Practicing kôans: the lighting of Catherine Pagès

- through Francois Leclercq

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Catherine Genno Pagès Roshi, Zen master in the American line of Taizan Maezumi Roshi, is the founder of the Dana center in Montreuil, near Paris. She has been teaching meditation there for 25 years according to the Soto and Rinzai traditions, integrating the practice of kôans whose virtues she shares with us.

Where do koans come from?

Originally, these are stories of encounters and exchanges between a student and his master in Buddhist monasteries. Those that seemed significant were transmitted orally, then from the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century, some were written down. Among them are The barrier without a door, The Green Cliff Compendium or even The transmission of the lamp. In my line, for example, we explore some 700 historical koans. This Chinese word juxtaposes two ideograms: “kô” which means a public case of jurisprudence and “an”, the table on which this court decision is placed. It therefore evokes the precise circumstances to which a verdict responds. Today, even if no recent list of koans has been recorded, we can say that each exchange between a master and his student has the potential to become a koan for the student, if he lets it resonate in him because he has the intuition that he can be a source of Awakening.

How do they fit into meditation?

The kôan is a practice of meditation which, like pure sitting or attention to the breath, aims at an expansion of consciousness and at detaching oneself from the limits of the self. We would like to make it a tool specific to the Rinzai. But this is not the case. Thus Dogen Zenji, who in the thirteenth century initiated the Soto school in Japan, had collected 300 koans chosen from various collections discovered during his stay in China. The cleavage between these two schools of Zen only dates from the end of the XNUMXth century in Japan.

For us, in the same way as in the meditation of attention to the breath where there is no longer a subject who breathes, but only the breath, the kôan is an experience of unity and openness. We let ourselves be inhabited by the kôan during meditation. We are not trying to solve it or to understand it intellectually, even if our first attempts are in this direction. We let the kôan permeate our whole being. We become the koan.

Can you give us an example?

Take the famous Joshu's dog, the first of the 48 cases of the Mumonkoan, "The barrier without a door". A pupil asks his master: "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" Both of them know that in Buddhism it is said that all living beings have Buddha nature. And yet, the master answers him "Mu" which is a negation. Why this question ? What does it mean to have Buddha nature? Behind these questions arise these fundamental questions: Who am I? Do I exist or not? It is not a question of responding to it with a dogma or a belief, it is a question of experiencing it.

"If you say a word, I'll give you 30 strokes. If you don't say anything, I'll give you 30 strokes”. How many times do we find ourselves in such a situation of impasse where we can neither advance nor retreat.

I remember that this kôan, the Jôshu's dog, was so burning in me that it even inhabited my dreams! In meditation, I propose to my students to inspire with this question: “What is “Mu”? and exhaling surrendering to Mu. We thus let the kôan settle in us. By dint of practicing it, one enlarges one's perspective. It's infinite! Maezumi Roshi compared the kôan to a multifaceted diamond.

Concretely, the process is initially very personal between a student and his teacher, who himself went through this process. The teacher never gives the answer – that would be stealing from the student the process he has to go through – he accompanies him and encourages him on his journey. In my community, to students who have already worked on a certain number of koans, I propose meetings in small groups in which each one brings his light and lets the other's light resonate. However, this approach is not classic.

How successful are the koans in your sangha?

In Dana, the practice of koans is not compulsory, but it is quite popular. For those of my students who do, it becomes an essential tool. Because the koans lead us to change perspective, which is the essence of meditation. It becomes possible to think, feel and react differently. At the start, as in any job, you arrive with what you are. Gradually, we relate to these enigmas. They resonate within us and speak to us. Thus this kôan: “If you say a word, I will give you 30 blows with a stick. If you don't say anything, I'll give you 30 strokes”. How many times do we find ourselves in such a situation of impasse where we can neither advance nor retreat. Where is the third way? Such a quest allows us to grow by detaching ourselves from the beliefs and automatisms that limit us. We step into the shoes of another with another perspective, and we discover that we are the other.

How does this practice allow us to escape suffering?

Meditation is an exploration in which one is willing to open up to the unknown. Take this kôan: a master says: “It's like a buffalo going through a window. Its head, horns and four legs went through. Why can't his tail pass? As you become immersed in this question, there is letting go. The kôan makes it possible to detach oneself from oneself, from a suffering centered on oneself. In the case mentioned, one wonders: “What could have happened? and "What can't pass?" »

By giving up a fixed perspective that is always a cause of suffering, suffering is transformed. Training to see more broadly is already a way to lighten it. Koans are also valuable in strengthening our ability to endure failure and not become discouraged – there are so many answers where we skate. They help us to live better, in non-separation, by experiencing what is “one”, that is to say universal.

How to make koans accessible to the rational mind of Westerners?

This is precisely the point of kôan: a challenge to the rational mind, which is inherently dualistic. He invites us to become aware of the narrowness of the prison in which this spirit locks us up to have the courage to leave our comfort zones, because even if they are at times a source of suffering, we are attached to them. We can thus explore other possibilities of seeing, feeling and acting.

In this oral transmission, which is a mind-to-mind exchange, we go beyond our personal point of view while remaining connected to ourselves. That's why I often ask a student who has just "seen" a kōan, "Now, how does this fit into your life?" Give me an example. In our daily lives, we assimilate the teachings transmitted for generations. Buddhism has this ability to adapt, it has spread from India to many countries, each time integrating into their culture.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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