So this month, two people in the Zen world that I respect are having an internet battle over koans.  This seems to happen in the Zen world every few years or so.  I guess the online  Zen community gets bored at times and needs good old fashioned Dharma Combat.  This month’s combatants  are two people who I have had conversations with over the years: *wrestling announcer voice* Dosho “The Elder Statesman” Port and Brad “Bad Boy of Zen” Warner. Both of these guys have been around the Zen online community for quite a while and I read their blogs religiously—no pun intended.

I actually spent about 6 months on Dosho’s Vine of Obstacles online Zen training course and was able to meet with him via video conferencing  several times over that period. He’s a good dude and knows his stuff. He’s trained in both Soto and hybrid Soto/Rinzai Zen through the years. Keep that in mind for the rest of this post.

Brad is the 21st century version of Ikkyu, that 15th century rascally monk that caused all kinds of problems. He’s written several irreverent books about Zen and has recently (thankfully) tackled translating Dogen’s writings so that the average laymen can understand them. He studied Soto Zen while he was in Japan and received transmission to teach there. As far as I know, he has little to no training in Rinzai Zen. Keep that in mind for the rest of the post.

So now that you have a little background of the two combatants, I’ll let you know what they are fighting over: did Dogen espouse the use of koans in his teaching?  Now, you would think this would be an easy cut and dry question. You just read all of Dogen’s writings and Boom! there’s your answer. But, you would be wrong. Both Brad and Dosho have studied Dogen’s writings. Dosho says “yes he most definitely did” and Brad says “no he most definitely did not”. So then the question is, who are we to believe?  MU! That is not the question! I’ll explain why in a little bit.  But first…

This battle seems to have been going on for the last 700 or so years. Dogen really didn’t like Dahui Zonggao (a Rinzai reformer of koans) and it looks like Dahui felt the same about Dogen. For Zen Masters, they said some nasty stuff about each other. Luckily, Dosho and Brad aren’t slinging any mud (although Brad has been known to do so in the past—just look at some of his old Youtube videos where he uses a sock puppet.) So during the last seven or so centuries Dogen’s Soto school and Dahui’s Rinzai school have been arguing about how best to reach enlightenment and that argument has come down to us today via Dosho and Brad.

Going back to that argument, Dosho says here that Dogen taught koan study while he was alive. Dosho himself has spent a number of years after receiving Soto transmission studying koans with a couple of different teachers. He now teaches koan study himself. So Dosho has been on both sides of this argument. Brad says here that Dogen didn’t teach koans as a path to enlightenment. Brad, if I remember correctly, has only studied Soto Zen and has extremely limited knowledge of koan study. He says he solved one once and his Soto teacher said, “yeah, that’s a good answer.” I don’t think that qualifies you as a koan master. So from an experience side, Dosho wins this round. His study in both Soto and in the Harada-Yasutani-Yamada koan lineage gives him the bona fides to talk about the pros and cons of koan introspection.

So for round two, let’s look specifically at Dogen’s teachings.  Again, Dosho spent the first part of his Zen life studying with a great Soto teacher. He also went to Japan to get a taste of the monk life at a real life Zen temple. According to his blog, he is doing some translating of Japanese texts. So I would say Dosho qualifies to give his opinion on Dogen. What about Brad? Well, his teacher wrote the first, and for a while the only translation of Dogen’s work in English. And if memory serves, Brad was involved in the periphery of that work. Brad lived in Japan for years and is semi-fluent in Japanese.  Brad is currently half-way through his promised four volume work of translating Dogen into something I can understand (thanks again for that Brad.) So he has studied Soto Zen and has indirectly and directly translated Dogen’s writings into English.  Sorry Dosho, but I have to score this round to Brad.  But it was close.

So for the third and final round let’s look at one of my favorite subjects, inherent biases. Brad has a history of being stubborn. I don’t think I have ever seen him change his opinion on anything. And when he has an opinion he is very vocal about it and charges at you with it. And he’s sold a lot of books and amassed a nice following by doing things that way. Brad’s main studies have been in the Soto lineage and he has Soto transmission. Soto’s current company line is that Dogen didn’t use koans and that is what Brad’s teacher thought and taught as well. So Brad may be biased to think that since he didn’t use koans that they are no good and therefore there was no way that Dogen would advocate their use. Dosho on the other hand has done extensive Zen work both without koans and with koans. He currently personally believes that koan study is the bees knees and the best route to enlightenment. So Dosho is predisposed to believe that Dogen would use koan study because Dosho himself likes it. I rule this round a tie. My guess is that both Dosho and Brad are biased in their views and are personally invested in their arguments and this could influence their interpretation of what Dogen wrote. While we hope as Zen practitioners that we can see through most of our biases, we are still human.

So that is one round for Dosho, one round for Brad and one round ends in a draw. So, who wins? Neither. And that is the answer to this koan. Neither Brad’s position or Dosho’s position matters in anything more than an academic way. Who cares if Dogen advocated koan study. The point should be that there is a school that doesn’t use it and a school that does. WHAT WORKS BEST FOR YOU?

Glad you asked. I spent the first half of my (so far limited) meditation life not using koans. I had my first kensho experience without the aid of them. I am currently working with koans. I don’t like them. But enough people I trust tell me that I should keep going so I do. I am currently using a traditional method and have recently started attending a sangha that uses koans in a group discussion setting. That group is interesting and isn’t “solving” koans in the traditional sense. But I don’t feel like my practice has changed that much with koans. That wasn’t the experience Dosho and many others have had. They benefited from koan study. And that’s great. Use koan study if you want to. If you don’t want to, don’t use it. It doesn’t matter what Dogen or Dahui  or the Buddha said or didn’t say about koans. Be a lamp unto yourself.

For the record, I am not trying to hold myself up in any sort of way to the level that Dosho and Brad are.  They are both transmitted teachers who have been doing this for a long time. I respect both of them very much and am glad they are available to us. So my weighing them in this post is just for fun, although I do think my ultimate point has some validity. But I certainly understand if you, Dosho, and Brad don’t think it does.