By Mike Mueller
Kong-ans are central to a Kwan Um Zen practice.
These slippery questions that are posed by a Zen Master to the student during interviews are meant to hit the mind like a sledgehammer. They cannot be answered rationally and not often with words. Instead, a kong-an is elusive and sublime…yet it couldn’t be any more direct and simple. It holds all these qualities simultaneously.
The kong-an isn’t just to be answered; it is to be attained.
I have been participating in twice-a-month interviews with my Zen Master for over a year and a half now. Every two weeks I feel my stomach turn into knots because I know what’s coming—another question that results in me staring at him, contorting my face, and eventually sputtering out some semblance of a logical answer. He usually smiles or laughs at me—not because he thinks I’m stupid or silly. On the contrary, he is amused because he recognizes my desire to be right, something we all want. Yet, he knows the more I use my head to go after the answer, the further I’ll get from it.
Now I am being presented with my most challenging and frustrating kong-an of all…my relationship.
I have been dating the same person for a year and a half and I am learning that my relationship with her is a kong-an. Of late we’ve hit a roadblock and are now facing a fork in the road. The exact circumstances aren’t important. What is important is that my approach thus far has been largely ineffective.
In my way of thinking, roadblocks are meant to be plowed through, avoided, or just plain conquered. Obstacles are meant to be removed, dammit. By sheer concentration, discipline and/or will power I ought to be able to get this relationship back on track. If I just say the right thing, you know?
After all, there’s no problem that two rational and well-intentioned adults that love each other can’t solve. Right?
The harder I try, the further away I get.
The more I talk, the more I get it wrong.
The more I explain, the less sense I make.
The more I control, the more it all slips away.
When I speak with her I feel the same sense of helplessness I feel when I sit with my Zen Master as he presents me with my confounding kong-ans. I want to say the right thing. I want the problem solved. I want to get it right.
But as I am learning in kong-an practice, the answer doesn’t come from thinking. The answer is beyond thinking. It comes from responding—often without words—to the situation in that moment.
How do I release the desire to be right…to explain…to use words? How do I respond to this in the moment with no fear of being wrong? How do I cut off all thinking and show her the answer?
So, this is my relationship kong-an.
They say about kong-ans that sometimes the question is nothing more than a hook. If you’re not paying attention, the hook has grabbed you and you’re lost going down a rabbit hole of perceptions and opinions. They also say about kong-ans to not confuse the finger pointing at the moon with THE MOON. They are not the same thing. Yikes, I’m totally obsessed with the finger…trying to understand why that finger is pointing that direction.
Now I shout, “THE MOON, MIKE! IT’S THE MOON, NOT THE FINGER!”
So now I’m beginning to really see something.
I had been thinking this is all about my “relationship”—all about a difference in words, circumstances and perspectives. How does one deal with wrong words? You say the right words, right? But it’s not. It’s not about saying the right thing.
The relationship that I’ve been hung up on is nothing but a hook. It’s a distraction. There is no answer there. What do I do? How do I respond in the moment to this unanswerable and confusing question?
So I open my eyes.
I see her.
I see me.
I really see us.
Then I open my hand and I let go.
Let go of perspectives.
Let go of circumstances.
Let go of relationships.
Let go of breaks ups.
Let go of thinking.
Let go of words.
I let go.
Has my relationship kong-an been correctly answered? Don’t know.
But I see the moon sits high in the night sky.
The moon is beautiful just where she is.
Mike Mueller is a practicing Zen Buddhist and student of the Kwan Um School of Zen. He is also the author of Single Buddhist Dad. He describes himself as a recovering geek and single dad at midlife trying to wake up. He works in the digital marketing industry and lives in Little Rock, Arkansas with his teenage son, Jakob, and canine guru, Jack.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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