Kong-ans (Ch.: kung-an, Jap.: koan) have their origin in the records of encounters between Zen practitioners in ancient China. An important part of kong-an practice is the private exchange between teacher and student wherein the teacher checks the student’s grasp of the point of the kong-an. Kong-ans are probably best known for the unusual, seemingly non-rational quality of their language and dialogues, and are not meant to be studied, analyzed or approached conceptually. The kong-an is an experiential tool that helps us cut through our thinking so that we can just perceive and function clearly. It is an essential part of our practice.
Here’s a famous example:
A monk asked Joju, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joju answered “Mu.”
That’s the kong-an. Then there are questions connected with the kong-an, for example: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”
Sometimes the kong-an and the question are the same, for example: “The whole universe is on fire; through what kind of samadhi can you escape from being burned?”
Associated with kong-ans are short commentaries, sometimes in the form of poems.
Some kong-ans go back over 1500 years, others are created spontaneously by the teacher right there in the interview room.
Some schools recommend using the kong-an as the single-pointed focus of meditation. This is not our style. The kong-an will often come up naturally during practice, so there is no need to make a special effort to hold it. Don’t worry about this. If you practice sincerely, the interview room will take care of itself.
There is a form to use in the interview room, involving bows and prostrations. The teacher will help you through it your first time, and as many times as you need afterward.