You can let a koan get you in over your head. For some people the best thing about a koan is entering the moment of mystery and strangeness and disorientation and possibility that shifts your life. Being uncomfortable with a koan can be part of its driving force. So I want to say that these comments on koans are meant to create a culture in which the way of understanding koans is natural. They are not meant as the right way to see the koan or as explanations.
The most fundamental move in meditation is compassion, not being at war inside our minds. In practice this means not judging, criticizing or even assessing what comes up in the mind. Circumstances might not change but we have a chance at freedom inside them anyway.
This Week’s Koan: “Stop the War.”
That is the whole of the koan: Stop the war. This is an old koan, used early in the traditional Japanese curriculum. In this koan you move into and toward what is happening; stopping means embodying, entering the situation fully and finding freedom that way. War was a fact of life for those who invented the koan system, just as it is for us. The first step in stopping the war is noticing the war. It’s also good to notice what peace might be.
Let me try to find a language to describe peace. Sometimes a silence appears inside. It’s comforting, vividly alive and clear. I think these moments are just how it is when there isn’t a war inside, when the mind isn’t going out questing and reaching for things. I can be alone, or I can be with other people. Sometimes I feel this condition as a darkness because it seems to have a lot of what I don’t know in it. It doesn’t come with a map that can substitute for it. I can move into it without sending my expectations out ahead of me. I can be calm or excited or anything at all. When I’m with another person in this way it feels like love.
Sometimes it seems like a brightness that is always at home. The same brightness that looks out at everything also looks back at me from the things I see.
So one possibility in the mind is that there is a peace that runs underneath the events and conversations. In San Francisco Bay the herring have just come in to spawn. In the twilight the seals are in the Sausalito Yacht Harbor and you can just make out the dark shapes of their backs and tails and occasionally see one leaping. A herring jumps out of the water onto the slip. You can hear the splash and the breathing of the seals as they swirl to and fro. Everything is vivid beyond comparison. Talking with my friend while walking along the dock is another example. It doesn’t enhance or interrupt what is always there.
Everything comes out of the silence and still rests in it. The simplicity and effortlessness of living are part of the silene. This might well be how a seal or a dog experiences the world. Or for that matter a herring being chased. Each moment fills all of space and time. There is no particular content to the mind and heart and any content can appear.
About ten years ago I remember talking with a Thai Abbot, Achaan Jumnien, who said that it had been some years since he had had a disturbing thought. He didn’t mean that he was in a state of deep concentration, he said he thought deep concentration was overvalued. I just took him to mean that he wasn’t disturbed by his thoughts. At the time I assumed that I knew what he meant but later wondered what a disturbing thought would be for him. I took him to mean that it is possible that his mind was identical to someone who was unhappy—in the sense that he wasn’t made miserable by thoughts and feelings that might make someone else unhappy. I imagined also that not being made miserable by any of your thoughts changes the kind of thoughts you have. The point here is that freedom might not be about what appears in the world, or even what appears in your mind.
I also notice there are moments when the transparence disappears. There is worry or fear or anger but that’s not yet a problem, it’s not yet a disturbing thought. When I identify with the worry or fear or anger then it becomes a problem. Then I start to think something in the world is causing me distress. I have a conflict with someone and think that I need to change them or manage them. Or I think I need to change myself or manage myself. Sometimes the identification happens before I even notice what I am thinking and feeling. Nothing has changed in the world, but a thought has entered my mind and brought a world with it. The night harbor is still full of strange beauty but I’ve withdrawn to a small chamber. I’m believing my interior life, starting to live in a movie in which there is a problem. When that happens I have to get out of the movie in order to have peace. I end up doing a lot of deconstruction, inquiry, invoking raw meditation power. Koan work is meant to break the identification with the movie.
War inside and out is part of the human condition. In Zen we begin by stopping it inside.
Paying attention and not interfering with what your mind is thinking is the basic movement toward peace. And paradoxically it changes what the mind is thinking. Then there is just the swish of seals in the night waters, the sound of their breathing, the slap of waves against the hulls, a late off balance moon rising very golden in the cold air.
Questions In Case They Are Handy:
- What does it feel like to be at war? What are different kinds of wars? What is the war right now? right here?
- The war often seems to be out there, Iraq or Nazi Germany or Troy, someone else’s war. What happens to you when you identify the war as outside yourself? Of the stories of wars that are outside of you, which one takes your imagination the most? Why do you think that is?
- Are there battles that were once important to you that you realized you didn’t have to fight anymore? What happens when you fight? When you stop fighting?
- Do you remember moments of peace? Do you have ways to be at peace when the world around you is not? What strategies have helped you get free when your mind is at war?
- What thoughts or images come to you when you sit with this koan? Are any of them unexpected?
I, May I Rest In Peace
I, may I rest in peace—I, who am still living, say,
may I have peace in the rest of my life.
I want peace right now while I’m still alive.
I don’t want to wait like that pious man who wished for one leg
of the golden chair of Paradise, I want a four-legged chair
right here, a plain wooden chair. I want the rest of my peace now.
I have lived out my life in wars of every kind: battles without
and within, close combat, face-to-face, the faces always
my own, my lover-face, my enemy face.
Wars with the old weapons—sticks and stones, blunt axe, words,
dull ripping knife, love and hate,
and wars with newfangled weapons—machine gun, missile,
words, land mines exploding, love and hate.
I don’t want to fulfill my parents’ prophecy that life is war.
I want peace with all my body and all my soul.
Rest me in peace.
– Yehuda Amichai
Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kornfield