Sunday, March 6, 2011

'Working With Koans' - Albert Low

This short book (42 pages on my iPad) is a concisely written set of insights into how to approach koans. After reading it, I feel it will provide useful assistance and that it would make a great intro too. Plus, there are some wonderfully worded jewels about basic Zen philosophy strewn throughout. Mr. Low apparently runs a center for Zen Studies in Montreal, but I know nothing about him or his center so this post is only my response to his book. Naturally, my positive reaction likely stems in part from the fact that I agree with many of the statements he make in the book. That said, I definitely feel I learned something from his text and that it has helped guide some of my more unformed views.

The book starts out with an excellent explanation about why we need koans. Low provides one of his concise insights in describing the difficulty of using words to transmit Zen knowledge:

"When we use words...truth slips through the cracks. Words freeze experience into solid blocks. We try to fit the locks together with reason and seal them together with logic, but they fit badly, and we cannot help leaving gaps through which the vitality of a situation leaks away."

While trying to write about my work with the Mumonkan on this blog, I have encountered this problem again and again.  Low's wording above perfectly encapsulates the impossibility of effectively communicating Zen wisdom through verbal or written communication and why Zen must be transmitted wordlessly. Low also likens the knowledge we find in koans to striking a gong and listening to the sound that comes from it. Another good metaphor.

Low's text is straightforward and largely devoid of the new age mumbo-jumbo that often soils modern writing about Zen - and meditation, in particular. He rejects the idea that an 'elevated mental state' is needed to reach samadhi or solve koans. In contrast, what we learn from koans - and more broadly from Zen - is what we already possess. 'Ordinary mind is the way'. Amen.  He also points out what I have learned in my work with koans over the last few months: we cannot use koans to 'attain' or to 'progress'. That is not their purpose, and we cultivate the wrong mindset by coming at them this way. Working With Koans additionally offers some loose categories of koans and suggests different ways to think about them, questions to ask of them, ways to move around them.  These are all good tools, and I hope to make use of them as I continue studying the Mumonkan

While Working With Koans is just over 40 pages long, the latter half of the book focuses on Low's interpretation of a couple koans.  I did not find this half of the book very compelling. Either: 1) I'm not adept enough with koans to appreciate his approach, 2) my assessment of his approach as being a bit too distanced from the koan is correct, or - and most likely the correct reason - 3) it's just not possible to read what someone else got out of a koan and have it resonate very much. Based on what I have learned so far, what we get from koans has more to do with what we bring to them and where we are in our Zen studies than in any specific content they inherently possess. As a result, reading someone else's solution to a koan is a bit like gnawing on someone's discarded apple core rather than getting a fresh apple.

At the very least, Working With Koans was a good read because of some of the well-worded concepts Low shares around how koans work and about Zen mindset in general. I think it helped me, and I have a hard time imagining someone interested in this topic who would regret the purchase.

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