On Stories

I’ve been thinking about stories in the light of koans, zen stories. Come to think of it, in zen the main literature is stories, certain kinds of stories. Koan stories are supposed to be exemplary stories - “koan” means public case - like a court case that stands as a precedent for a type of situation that could come up again and again in life. Koan stories are stories about classical Chinese masters and disciples, but also about us, about deep issues in our own living. When you study a koan you make it your own, see it personally - and yet not personally. That is, you have to take it personally and seriously - not see it as abstract or theoretical - and yet the whole point is that you see past yourself and your concerns to deeper realms of existence without, at the same time, ignoring your story, your own human problems that are the occasion for the deeper point to arise. This seems to be the whole trick of zen practice - to stay with your actual experience, your own personal story, and yet to see through it at the same time to something more.

So koans are little stories about the ancients. But Dogen extends the idea of koan when he speaks of genjokoan, which means something like, “the koan that manifests in this moment.”  I see this two ways. One way is that every moment is a complete story, a complete koan. Stories always revolve around conflict, problems, as do koans. But also stories have resolution - peace - as do koan stories. “And then he was enlightened.” You might see this as relative and absolute: relative is our life our story our problem; absolute is resolution, peace, depth of understanding. So Dogen is saying that every moment is this kind of problem and resolution, in the same moment. That life, that time itself, is the koan arising every moment. This is Dogen’s profound teaching about time. This is how he comes to say that practice and enlightenment are the same thing, that Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree and our sitting in zazen are the same moment, the same event. Problem/Resolution moment after moment on each moment.

The second sense in which I take Dogen’s idea of genjokoan is as a way of working with your own story arising in your life. There’s always something going on in your life, some story, some conflict, some urge toward resolution. Usually we see such stories, if we see them at all, as being entirely on the relative level — as being about me and my happiness or unhappiness, my desire and its fulfillment, my problem and its resolution. But suppose lurking underneath this relative story were the absolute story — the deep, impossible to understand, life and death spiritual issue that the story is suggesting, if only we could see it. Then practicing genjokoan would be trying to reframe our life’s issues, our stories, in this way. This makes life much more interesting!

The other day I was talking to Roger Walsh, who’s a psychologist and a dharma teacher. He had different language for this distinction. He said some life questions are knowledge questions. These questions have answers, you can figure them out. But some questions are what Roger called wisdom questions. These questions you can’t figure out. You have to remain with them for a long time, and even then you don’t exactly get an answer. But something shifts, and then you are in another place, with a new question.