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Talk On Koans

"Each moment life as it is, the only teacher..."

We chant this line as part of the four vows at the end of every sitting, but life is a subtle teacher, one we often fail to hear or even listen to. So we turn to other teachers, including so-called Zen teachers, both here and now, and those old teachers we try to encounter in the literature and stories of Buddhist tradition. Many of these stories come down to us in the form of koans, or the "public records" of encounters between the old teachers and their students. The language of these old stories is often arcane, and unless we've practiced for a long time and studied the literature pretty thoroughly, we may unable to get any sense of what they were trying to teach us. In a way, it's like inheriting a very old house full of artifacts and antiques. Some look familiar, some we can barely make out or imagine what they can ever have been used for.

But if we take the trouble to dust them off and examine them closely, we may find some to be truly valuable, while others will turn out to be obsolete and end up in the curb-side yard sale. But it would be a shame to dismiss it all out of hand, and imagine that all the old stories have nothing to teach us. What I want to try and do in these talks is to dust off some of these old stories for you and show you how they was supposed to work in practice, relate them to the way in which we practice today, and see if they have any life left in them for us.

[Note: the translations of all the following cases, unless otherwise noted are from Robert Aitken's "The Gateless Barrier," North Point Press, San Francisco 1990. copyright 1991: The Diamond Sangha. All commentaries are copyright 1998: Barry Magid]