now I ask you are you and the stick the same or differ…?” WHAM! I slammed “Correct!!”, he shouted.

He continued to ask koan after koan. I kept hitting the floor with the same ferocity. Each time he said, “Correct!!”

I got high, my mind was a peace and the storm that was raging outside was so vivid. I was experiencing my first kensho.

In retrospect, it seems to me it wasn’t the answer that was important, it was how I was when I answered it. When I was present, open and empty, my answer was correct.

©2016 Stephen L. Martin

Photo: Korean Zen master Seung Sahn

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