S2E29 Koans in Buddhism

You’ve heard koans mentioned on WEMW before, but what exactly are they? In this episode,  Dr. Pete explains what koans are and how they are used to try and untangle the mind through verbal paradoxes and riddles in the Buddhist tradition. Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin practice walking through one of the most well known koans together, and discuss how koans may help individuals connect with reality more effectively. This episode will help those wanting to learn more about the origin of mindfulness from Buddhism. Tune in!




Pete: Well, just like you asked Dr. Rubin, let's do a focus this episode on something really Buddhist oriented.


Nikki: Thank you. I did. I made a request to Pete. I said, “I really want to learn more about koans”. I did, didn’t I said it, and he's like, “okay, let's talk about koans”.


Pete: Yes. And I'll, full disclosure, it's not like… I'm certainly no expert in koan work or, and so maybe what I'll start with just even what a koan is. We've talked about them on here, but just the way that we use them in Buddhist, I mean, how were you introduced to koan's initially?


Nikki: Oh, by you, I didn't know. 


Pete: Stop it.


Nikki: Yeah, I didn't even know, I mean, it's interesting because it's like, I actually had been introduced to them before, but no one had labeled them as such, like they hadn't, I didn't know that term koan, but then when you told me, “oh, those are koans”, I was like, “oh yeah, I've been taught those before”, just, nobody called them that.


Pete: Yeah. So for our listeners, I mean, koans by definition they're a paradoxical anecdote or a riddle. And so the way that they're used, I mean, it's one of them…some people will refer to them almost as like the Bible of Buddhism in a way, because it's like a, it's a scripture or a Torah or Koran, I mean, it's some kind of writing that's used to translate teachings, which I think we know that about all religious doctrine. Like it's all meant to teach, it's not meant to be literal. Is that all of them, like the Torah?


Nikki: Well, I think it depends on what somebodies beliefs are, because I think some people do read certain scriptures literally. Though I think it's not incorrect to say that a lot of times they're taught as guides or metaphors or fables, that kind of thing. But I do think there are some people that do read some religious text,


Pete: Well, I mean, I went to Catholic school for a large part of my life. I was always just taught as like metaphorical or… but in any event, the koan is meant in this riddle. People would be like, ‘well, how’s that spiritual?’ Well, it's meant to like untangle the brain and it's kind of messy because the way it untangles your brain is by tangling it.


Nikki: It's what makes it fun, but also painful.


Pete: Yeah. It just adds to suffering. And so when you're going down like a Buddhist or like a meditative journey, teachers use it differently. So just as like there's a pastor or a rabbi or some… there are teachers within many of the Zen or Buddhist traditions and they're just passing on Dharma. And so Dharma is our teachings, or Dharma is like knowledge, it's like if you hold Dharma, you hold knowledge. And so what I'm working with, with my teacher is like, I'm somehow now classified as a Dharma holder of his teachings. So I don't get all caught up in that stuff because that just feels like very sticky to me. Remember how you talk about that, like with sticky depression that was in our sadness versus depression.


Nikki: Yes. Well, things can be, emotions can be sticky, thoughts can be sticky.


Pete: Yeah. And so sometimes for me, when things are very bureaucratic or like systematic, it just feels sticky to me. 


Nikki: Feels sticky to you.


Pete: Yeah, and I'll say like reincarnation, I feel sticky in that. Like I do believe in like personally, as like an energy is reborn, but I don't know if I can pick like Johnny and the two year old daycare to be like, that's the reborn of like my 85 year old, like Dalai Lama.


Nikki: Yeah, it doesn't… well, it's like, if there's something it doesn't, it sounds like it doesn't… certain things don't resonate with you, which I appreciate you sharing that because obviously a big piece of the work that we talk about and do is around psychological flexibility and just recognizing there's actually, there's no one way to do things. There's no one right knowledge, there's no one right teaching. So I hear you, you're saying that in that structure sort of being given a label just doesn't resonate with you, it doesn't feel as flexible.


Pete: That's right. And so listeners like that's okay too. So one of the most famous koans, and so… Okay, so the way that this would work with like transferring Dharma is like you go through Dyson is a another process where, what I do is I sit one-on-one with my teacher, and you might meditate, so it could be a daily meditation, or it could be like a session, which is like a longer sitting period, maybe you do 2, 3, 4 days, seven days, whatever. And so each day during that, you sit with your teacher one-on-one to kind of like discuss what's happening, while you're meditating, because something's always happening. Now, maybe I am working on a koan like maybe while I'm sitting there, I'm thinking about a koan, which is the riddling of the unraveling of the riddled the mine.


Nikki: Can I ask a question about, I'm very interested in this, obviously, because I asked you to talk about this. So if you're sitting and meditating, and then you're like, ‘what's happening?’ and you're thinking about a koan, obviously that's what the mind does, the mind tries to work on something. What would your teachers say about that? Like, would your teacher say, “let's [inaudible 5:39] let that time be a time to think about the koan”, or would your teacher say, “notice that your mind is thinking about the koan and can you come back to the moment instead”?


Pete: It really depends on the teacher, but a lot of teachers use koans during meditation. So they would say, “yeah, this is the time for you to think about the koan”. 


Nikki: Okay, interesting. 


Pete: Yeah. So that's really the purpose of it, and I think over time, when you sit for longer periods, you realize that you're less distracted or like you're wandering less. And so you can just stick with something, 


Nikki: Just focus on [inaudible 6:09] the thing that you want to focus on.


Pete: Yeah


Nikki: Okay, cool, that’s interesting.


Pete: And I don't always love the koan work to be honest, because to me, it just feels… it's just my… it's always the individual perception. So like the riddle, I mean what's a riddle that you remember from… is there, do you have a riddle that you remember from childhood or like… aren't there riddle or like,


Nikki: Yes. But I mean, I think it’s so funny because I mean, no, I can't think of one. I don't think, I haven't thought of that in a long time. I do know some of, I mean, I've read, I can't even come up with one now, because I'm not familiar enough with them. But I mean, I've read some of the koan, the Buddhist koan before, and I can see, I mean, maybe you could share an example because they are like, I'm going to use a really like grammatically incorrect phrase here. They're like brain herders.


Pete: Yeah, they are brain herders, totally.


Nikki: That's what I always say about dialectics, actually. I'm always like, it's a brain herder, it's like that, because they're paradoxical. It's like, your brain is like, ‘Aoh, what.”


Pete: Right. And so trying to like embrace the fact that there is the paradox that's there, because it's always… So, okay, here's a riddle, ‘what's as light as air, but can only be held for a short time'. 


Nikki: What?


Pete: I don't know. It doesn't tell me…


Nikki: That’s going to torture me for the rest of the day, just fyi.


Pete: Well, you'll find it. You'll find the answer


Nikki: I'll just be googling the heck out of it, yeah.


Pete: Any listeners know, write us. Anyway, so the riddles are out there. So one of the most famous one is Joshua’s dog. It's the first koan that people often study. There are two books that a lot of Zen teachers use called the Gateless gate, which that in of itself is like a riddle, and the Transmission of Light. So the first Joshu’s dog, this is the koan, a monk asked Joshu, “in all earnestness, does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” Joshu said, “Mu”, that’s it.


Nikki: And moo, is moo like a like ‘M O O' like a cow or something…


Pete: ‘M U'


Nikki: Okay


Pete: Good question Dr. Rubin


Nikki: Okay. Yes, and what is ‘MU'?


Pete: Well you tell me , I'm going to use as koan. Hey, a literary genius over there,  what's mu? [Inaudible 8:44] allowed to,


Nikki: We'll say it again, read the koan again. I want to hear it. I bet the listeners would like it too, but I would also like to hear it again.


Pete: Well, so a monk asked Joshu, “in all earnestness does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” Joshua said, “Mu”. So that's the thing, and I'm going to come back to mu for you, but also like there's other sort of verses that are you utilize to kind of describe what this is, And so the verses, they describe it as ‘dog Buddha nature, the perfect manifestation, the absolute command a little has, or has not, and body is lost, life is lost.’


Nikki: So I guess maybe what I take from that is like, oh, I'm not going to be very eloquent about this. I can feel the brain…


Pete: You don’t have to be.


Nikki: No, I know I'm like, I'm really in the brain,


Pete: Your brain's hurting.


Nikki: My brain is hurting. It's like the essence of things or the essence of being, or the essence of…


Pete: Living or not living, or suffering,


Nikki: Exactly, the universe, I was going to say, that's sort of my rational.


Pete: Okay. I mean, you should have heard what I said the first time I heard this. So we want to talk about eloquent.


Nikki: Well, in your defense, that was, I've had some,


Pete: You're always defending me.


Nikki: I know, you were like a little peanut as a person. I was like, I had some, I've had a fair amount of,


Pete: You’re versed


Nikki: Yeah, I’m versed, yeah, so,


Pete: So anyway, Mu, so ‘mu', like what's your sense of that, like from a literary perspective? Or what do you think they might be getting at in that, and that is, here's the kind of ending, is like that is really the crux of this koan.


Nikki: I mean, I think that's how I hear it. It's like that, it's like this essence of… it's like, I don't know, like the energy that's [inaudible 10:41] all things. I mean, [inaudible 10:44] I'm hearing a little bit of like, [inaudible 10:45] Pete and I have been talking about this off the podcast, but a little bit like in Taoism, which is like, Taoism is different than Buddhism, but similar in a lot of ways. And that's really speaking to sort of like the formless thing that's within all things, they can't be seen, but it's always present. That's sort of like what I'm hearing, but maybe that's just being [inaudible 11:05] me reading a lot about Taoism.


Pete: Well, see this is also where I struggle. There's no right or wrong… 


Nikki: Right, yeah.


Pete: But teachers will kind of guide you and the mu, like you just said is the formless.


Nikki: It is, okay so it is, yeah.


Pete: And it's really meant to represent formless, because it's not a word, there's no meaning to it. It's just two letters that come together. And the teaching is that like, it represents that Joshu at that time was like far removed from anything that was like, any duality, because mu doesn't have duality, if you say like hot, cold.


Nikki: Oh, cold. Oh my apologies. I was not prepared for the call and response.


Pete: We have to talk to our producers to make sure we get our writing better.


Nikki: Yeah. 


Pete: Yeah. So that's the idea there is that like this is that, there's no form to this. And so that, there's nothing, you can't create duality in it, because as we find, is your favorite word, dialectic, is that most suffering is created by the dialectics that people live within.


Nikki: Well, by the not engaging in dialectic.


Pete: Correct. Well, the duality is that… well, yes, by not embracing the fact that the…


Nikki: Not embracing… by not embracing all of it. A dialectic is like making space for all. Whereas like ‘either/or', to your point. Yes, exactly, it's where we get stuck.


Pete: Yeah. So what else would you want to know about this? Because I think that listeners might be tuning for their first time, they're like, “wait, what is this like a Buddhist podcast? Is this like religious or spiritual?”


Nikki: Well, I think that… Okay so, I mean, obviously what I'm just interested, I was interested in learning more about koans, but I guess since this podcast is about the interrelationship between Eastern spiritual traditions and Western behavioral science or Western psychology in general, I guess what I would wonder is, what's the intention then of like, well I guess you already said it, about like untangling the mind. 


Pete: [inaudible 13:08],is that where you're going with that?


Nikki: No, I was going to say with the koans, in particular. Like that this is a vehicle to untangle the mind.


Pete: I mean, that's the way I see it. I mean, I guess I should ask,, but I mean, I think each teacher uses it differently with the student. So I think if a student's coming with more suffering, maybe they need some more of this or less of this. I mean, I have also shared that I find that most of meditation or any kind of Eastern spiritual practices is really unknowing, especially as somebody who has been raised in the west where it's like, I'm trying to unlearn all this stuff that I've learned and just kind of been ingrained in my brain that has often either created duality, created suffering, to just see it for what it is, and that's where we just say Mu.


Nikki: Yeah. And I think that that is something, I think we could bring in more fully into our work in Western psychology. Because we do, I mean, and again, like in third wave cognitive behavioral therapies, obviously we've borrowed extensively from Zen Buddhism. And so there's been a lot more of that, but I think this concept of like it's mu, there isn't a lot of… I mean, I certainly weave that in as I imagine you do as well. But I think that concept of, like you're saying, of unknowing, it's like, I would even take it a step further just to say, it's not knowing we don't know. So not knowing,


Pete: We don’t know, and that’s liberating.


Nikki: It’s that… check out our flexibility and freedom episode, because…


Pete: You’re so good at remembering all this.


Nikki: Steel trap up here, I know…


Pete: A blessing and a curse,


Nikki: A blessing and a curse, it is, let me tell you. But yeah, no, it is so liberating and it's so freeing. And I think that that is something that is so helpful because I mean, it could help for a lot of reasons, it feels better. But it's, if we bring it to the behavioral realm, it's like, when there's freedom, there's infinite possibilities of what we can do. In this like, expansive and open way, where when we're just thinking there's one way to do things or whatever, like,


Pete: Rigidity


Nikki: Yeah, rigidity.


Pete: Yeah. Well, and then also, as you're talking, I'm thinking about like mu with regard to like relational frame theory. And I think that's why it works, because there's like very little neurological connection. And so for our listeners, we're not going to break that down right now, because we don't have time. But just as very basic sense of like that words create neurological pathways and mu does not have that necessarily. When you look at M U on the paper, it doesn't as a sound, it might, because if I say mu, people might visualize a cow.


Nikki: Well, that's it well…in England, I mean, I don't know, in every language sometimes it's like a little bit of a different sound. Like I remember when I was in Spanish class, it would be like a little like barking was like, I think it was like ‘quack, quack', or something like that, like that was the thing. And I'm like, ‘oh cool’. But yeah, so to English speakers, that's why I asked you that because that's what I heard, I was. 


Pete: You heard ‘moo’. 


Nikki: Yeah, that's what I heard. Well, and I guess we should just gently say relational frame theory, since Pete dropped it, screw it. It's basically saying language is, there is sounds and symbols that our brain makes, associates with things in the physical world. And so yeah, when there's no association with ‘Mu', there's space to see like what do you connect with.


Pete: Yeah.


Nikki: Yeah, fascinating.


Pete: So listeners, thank you for tuning in and trying to at least take this journey of a loan and maybe you're going to work on that riddle for the rest of your day, your night or the rest of your lifetime.


Pete: This has been When East Meets West, I'm doctor PD Economou,


Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin, be present, be brave.


Pete: This has been When East Meets West, all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin


Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.