Skip to Content

Home > Teachings > Essays & Interviews > Essays > Joyfully Alive

< Previous | Next >

Joyfully Alive

Joyfully Alive
Joan Sutherland

One of our ancestors, Nakagawa Soen, wrote to another, Senzaki Nyogen, in August 1938: "I have been studying your talks on the Gateless Gate one after another. I feel emancipated just seeing the teaching conveyed in Roman letters rather than ideograms. Zen, which is fundamentally about the emancipation of all beings, is unfortunately sealed in some square box called Zen. In this enclosure the ancient dog in the koan 'Joshu’s Mu' has been suffocating. In English this 'dog' is so joyfully alive!" (quoted in Shambhala Sun, July 1996)

In this column I've been speaking about what underlies our house style, and last time I began to look at why and how we make changes in our received tradition. Sometimes, as I mentioned, we change something because it isn’t working—which implies that we’re thinking about what 'working' means, and we are. But sometimes the tradition itself is changing, outside anyone's control or intentions, into something else it wants to be. Nowhere is this clearer than in the way we work with koans. It can seem to me that the koans have their own daemons, their own guiding ancestors—their own fate, or karma, that is working itself out through us. I have no idea how far this working out can go, how much the tradition will continue to open out, but here is a brief sketch of the beginning of our involvement in this journey.

The current generation of teachers learned more or less like this: Koans had answers that had been handed down for a very long time, and the student's task was to match her or his understanding to the tradition—in other words, to come up with the time-honored answer. Everything else was secondary, and an interview in which you had the 'wrong' answer could last the thirty seconds it took you to present it and be told No. Koan seminars were rare events and included only teachers and very senior students. They could be high-pressured and competitive, and since the best you could do was present the approved answer for each koan, they didn't tend to encourage discovery. (As I write this, it's hard to remember we were ever like this; it feels like a memory of a distant lifetime.)

But then things began to change. It was a time we were working hard to include all of life in our practice, to make things more inclusive and transparent and embodied. Koan study, the treasure of our house, was necessarily a big part of this. Many of us had experienced working with koans as tremendously powerful, and we wanted to make this experience more widely available to others. At the same time, there was a lot of press from people doing koan work to open the practice up—to make it, too, more inclusive and transparent and embodied. Out of this grew a new appreciation for the process of responding to a koan; you'd end up at the same place, with the traditional answer, but we began to place much more value on how you got there. We started talking a lot about what it was like to carry a particular question around through your life. The distinctions between on the cushion and off began to soften.

That's how it was for a number of years, and then something unanticipated began to happen. It turned out that, when you valued the process, the responses actually got better—richer and more interesting, often, than the traditional answers. People were really taking the koans on and allowing themselves to be changed by the encounter, sometimes in quite significant ways. Then, instead of just demonstrating their grasp of a particular koan point, they were reporting on how it was, inside the state of consciousness to which a particular koan invited them. They were also taking the imagery of the koans seriously, sometimes amplifying it as with a dream, and they were looking for the ways a koan spoke to the stuff and matter of their own lives. Work in the room got realer and riskier and vaster, and sometimes unutterably beautiful. And it's not as though people were missing the traditional points; the ancient understandings simply became the starting point, rather than the end, of the exploration.

At the same time, koan seminars became a regular part of our lives, in and out of retreat. We've come to appreciate—actually, to consider essential—that the koan conversation is larger than self and koan, or self, koan, and teacher; that hearing what many different voices have to say about a koan broadens and deepens our understanding. It’s as though there’s a jewel in the center of the room that’s wrapped in not very fancy but attractive paper, and each of us pulls a bit of the paper off, until the whole jewel, with all its facets, is revealed for everyone to see. Entering koan space together as a group is a new and powerful experience and is further changing our ideas about what koans are, and what it means to practice together.

For the last few years, then, our theory and our practice of koans have been co-evolving, and everyone working with koans is part of the collaboration. Out of this mutual arising comes what I'll provisionally call the koan way and koan life. The koan way is our relationship with the koans: what we do with them, what they do with us, what we understand about how they work. It's also the method of inquiry that comes out of koan study and can stand free of it. It's an attitude, a perspective on life we've characterized as a warm curiosity.

Koan life is, perhaps, a newly emerging understanding about how we begin to experience things—what life, the universe, and all that are like—after we've spent some time with the koan way. It's what the view is like when the stories drop away, what being in the moment is like when the moment stretches all the way to the horizon in every direction. And what Tuesday morning at the breakfast table is actually like with such a view, in such a moment.

Recently someone asked me if I was afraid the koan tradition would be diluted or trivialized by opening it up. It's interesting when you're asked a question that surprises you, and in the freshness of the moment the answer arises so immediately and so strongly: Not even a little bit. It is so clear to me that the koans have their own fate, and that they're quite capable of taking care of themselves. Around this country there are already a number of people working with koans in quite different ways, and I do not find this worrisome. I discover something new about koans every day. I see the effect they have in people's lives. The more time I spend with them, the more I talk with others working with them, the more I'm aware of how vast and full of possibilities the koans are. They are the ancestors, come to make ancestors of us, in our time and our lives—on Tuesday morning, at the breakfast table.