A gong-an (koan) is a recorded interaction between a student and a teacher.
They’re not like overhearing two people talk about the weather (though I guess, in a way, that’s exactly what they are). They’re paradoxical, metaphorical, or intuitive exchanges meant to point directly to the mind’s nature.
There are several collections of gong-ans, like the Book of Equanimity and the Gateless Gate, and you and find them scattered all over the Records of the Transmission of the Lamp. Not all gong-ans are between people, some of them are old stories or parables.
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
I met this gong-an early in practice, after the first few weeks of it. I enjoyed it right away because, unlike a lot gong-ans, its meaning seemed rather feel-good, straightforward and easy to digest: live in the present. Even though that is one message to gleam from it, it’s not the only one. The unasked questions in that gong-an are, “What are the mice? What are the tigers? Who is the man? What is the strawberry? How does he survive?”
What Do You Do?
Another one I like is:
It was Master Weiyan of Yaoshan’s first visit to Shitou. He asked, “I’m basically familiar with the scriptures, but I still can’t seem to understand the Southern teachings of ‘point directly to the mind’ and ‘see one’s nature and attain Buddhahood.’ Master, would you please have compassion and show me the meaning?”
Shitou replied, “You can’t do, you can’t not-do, and you can’t neither-do-nor-not do. What do you?”
To put it in slightly more communicable terms:
There’s a lion in the room with you. If you move, you die. If you don’t move, you die. If you think, “There is no life or death,” you die. How do you cheat death?
Working with Gong-ans
People work with gong-ans in different ways. Some of them just keep repeating them over and over in their heads like mantras. That can help cultivate concentration, but it doesn’t really do much else.
Some people approach them analytically, like a riddle or math problem. That’s not gonna crack it, at best that approach just gets you frustrated and tires you out—which is helpful in small doses. I don’t like it when people get too comfy or cocky. Working with a gong-an in a logical way can unsettle us a bit and knock us down a few pegs.
Others work with them intuitively, calling up the gong-an and then kind of feeling for the answer. Like if we’re looking at a painting and it gives you a certain feeling, so then I ask, “Paint that feeling.” Then, inspired by that painting, you get to work on your own canvas. You’ll probably go through quite a few of them as that feeling ripens.
Another way is to turn the gong-an into a Hua Tou. So, for the above cases, we could ask, “What is the strawberry?” Or, “What is cheating death?” At first we can ask the question while keeping the whole gong-an in our back pocket for context. Then, when it’s engraved enough, we can just focus on the question, and—especially—the questioning mind.
Each gong-an is essentially asking, “Who am I?” in a variety of different ways.
I like working with a gong-an by bringing it to life, stepping into it. While sitting, standing, walking, and lying down, I am the person dangling from that cliff biting into that strawberry.
But we can go further than that. We can also be the strawberry, the vine, the mice, and the tigers all at the same time. Life isn’t one-sided. To really see something as it is, we have to see it from all angles. If we see a fox catch a rabbit, our perspective—thus our feelings about it—are gonna depend on which mind we’re empathizing with.
If we just empathize with the rabbit, we’re probably gonna suffer, because that poor bunny is terrified and in pain so that’s all we’re going to see. That’s like if there’s a clear crystal with a blue laser shining into, so we say, “The crystal’s blue.” If we just empathize with the fox, then we’re only going to see cold apathy and savage glee. That’s like seeing a red laser and saying, “The crystal’s red.”
In both cases, we’re gonna suffer because we’re going to form views that don’t reflect reality as it is. Eventually, reality’s gonna challenge those views, and if we can’t accommodate its teaching, it’s gonna beat the shit out of us until we do. That’s all suffering, stress, and dissatisfaction are: reality saying, “You’re not listening to me!”
To really grok the situation, we need to see both sides—the rabbit’s and the fox’s—at the same time. This uncovers another view. If we mix red and blue together, we get something new: magenta.
But that’s still not reality, that’s mixing the two views together with our own self-view thrown in as well. The only value in mixing the two together is so that we can see the crystal change colors. Since it can change colors, that means those colors don’t belong to it. It’s really colorless and clear.
The crystal is our minds.
Gong-ans challenge one-sidedness, analysis, the go-getter mind, and stubborn views. We can’t crack them by using those tools, because they’re like mining instruments. But the gold isn’t in the ground—it’s in our pockets.
So it doesn’t matter how deep we mine, we’re not gonna find it that way. Instead, we’re just asked to use our hands, examine ourselves, and take out that nugget that’s already here.
Secondhand knowledge is the kryptonite to Chan practice, so approaching the teachings and gong-ans as an outsider won’t cut it. We’ve gotta make it personal. We have to taste the strawberry ourselves without relying on knowledge or cow tailing to self-interest or authority figures.
The point isn’t to please our teachers. Fuck those pats on the head. If your teacher pats you, bite their hand. If you pat yourself, bite your tail. This isn’t like studying to get a good grade on an exam or making friends with the boss to get a promotion. You won’t get anywhere in practice with that kinda mindset.
Yes, your teacher is going to say no to your answers. You’re probably going to be disappointed a few times, and that’s okay as long as we realize that we’re being foolish, that passing and failing isn’t the point. The point is seeing our true nature and being free of suffering.
There aren’t two natures. My nature is the same as yours, as all the teachers and Buddhas, as every character in every gong-an. Our nature is that clear crystal and its endless ability to accommodate any hue.
So, what is the strawberry? The only way to know is to taste it.