Do you have a big problem to solve?
Good. First thing, forget about it.

There are certain questions which have no answers. Yet these questions are vital and alive. They grab and plague us daily. We meet a new person and the question pops up. We make a life-changing decision and the question shouts out. We take a step into the unknown and the question stops us cold. These questions may be called koans. The answers cannot be figured out. They are designed to push us beyond logic into a new way of living.
Usually, we think of koans as coming from the world of Zen. But koans can arise anywhere, especially from our very own lives. These koans come to remind us that life is fundamentally unknowable, truly impossible to figure out.

Life itself, of course, throws koans at us constantly. The sudden loss of someone we’ve loved stops the thinking mind. The experience leaves us stunned, hollow or shaken in the face of the great unknown. It cannot be grasped rationally. Why is this happening? we ask. What will happen next? Questions like these are deep koans.

And, of course, these questions demand to be answered. Until we respond they haunt us, grabbing our hearts and minds and affecting the quality of each moment. Whether we know it or not, much of our time is unconsciously spent seeking answers. Sometimes we even feel we’ve found it! We’re thrilled, elated, victorious. Until the answer turns into another question.

Koans alter your perspective, take you out of the prison of a fixed point of view. Attention, ideas and behaviors become frozen. Whatever is frozen is no longer alive. Koans cause frozen positions to melt and return to the flowing water of life.

Like life itself, a Zen teacher presents the student with koans that she or he must answer! In fact, her very life depends on it. The Zen Master demands that the student make a reply!

We seldom face our problems as koans. Instead, we dream up all kinds of answers, search for understanding in all kinds of books.We grab at secondhand explanations and cling to them for all we’re worth. This is not to say that scripture and philosophy are unimportant. It’s just to say that the answers you find there belong to someone else. They’re not yet your own. You haven’t personally taken the question into your life, sat with it, engaged with it deeply. You haven’t allowed the question to do its work upon you, make you strong, bring you to life. From the Zen point of view, that’s a missed opportunity. Reaching for secondhand answers is a way of avoiding your life and your truth.

Painted Cakes Never Satisfy Hunger

If you go into a restaurant starving and read the menu over and over, you still will not be full. You must order the food, eat it, digest it on your own, see how it tastes. You must let it nourish you. Same with a koan. Koans are food, filled with vital energy. You must eat them up with your very own life.

When we first come to practice, most come due to hunger, pain, thirst, desire or just plain disappointment. We come feeling and hoping there is another way to live. Zen agrees. By giving us koans, it points us to another way of interacting with the world, another way of knowing and not knowing. Zen practice certainly offers another way of being, of discovering who we are and what we are doing on this precious earth.

Naturally, when we first receive a koan, we resort to our normal way of operating. We will continue trying to figure out the answer in the usual way. But as you bring your usual rational, strategizing mind to a koan, it has no choice but to laugh in your face. When you bring a prefabricated answer to a good teacher, he/she will reject it time and time again. Secondhand answers will not do. But the koan grabs you anyway and the dance begins.

Rejection Itself Is Another Kind of Koan

This rejection, of course, is itself another kind of koan. Rejection is something we hate and spend a vast amount of time and energy avoiding. But we can never pierce through a koan without experiencing endless rejection. Before the truth is revealed, our solid beliefs, fantasies and false ways of being must be rejected and let go. We must put down the menu and eat the food.

Beware! The Zen koan is a two-edged sword. Yes, it brings great happiness and freedom, but it also cuts your false life away. It’s entirely possible to work on one koan for several years.

The teacher will insist that you keep going! “Find the answer. Find it,” he’ll yell. “Your very life depends on it.”

Author's Bio: 

Brenda Shoshanna, Ph.d. is a psychologist, author and long term Zen practitioner. Her work is dedicated to integrating the principles of Zen, Mindfulness and Psychology with your everyday life. Brenda offers two weekly podcasts, and many audio books with cutting edge information and guidelines to a meaning and fulfilling life.