In the ancient Avatamsaka Sutra, Sudhana a young pilgrim wanders from one teacher to another in search of wisdom. These teachers come from all walks of life, some reprehensible, some ordinary, some exalted. Every one of them has wisdom to provide, helping him on his journey and they pass him on from one to another.
The lesson is that Buddhas can be found waiting at bus stops, on trains, in the next seat of an aircraft. Sometimes they knock on one’s door. Sometimes one glimpses them passing by. With so many Buddhas in the world, we all need to keep a look out for them and ask them for their help. Keep travelling. Keep asking.
In the course of many years exploring the Dharma I have had the good fortune to encounter many excellent teachers. At these meetings, the conversations could be profound, deeply philosophical, sharply challenging or include advice on meditation or simply a sharing in friendship. Now and again, however, I was thrown a ball I could not catch. These moments were abrupt occasions for thought, meditation and, in course of time, a degree of realisation. They remain the key turning moments in a development of understanding.
In classical Zen literature, similar encounters between masters and monks became the basis for Koans – those puzzling and paradoxical meetings that led to enlightenment or its contrary. Either way such stories became the focus for profound meditative investigation. Later masters would give them to monks as a focus for their own explorations. Through time, many systems of koan investigation developed. In Japanese Rinzai Zen a large number have to be solved in a series; in Korea there is essentially only one - “What is it?”- being the punch line from one of them. In Chinese Chan they may be approached in several ways; one may investigate several in a sequence or take one as a life koan. In Japanese Soto Zen the great Master Dogen gave long insightful sermons based on koans. In time, there was also a tendency to focus specifically on a punch line from a koan – the Hua-tou – so that a mere phrase or word became the focus.
In the Western Chan Fellowship we also use the Koan or the Hua-tou in varying ways in contrasting retreats. People of differing temperament thereby have opportunities to explore the Dharma in ways that suit them. In a key retreat we have returned to the contemplation of full Koan stories and this has proved beneficial.
I have realised that my own encounters with teachers have sometimes taken the form of koans in that they threw me into a paradox of classical form but through quite normal conversational comments in the present day. Koans need not be merely historical. Some of these encounters may therefore be of interest to contemporary Zen explorers and these are presented here as the koans of Layman John.