The Heavy Lifting

I’d like to talk about a koan. A koan is a brief story or statement – usually a record of an interaction between Zen monks, Zen masters, or a Zen master and a disciple. Koans are usually called cases. They’ve been used in the Rinzai Zen tradition as teaching devices. The Chinese word – kung-an – has some feeling like our term “legal precedent” and koans have something of that quality – examples we look into for wisdom. But entirely unlike our legal precedents, logic does not prevail. Something else shines through, a different wisdom not graspable with logic.

Over a period of eight or nine years on visits to Japan I studied koans with a Japanese Rinzai Zen Master in Kyoto – Keido Fukushima. He was a classically trained Zen Master who spoke English and welcomed foreign students, including women, in his monastery – Tofukuji. I was very lucky to have had this opportunity. He was a wonderful teacher. He died just about a year ago on his birthday, March 1st.

Even though we say in Zen that understanding doesn’t rely on words and letters, we treasure these written records and we talk about them quite a bit. It’s important to be clear about what we’re doing when we talk about them. In classical Rinzai practice, koans are organized in a curriculum and a student is given one after another. The student chews on the koan in zazen and throughout the day and night, (and the koan also chews on the student) and presents his/her understanding of the koan to the teacher. In a nutshell, that’s the classical use of koans. Put too simply, they’re used to help the student break through to awakening. Obviously, that’s not what I am doing in writing.

So we should acknowledge the difference between doing a koan in the traditional way and talking about a koan. Both are fine and useful, but not the same. Even though traditional koan practice shuns analysis and discussion, many koans can echo and instruct in the realm of everyday life, almost in the way of fables. The particular koan I have in mind has had that echoing effect in my life. It’s from the Tofukuji curriculum. I’ve never come across it anywhere else. It’s not like most koans in famous collections. It isn’t attributed to a famous teacher and it doesn’t involve a dialog, no hitting or tweaking of the nose. It’s this simple statement: “Carry a stone lantern in the garden.” That’s it. “Carry a stone lantern in the garden.”

If you’ve seen a traditional Japanese garden, or if you’ve seen picture of one, maybe you’ll form a picture in your mind of a stone lantern. Because I was in Japan when I was working with this koan, the image I had was of a large lantern, maybe three or four feet high, square with open sides – like little windows – and a kind of pagoda style top, and sitting on a stone pillar. I’m not sure about weight. I never tried to carry one. Including the stone pillar part, I’d guess hundreds of pounds. Maybe two or three hundred pounds. Such a lantern is obviously impossible for a person to carry.

There are small stone lanterns, too. Little decorative guys, probably 10 or 15 pounds. I guess I could have envisioned a small one, but I had the impossibly big kind in mind; that’s where I met this koan. Too big to carry. How do I carry something that is un-carryable? A 300 pound stone lantern. And what about the garden? What is the garden? The koan isn’t “Carry a stone lantern.” It’s “Carry a stone lantern in the garden.” Could it be the Garden of Eden? These are the kinds of questions that come up. Interesting idea, but probably a stretch. Is it a garden as in a place of beauty and tranquility? No blundering or stumbling please! Keep off the grass! Maybe. But at the very least, for me the garden is the world of form. This world. My everyday world. So I have always taken this to be a koan about functioning in the world of form.

How will I be in the world? How will I go forward if I have to carry 300 pounds? In a way, thinking of the koan in this way is also a koan about koans. Because every koan is impossible if we rely on our usual ways of understanding. How will we carry a 300 pound question? Zen Master Hakuin – the 18th century Japanese ancestor who re-invigorated and codified the koan system in a way this has influenced how koans are used in Japan to this day – taught that meditation in the midst of activity was essential and in fact the most useful kind of meditation, versus a quietistic, secluded hermit practice. He knew how difficult this was and said the following:

Frequently you may feel that you are getting nowhere with practice in the midst of activity, whereas the quietistic approach brings unexpected results. Yet rest assured that those who use the quietistic approach can never hope to enter into meditation in the midst of activity. Should by chance a person who uses this approach enter into the dusts and confusions of the world of activity, even the power of ordinary understanding which he had seemingly attained will be entirely lost. Drained of all vitality, he will be inferior to any mediocre, talentless person. The most trivial matters will upset him, an inordinate cowardice will afflict his mind, and he will frequently behave in a mean and base manner. What can you call accomplished about a man like this?

To a certain extent, this is a little rant about Rinzai practice being better than Soto practice, but it’s also about carrying around a koan morning to night no matter what the circumstances. The stone lantern must be carried. Hakuin is saying that we are only fully awake and fully alive when we have engaged with what is impossible. So, this koan is a constant invitation to consider how to meet what seems and even actually is impossible in life. This is how the koan continues to echo for me.

When you meet your koan teacher in dokusan, you have to do something. It wont’ do to shrug your shoulders and say “Aw shucks.” You have to say or show him or her in some way how you carry a stone lantern in the garden. Of course, dokusan only lasts for a minute or so. What about outside of dokusan? In dokusan, I know what my koan is. It’s been given to me on a piece of paper. But what is the stone lantern in my actual life? Do I know what it is? This isn’t a simple question. Are you carrying a stone lantern in your garden? Do you know? Sometimes we know unmistakably. I have a friend whose five year old son fell off a table while he was with his mother in a doctor’s office waiting room. And he died. Just like that. His mother was sitting a few feet away. There is no question for my friend about what it is in his life that is impossible to carry, but that must be carried. His is a profound, dramatic situation. The stone lantern is unmistakable. And maybe for many people – depending on your beliefs about reincarnation or life after death – and especially those of us who are getting older, mortality is a stone lantern. In any case, I’m convinced that staying close to the tough stuff – the impossible, if you will – is an essential part of how we develop. One meets people who haven’t had any spiritual practice, yet they are deep, actualized, and fully human. I think it’s at least partly because they’ve met and carried what is impossible in their lives.

What’s my relationship to what feels impossible in my life? Do I know? Maybe a colloquial equivalent for the stone lantern in the garden is “the elephant in the room.” We use that expression  to talkabout something we’re pretending isn’t there, something we’re avoiding, even though it’s huge and everyone can see it. It’s just necessary to look. I think it’s that way. So maybe we could come up with a contemporary American version of this koan. It could be “lift the elephant in the room,” or “ride the elephant in the room.” Or “lift YOUR elephant in the room.” What is your elephant in the room?

As to my own relationship with such things, I confess my tendency is to prefer the small decorative stone lanterns – the 10 to 15 pounders – to the 300 pounders. I have to challenge myself to be awake to what feels impossible and to stay close to it. This is one of the best gifts of practice. Practice is an ongoing invitation to stay close to what is impossible. Is it possible to do do zazen “well?” I say it’s really impossible. You never get it right. If you’re doing zazen well, you’re not doing it well. Really, we never get anything in practice really “right” in the way we imagine we might. Do you do oryoki? Designed to be impossible. You know the “Made in China” “Made in USA” printed on things? Practice should be stamped “Made to be impossible.” Dogen Zenji said, “Shoshaku Jushaku.” To succeed wrong with wrong. One mistake after another. He said a Zen master’s life is one continuous mistake. This is because our life is in a way impossible. Impossible to understand in the usual way of understanding. Impossible to master. You know the expression “anything worth doing is worth doing well?” I like the expression “anything worth doing is basically impossible.”

There’s a contemporary koan that’s something like the stone lantern koan. It’s from Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, a 20th century Japanese lay Zen teacher who taught what he called the fundamental koan. It’s “When nothing will do, what will you do?” When the resources you rely on aren’t up to the situation, but the situation cannot be escaped, then what? What now? How do you meet such a moment? What’s powerful in the question, and like the stone lantern koan, is that it has two parts: part one says “nothing will do” but part two says “you have to do something.” Here’s a comment from Hisamatsu:

“Whatever I do will not do; what do I do?”  This “What do I do?” creates positive activity.  I consider this the root, the source, of all koans.  You can always ask this of yourself.  When walking: Walking won’t do, what do I do?  Bending over the toilet: Bending over won’t do, what do I do?  We are always something, but if being something — anything — won’t do, what will we do? 

I especially appreciate this last bit: “If being something – anything – won’t do, what will we do?” All of us who practice can relate to this. We know how we keep trying – to be something, to be someone – and on some level we know the self we construct won’t do. It may do mostly or partly. It may get us through the day, mostly. But it won’t really do entirely. This is something we know deeply through practice. All our stuff, our efforts, our achievements, our knowing, won’t do. But still we have to do something.

I’ve been thinking about Fukushima Roshi so much this last year since he died. When I met Fukushima Roshi and saw the way they practice at Tofukuji, I was intimidated. It was clear he was a very powerful and deep teacher. But the practice there was scary. It was so hard. The first time I tried to do sesshin there, I quit after one day and the only way I made it through the one day was by promising myself a reward for finishing the day. The reward was that I would never ever set foot there again. And this was after thirty years of practice experience. I was beyond cautious about entering a practice relationship with Fukushima Roshi. But I did return, and after one or two sesshins in his temple, I asked him if he would accept me as a koan student.

He said, “I hope so.” Pretty funny. It reminded me of my first relationship with a Japanese Zen teacher – Josshu Sasaki Roshi – in 1965. I was a college freshman and I heard him give a talk and went to a zazenkai in the Hollywood Hills at a student’s apartment and got zazen instruction and met with him in dokusan and he gave me a koan to work on – What was your face before your parents were born? And afterwards, when we were all together drinking tea and chatting (he was drinking plum wine) he said, indicating me – the youngest person in the room, about 18 – something like “If this person can continue to practice, Zen will survive in America.” I thought he might mean that I was an exceptional person, chosen to keep the flame alive. Later, on reflection, I realized that he meant “if a clueless idiot like this can hang in there, Zen might actually have a fighting chance.”  Now it’s 45 years later and I’m pretty sure Fukushima Roshi meant the same thing. I hope so.



  1. Gene Tuck says:

    A simply marvelous posting, Peter! It wasn’t too long at all. Fascinating discussion of koans and your personal encounters over the years. That was some initial sesshin at Tofukuji! At 73 I definitely hear you about that “big stone” increasingly nudging itself into my consciousness. I wonder if you dream koan related stuff and what difference it makes, if any to the practice? This will clearly bear a few more readings. Thanks much! Defintiely keep the posts coming…Gene

  2. Peter says:

    Hi Gene,
    Nice to hear from you here in cyberspace.
    Be well,