Monday, March 15, 2010

12 Who Is Hearing This Sound?—The Zenosaurus Course in Koans

Hearing Sounds

People are always telling us to get a life but don’t tell how. This koan tells how. Any fragment of experience contains a whole life, including the single celled creatures and the galaxies, including every triumph and defeat you might ever have. The moment exists before anyone has succeeded or failed or been virtuous or unhappy.

The koan this week:

Who is hearing this sound?

Anger, sorrow, cherry blossoms, the voice of a crow, a speeding Toyota, these appear in the mind. You can try to hold off what is rising in the mind and get a little space that way, but doing that is really a kind of pain and loss, and living at a distance from your life is hard work.

This koan tries it another way. Instead of turning away from the world, you can let the koan throw you into whatever is appearing. You don’t have to look for a place to stand. If you jump straight into what is arising, the koan starts to shape what is happening. The koan can operate below the level at which you usually manage things. So that is the hearing aspect of this koan. Just let hearing have you. This koan can be carried everywhere with you.

The idea is that it will take apart the building that you constructed to hold unhappiness. You don’t have to think, you just listen; you don’t go out to the sound to make out what it is and explain it, you just let the sound eat, and breathe, and go to sleep at night, you let the sound listen to you.

The next bit is the question—who hears? When the sound takes you over, it shifts what you are. There isn’t much left that is what you think you are. When there is just sound in the universe, what is it like to be me? Is there even a difference between that sound and me? And if this is true for sound, how about for the old wooden fence bright with green winter moss? You don’t either agree with the fence or disagree with it. And what about when I look into the eyes of another person? There is also nothing to have an opinion about there. And then if we come to sorrow or anger it is the same; you are not fighting it or agreeing with it. It is just the brightness of life. Any content arising in the mind is more or less equal in this way.

John Cage
So this can be a good way to work with koans. You let what is happening appear without fighting it off and you will notice that the koan describes what is happening. There is a feedback back from your life to the koan. Everything that happens then is part of your meditation. Meditation isn’t work; it is tremendously interesting, and fun. If there is no barrier between you and what you feel, see, think, taste, and hear, you are always being carried in the wave of presence.

For example you might want to look at what it is like to want things to be familiar and safe. And then you wonder whether you really do want things to be predictable. I just watched John Cage on an ancient TV show “I’ve Got a Secret” ( in which he performs a musical piece called “Water Walk” using a pressure cooker, a bathtub, a rubber duck, a pitcher, a goose call, some radios not turned on, a seltzer bottle and so on, even a piano. The host warns him that the audience will laugh. "I consider laughter preferable to tears," he replies. There is an immense good humor in the way he lets each sound take over the piece.

There is an Australian bird, a currawong, which is an ally of the jays and crows, intelligent and peculiar. I once lived in a house in the country, where currawongs held parliaments. Every few months, without warning, they would appear in the trees in the garden by the hundreds, calling loudly and swooping from tree to tree. And when they had finished their meeting, which would last the morning, they would vanish and there would be only the usual two or three currawongs visible between the house and the horizon. While they convened, their calls were so loud that conversation would stop. Their voices took us over, they would tip themselves off branches on purpose and catch themselves, executing a fine swoop, and I can still feel that swoop in my shoulders, the wings there, catching me as I fall.

Craig Childs tells a story in his book The Animal Dialogues about hearing ravens and beginning to understand things from their point of view. He followed a raven into an narrow canyon not otherwise visible. It opened out and had high walls filled with perching ravens. The ravens had killed an owl and, deep in the canyon, had placed owl feathers under stones in an array. As he went farther in, the ravens began to call and protest. They screamed at him, they swooped and threw pebbles. He turned back. Another day he came back with a friend and the same thing happened. The men came to see things from the point of view of the ravens—that this was a raven place, and that they had no business being there.
When you really hear, your understanding comes in a way that’s different from the usual.


1. What do you hear?
2. What do you try not to hear? How is it for you to make room for that, too?
3. What do you hear with your tongue? your eyes? your fingertips? your nose?
4. When you don't use words, who hears?
5. Close your eyes, put your hands over your ears, who hears?
6. Has there ever been a time when you’ve switched point of view with something or someone else?
7. Are there sounds you remember from childhood?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

11 The Coin Lost In The River—The Zenosaurus Course in Koans

Lost And Found
Some koans are about having a meditation practice. So this piece is going to be about some of the intricacies and dance moves of that practice.
The Koan This Week: 

The Coin Lost In The River Is Found In The River

The sun and moon are travelers in eternity. Even the years are wanderers. For those whose life is on the waters or leading a horse through the years each day is a journey and the journey itself is home.
Matsuo Basho

Meditation is something that you do, which is what makes it a practice. It doesn’t need much in the way of theory and it teaches you how to do it as you go. But in order to do it you have to actually do it. In meditation, the world moves toward me and through me and falls away behind. Even if I stay in the same place I am emigrating through time. This koan offers offers the chance of finding that there is a home in traveling, in the smell of toast, the chill of the morning air and even in the feeling of being far from home. The koan reverses the equation that the mind is always trying to solve.

In meditating with a koan you find yourself making moves that would not otherwise occur to you. Basically, you show up in the life you are having at this minute, without judgment or critique. Then you find out what happens.

Meditation goes like this for me:
Let’s start with the part about having lost the coin, let’s say the mind feels off balance in some way. That’s just the first noble truth, that we suffer and most of the things we try to do about the suffering thicken the suffering. The koan is the beginning of a step backwards, of a new direction.

When you are with the koan, you could say that the koan notices your situation for you. Any part of the koan will waken your sense of doubt in the thickness of your unhappiness, so the word coin or river might be what appears in awareness and that will be enough. It is also fun to think of whatever is happening in your life as the form that the koan is taking today. For example, today my body felt out of whack and I noticed my mind offering theories; my thoughts have been a bit sticky and off balance too. The theories are the usual flailing around that the mind does—maybe I need more sleep, maybe I ate the wrong thing, maybe I’m sad, maybe I should get that flu shot….

It doesn’t really matter what theories my mind offers, or even if some of them have a leg to stand on. The mind does lists: the to-do list, the I-can’t-bear-to-or-at-least-prefer-not-to list, or the list-of-dreadful-possibilities. It doesn’t matter whether you are waiting for the results of a cancer test or your lover just ran off, or nothing serious is going on at all. The mind treats the thoughts as an instruction to solve a problem but the problem can’t be solved in that way. The thoughts are handles on the situation. The koan takes away the thoughts, then I don’t have a handle on the situation because I’m closer in than that.

At first the mind rushes off after each item that comes up, whether it’s something that happened or a song hook. This doesn’t achieve anything. As the koan continues to operate, the mind settles a bit, it feels the pull of the theories and beliefs but doesn’t follow them so breathlessly. The koan’s job here is to pry you loose, to undermine you, to reverse the direction of the quest. Your awareness notices that it is somewhere and then it’s free for a moment.

Next the mind notices the thoughts but is less identified with them. What is happening when the mind is not chasing its thoughts is starting to seem very appealing. Even the sense that life is unsatisfactory becomes a piece of freedom, something amusing and full of life. Then even the looking is what you are looking for.

Next, not many thoughts or theories seem to be arising but whether they arise is not important. There is no need to move on from this moment, nothing to be anxious about, nothing to do. Then there is not much to say about what is noticed. There is no skin between you and the world. This is the “found” part of the koan. There is not a you and a world in any separated way. The sound of hammering from next door, a truck hauling up the grade, the coyotes doing their midnight cheer, all the sounds happen in stereo and have an aura of eternity about them. The river flows and where you reach is the coin. And the events inside too, the thoughts and feelings are also the coin.

The content of what is happening in my mind doesn’t matter as long as I don’t think it’s me or it’s real. What the koan does is to undermine the thoughts so that what is left is the world. When that happens we have found the coin already and are dancing together—along with the dog who has Buddha nature and the maple tree putting out new buds.

This has all sorts of implications. If I don’t suffer, if I don’t have my known problems, who am I? This is the core of koan work, where it is all headed. Then I step into a darkness or a vastness, and even my thoughts don’t tell me what to do.

The practice part of it is that it doesn’t matter if you think you lost the coin and start to be unhappy about life. That is another theory. And it doesn’t matter how many times that theory rises. Even that theory is the coin. A koan practice means that you go back to the river over and over again and you can trust that process. You can trust the moves your mind makes when you are not ordering it around, telling it to be happy or calm. Then you rest in the source and it it is apparently inexhaustible.

Questions, questions

1. What brought you to meditation? Was there a problem to solve? Does it work? Do you think you're doing it right?
2. Is there a treasure you seek? Can you describe it?
3. What happens for you when you meditate? What happens to the koan?
4. Do you have a favorite explanation for yourself or something in your life? What's it like to imagine being without it?
5. What's the most important thing you've ever lost?
6. What's the best thing you've ever found?

The koan is from the ancient Chinese grand master, Yunmen.
The painting "Incoming Tide" is by Adrian King from Lockhart River.
The map is by pirates.
The toast is by Orowheat.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

10 Save A Ghost—The Zenosaurus Course in Koans

Ghost Stories

Why do people sit around the camp fire with flashlights under their chins telling ghost stories? As well as the shudder that takes us to another realm, ghosts bring romance and yearning, they account for incompleteness, the person you loved but who died or changed her mind, the uncontrollable residue of everything we do. When I was in the North Queensland fishing fleet and we were far out on the Barrier Reef towards the Solomon Islands, people used to hear the ghost of a submarine. It was still trying to get home from the Battle of The Coral Sea decades before; all we heard were the engines. A diesel engine was usually a friendly sound but this one got on people's nerves. If you steamed off to a new anchorage, the rumble from beneath would follow you.

Some years ago I began assembling an alphabet of metaphors for koans. For example, B is Banana Peel, as in you go head over heels, C is Can Opener. The koan this week fits under G—it is both Game and Ghost story. A ghost story is a world we enter that mirrors a neglected aspect of our own.

The Koan This Week:

Save A Ghost

Let’s start out thinking of it as a game.

Q: Is this a stand alone koan or a sequel?
A: It is basically a stand alone koan, though it comes from a family of koans. Like 'Stop the War', this is a classic miscellaneous koan, given to a student after the light begins to dawn. Apparent simplicity is employed to take you on a plunge into murky territory, dungeons, forest paths, the past, darkness filled with flickering lights, secret teachings and so on. The koan often features escapes and rescues.

Q: Who will I see when I enter this koan?
A: It’s different for everybody because the koan changes its nature just for you. People who have caused you pain, people you have given pain to, incidents of remorse and forgiveness, forgotten people from childhood, people who were never born, the dead, animals, ships adrift in mid ocean, people you do not expect to meet.

Q: How should I use it?
A: Try it on your own ghosts and it will generate questions that are reassuring because they have no modesty or tact.

Q: How would I try it though?
A: Remember that area behind the no trespassing sign—where you haven’t looked since the last time something seriously unhappy happened to you? Use the koan. When we have a problem we think, ‘that’s it then, that’s settled, that area is radioactive and I just won’t go there.’ A ghost constrains our movements; we have to walk a maze—avoid our email or the phone or thinking about particular people or things that might happen. And because we don’t go there we don’t learn about what it is really like there, where the ghosts live. And because we are avoiding a place it’s hard to be in other places too, the avoidance starts to colonize the here. The place you are avoiding might be the place where happiness appears. This is the problem of suffering, the first noble truth.

Q: Is it an action adventure first person shooter koan?
A: Everyone starts where they are. The koan has its own life and changes you.

Q: What else might happen with this koan?
A: The koan contains point of view reversals. For example let's say your ghost refers to a time in your teenage years when your girlfriend took a nap on the couch beside you and in the night she was infected and when you woke up she was a vomiting zombie (it could happen and did in the online game Left 4 Dead and the movie based on it). In that case you too can become a vomiting zombie and see through her eyes, hear through the holes in her head and not be upset about the matter at all. Enlightenment is fundamentally an appreciation of the journey.

Q: Do you have any less Gothic examples?
A: As you lose your expertise, you go farther in (or to higher levels in the koan) The design space of consciousness is filled with characters who die and come back to life at different levels. You become more intimate with your ghosts, they reveal more of their helpfulness. They become nearer than breathing.

Yet More Questions:

1. If you were a ghost what would you do?
2. Someone said when he got enlightened the mountains got enlightened too. Do ghosts get enlightened?
3. Are your ghosts part of your family? Do you have obligations to them?
4. When you save a ghost, what happens to the ghost?
5. What is it like when you approach the no trespassing sign in your consciousness and what is behind the sign?
6. Say something about an old photo that you carry or remember.