Koan study is central to the work being carried out at John Tarrant’s Pacific Zen Institute, but when David Weinstein, a supervising teacher at the Institute, first encountered koans, he resisted them.
His Buddhist practice began in Nepal, where – while taking a break from teaching English abroad – he visited the Kopan Monastery outside of Kathmandu for a meditation “course.” “I was surprised that the course was actually a meditation retreat. Where I thought I was going to hear lectures about meditation in a kind of academic way, it was wake up at four in the morning and start meditating and continue meditating until late at night.”
The routine included full-length prostrations. “I didn’t want to do them, but no one said I had to. Just pay attention to what was going on in my experience sitting there not doing them. Eventually one of the Lamas said, ‘Try it out as an experiment. See what happens.’ And I found that it was yet another upaya, another skillful-means, that helped me to just be with my mind. Offering incense, lighting candles, having an altar, all of that arranging of the contingencies of reinforcement around me made lots of sense. I’d been educated as a Skinnerian Behaviorist, and meditation just seemed like, ‘Oh, this is how we take control of the contingencies around us that are impinging on our mind and basically creating unskillful mind habits. And we can change those habits just like we change the behavior of animals running through a maze.’ I asked one of the Lamas if he knew what brainwashing was. And he said, ‘Oh, yes. I read, you know.’ And I said, ‘Well, I feel like I’m brainwashing myself.’ And he said, ‘Very good. Carry on.’”
He stayed at the monastery for three months. “And I loved it. I felt I gained some tools that I could use in life in a very real way.”
Eventually his travels brought him to Hawaii.
“I had the address of Robert Aitken’s Koko An Zendo so I thought I’d check it out. It was a residence near the university, and I went to the front door, which seemed like the thing to do. Knocked on the front door. No one answered, but I looked in through the window, and I could see that the living room was set up like a meditation hall. So I figured you just went in. I opened the front door, which was unlocked, and smashed into John Tarrant, who was walking down the stairs at the time not expecting the door to open, because no one ever opened that door. You went in through the kitchen. That’s how I met John Tarrant.”
David spent three years at Koko An although he didn’t feel he connected very well with Aitken. Then he had an opportunity to go to Japan and study with Aitken’s teacher, Yamada Koun Roshi.
“I’d met him once in Hawaii when he came to give a talk. A group of us went to dinner together before his talk, went to a Chinese restaurant, and sat around a big round table so we could see each other and talk. The waitress came and took our order, and after she took our order there was a little pause, and she said, ‘To drink?’ And there was a kind of a deafening silence, because normally we would all have had a beer or something even though we were going to meditate. But nobody ordered a beer, and the roshi finally broke the silence and said, ‘Well, aren’t you going to have something to drink?’ One of the members of the group said, ‘Well, Roshi, we’re going to meditate after this; we probably shouldn’t drink, should we?’ And he laughed and said, ‘Our minds are always under the influence of one thing or another. Drink, if you want to.’ And everybody sighed and ordered beer, and the waitress came to him. And he looked up at her and said, ‘Tea.’”
At the time, David was uncomfortable with the idea of koan meditation. “But I loved seated meditation. So I’m in Kamakura with Yamada, and he listened to me tell him that I didn’t do koans that I only did shikan taza. I was prepared for him to tell me to leave because what I was basically saying was, ‘I don’t do the practice you do here.’ And he looked at me, and he said, ‘Shikan taza is a very difficult practice. Not many people attain realization with shikan taza. Maybe the last person to attain realization with shikan taza was . . . mmm . . . Dogen [1200-53 CE]. But, I want you to attain realization with shikan taza. Please practice diligently.’ Then he asked me this silly question; he said, ‘I have this question to ask you. But I don’t want you to think about it. You know, just forget it.’ And he asked me how to stop the sound of the distant temple bell which I thought was weird. I didn’t know it was a koan.
“It’s hard for me to say I took up the koan. It feels more like I dropped it down or swallowed it or something. Because he gave me the question, then he told me not to think about it, and I wasn’t really tempted to think about it. It didn’t make sense to me. I thought it was weird, and I just said, ‘Okay.’ But my practice changed. It became less rigid. And maybe that was something to do with the koan. It certainly seemed to allow me to be open when he asked me about the question, as he did from time to time. I didn’t feel on the spot or anxious about responding. It was like, ‘No, I have nothing to respond.’ He’d say, ‘Oh? Okay.’”
In this gentle manner, David was introduced to koan work.