Saturday, July 19, 2003

Snot Kong-an

Kong-an is the Korean way to say koan. Both terms are, respectively, Korean and Japanese pronunciations of two Chinese characters (which some Chinese pronounce kung-an) that literally mean "public case," a legal term. But the kong-an evolved into the Zen riddles we know today, most of which take the form of a dialogue, and include a punchline, or "critical phrase" called hwadu in Korean-- the heart of the kong-an. One famous example is the "Mu" kong-an.

Japanese, Chinese, and Korean schools of Zen (called Ch'an in China and Son in Korea) possess systematized libraries of kong-an. In many forms of Japanese Zen, a monk can expect to work his way through quite a few koan. In Korean Son, however, a monk might be given a single kong-an, with which he will wrestle for the rest of his monastic career.

Every now and then, I like to speculate on what additions I might make to the kong-an already in existence. I finally thought of a good one, right from my own fumbling meditation practice.

NB: At Hanguk-sa, the Korean Son temple I was attending in Germantown, MD, before moving to Seoul, the style was closer to Soto Zen's shikantaza-- the "just sitting" that involves no kong-an work. So even though I'm basing this goofy kong-an on an actual exchange that occurred during the post-meditation dharma talk with Master Shin, the temple's abbot, this shouldn't be considered a true reflection of how Master Shin runs things.

My kong-an, which I will call the "Snot" kong-an, runs thus.

The student raised his hand and the master turned to him.


"I had a question, Master, about what you should do if your nose is running during meditation. My nose was running, and I didn't know whether I should break posture to blow it or not. I ended up sitting still and letting my nose run. Should I have broken posture?"

The master shook his head and smiled. "You are thinking with your emotional mind. That's not meditation."

I'm pretty sure I figured this out on my way home from the temple.

Write me with your own insights on snot.

Hapjang (Korean for gassho, the Buddhist's way to bow with palms touching each other).

UPDATE, February 19, 2004: I've since learned that Master Shin does indeed give students kong-an to work on, if they wish. This still doesn't mean his school has more in common with Rinzai; though most people tend to think of Soto-style Zen as kong-an free, this isn't always the case.


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