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In the Moment: Jan./Feb. 2008, Vol. 16
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Zen Koan Practice Print this Newsletter



This issue of In the Moment explores the wonderfully complex world of Zen kong-ans, or koans. A koan is a Zen teaching tool used by a Zen master to train and sharpen the mind of his or her student. A question is posed by the master, and the student must answer accordingly. In his introduction to the Ten Gates, Zen Master Dae Kwang likens this verbal repartee to "Dharma combat," as the back and forth attacks and counter-attacks between master and student are similar to two swordsmen battling. And not unlike the mortal combat of a sword fight, koan training also has very high stakes, even immortal ones — the student's awakening to the clear, wise, compassionate mind of enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings.

Joseph Goldstein recounts the fear and pressure he felt prior to and during such "Dharma combat" in an excerpt from his book, A Heart Full of Peace (see "Heart Touching Heart"). His participation in an intense Zen sesshin shows how allowing yourself to be vulnerable, while unpleasant at the time, can sometimes lead to rewarding learning experiences. And finally, in her article "Koan and Shikantaza," Jan Chozen Bays describes the koan as a "game of pin the tail on the donkey." Only, we, the students, are the donkeys. Find out how both koan practice and skikantaza help one to break free from the delusion of our own mind and body.

We hope you enjoy this issue of In the Moment; and that it serves to inspire your meditation practice.

In lovingkindness and Happy New Year,
The folks at DharmaCrafts

In This Issue:  

Ten Gates Introduction by Zen Master Dae Kwang

The kong-an (Ch., kung-an; Jp., koan) is a unique and distinctive feature of the Zen tradition that sets it immediately apart not only from other Buddhist meditation practices, but also from all other spiritual traditions.

A kong-an is a seemingly illogical question posed by a Zen teacher to awaken a student. During the golden age of Zen creativity in the Tang dynasty in China (618 -907), teachers and students lived in close proximity and spontaneously confronted each other in everyday life situations. One famous kong-an involved a student approaching Zen Master Dong Sahn while he was weighing flax and asking, “What is Buddha?” Dong Sahn replied, “Three pounds of flax.” The clarity and directness of the reply—its quality of pointing directly to mind—made it valuable as a teaching tool even beyond that immediate situation. It was remembered, recorded, and used over and over again. read more >>

From Ten Gates: The Kong-an Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn, by Seung Sahn, C 1987, 2007 by the Kwan Um School of Zen. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA.

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Heart Touching Heart by Joseph Goldstein

The practice of compassion means letting experience in. A Japanese poet, a woman named Izumi who lived in the tenth century, wrote: “Watching the moon at dawn, solitary, mid-sky, I knew myself completely. No part left out.” When we can open to all parts of ourselves and to others in the world, something quite extraordinary happens. We begin to connect with one another.

One of the most memorable experiences in my meditation practice occurred quite a few years ago. I was doing a Zen sesshin—an intensive meditation retreat—with Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a very fierce old Zen master. Roshi worked with the koan method. A koan can be a question the master gives you that does not have a rational answer. One of the most famous koans is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The idea is to penetrate the essential meaning, and then to demonstrate your understanding in your response to the teacher. read more >

From A Heart Full of Peace, © 2007 by Joseph Goldstein. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications.

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Koan and Shikantaza: Escaping the Trap of Delusion by Jan Chozen Bays

“What is the difference between Rinzai and Soto Zen,” an earnest student asks me, “and which is better?” My simple answer is that Rinzai practice is characterized by the study of koans, while Soto practice is founded upon the practice of shikantaza. Because my teacher, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, was taught by both Soto and Rinzai masters, he trained his students in both styles. Here is a brief explanation of the two practices as I have come to understand them.

Koans are a mysterious and diabolical device for drilling down through layers of delusion, confusion, personal strategies and karmic tangles to arrive at an experience (not an idea) of a stunningly simple and fundamental truth. The goal is transforming, not collecting. read more >>

Koan and Shikantaza: Escaping the Trap of Delusion, Jan Chozen Bays, Shambhala Sun, March 2004.

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Dana in the New Year: Sangha Fund and Other Worthy Causes

The Sangha Fund
The Sangha Fund was started to help with the daily needs of monks and nuns in India and Nepal by Lama Migmar Tseten, the Buddhist Chaplain of Harvard University.

Since the Communist invasion of Tibet in 1959 and the subsequent flight of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans to India and Nepal, the exile Tibetan community in India and Nepal has worked to rebuild and preserve their religious tradition under very adverse conditions.

The life of Tibetan monks and nuns in India and Nepal consists of hard work, all day long, studying, practicing, and taking care of their monasteries for which they receive no pay.

Tibetan Monks need your help.
Tibetan Monks need your help.

One of the key things that these hardworking Tibetan monks and nuns need is adequate and healthy food, medical care, shelter and clothing. Often the monks and nuns live in cramped quarters, with inferior food, poor medical care, and clothing badly in need of repair or replacement

What You Can Do to Help:
Please consider making your tax-deductible donation today.

One dollar a day, $360 a year, will support one monk or nun with food, clothing, medical care, and shelter for 1 year.

read more about how to help >

Other Worthy Causes>

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This Moment @ DharmaCrafts

View the Jizo Photo Gallery as Shared by You, Our Customers

Hand Made Jizos As promised in our Jizo Bodhisattva newsletter, we have posted your wonderful photos online in our Jizo Photo Gallery. We know others will enjoy these photos as much as we did. Thanks for sharing!!

Our Newly Redesigned DharmaCrafts Gift Certificate
Based on your feedback, we have redesigned our DharmaCrafts Gift Certificate with presentation in mind. When you give this thoughtful gift, the recipient will receive a lovely sage green certificate in matching envelope, sealed with a lotus stamp. Gift certificates are available in any amount beginning at $15.00

Did you receive a DharmaCrafts gift certificate over the holidays? Browse our meditation cushions, jewelry, or newest products to redeem your gift now.

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Learning @ DharmaCrafts

Related Products from DharmaCrafts
A Heart Full of Peace by Joseph Goldstein

Zafu Zabuton Set

Related Articles from DharmaFriends
Kong-Ans, Excerpted from a workshop at the Whole World is a Single Flower Conference

Koan Wikipedia Entry

Venerable Master Hye-Am's Dharma Talks - How to Study Kong-an
(On the Closing Day of Winter Retreat)

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The Worst Horse

The Worst Horse has hand-picked these links especially for the DharmaCrafts community. Check it out for a first-hand look at the intersection between Buddhism and pop- and sub-culture.

Meditation for Compu-Geeks

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DharmaCrafts gratefully acknowledges the participation of our Dharma Friends who have contributed learning content to this issue of In The Moment:

- Shambhala Publications
- Wisdom Publications

- The Kwan Um School of Zen
- The Worst Horse

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