Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mondo zen

Mondo is a Japanese word that means "public discussion."

Mondo zen is a modern adaptation of the Rinzai zen tradition of ko-an practice.  Ko-an practice is one of the things that gives zen it's reputation in popular American culture, the famous phrase "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" derives from ko-an practice.  Superficially, the practice resembles an intellectual march through answering increasingly bizzarre riddles.

Ko-ans are actually designed to help the student break themselves free from intellectual patterns that block insight.  Each of them points to a habitual thought-pattern that causes us to ignore reality because of intellectual assumptions.  Each of them has a correct "answer," though often that answer is not expressed with words.

Many of the ko-ans used today have survived as valuable tools for zen practice for centuries.  Rinzai zen's most notorious one is "Does a dog have Buddha-nature?"  The "answer" is an expression of the awareness of the how asking the question at all reveals a fundamental ignorance of what is meant by Buddha-nature and where you find it.  One way to answer the question is for the student to demonstrate realization of why it makes no sense to ask this question because this view of Buddha-nature that looks for it in a dog is based on an illusory intellectual construct of the kind that can block true insight.

The realization comes in an instant, but getting to it can require years of contemplative practice (certainly true in my case).  That part is up to the student.  The teacher's job is to recognize and validate the student's realization.

It is important to notice this isn't like grading a test.  There is a correct answer, but it can't be written down, and there are innumerable ways to express it.  Recognizing that a student has the answer is also a ko-an.  It is important to understand that the teacher-student dyad works this way.  Students teach as they study.  Teachers study as they teach.

The ko-ans that have survived for centuries largely address intellectual life.  Humans struggle with more than their thinking, they also struggle with emotions and with their body.  The creator of the Mondo zen practice, Jun Po Denis Kelly, an American zen priest, began to realize from his teaching practice that ko-an practice could be applied to emotional patterns that block insight, and he realized that students could benefit from practice that includes physical training like Qigong or yoga.

Much of the Mondo zen koan practice serves to enable students to realize that lashing-out when angry, physically or verbally, is a choice, a learned reaction and it can be un-learned.  One of the principal Mondo zen ko-ans is "has anyone ever angered you?"  This can seem a bit like asking "have you ever taken a breath?"

The answer is not "yes."

I went to a Mondo zen retreat led by Jun Po Kelly in New York City at the Zen Studies Society yesterday and the day before.  About halfway through the retreat, something bothered me about it.  I felt as if Jun Po had taken the most exquisitely beautiful toro tuna, cooked it, and made tuna salad.  Delicious tuna salad to be sure, but I prefer sashimi with this particular cut of fish.

That's the worst I can come up with here; it was without a doubt the most delicious tuna salad I have ever had.  Some people won't eat tuna at all unless it is in tuna salad.  I think it is more important to get people to eat tuna (i.e., to understand themselves better) than it is to teach them to appreciate the subtle beauty of uncooked toro belly the way I do.

This aggressive method to evangelize the dharma as a way to move to peace with one's emotional reactions is going to be misunderstood, as insight teachings often are.  The word "mondo" itself has connotations in English with the kind of wild, rebellious, lifestyle of people like Hunter S. Thompson.  It is apropos, but on a very deep level, and people are going to miss that.

People are going to think their intellectual understanding of the steps and answers to the ko-ans (the answers, as much as they can be written down, are available on the Internet at the Mondo Zen web-site, look for the training manual).  When their limited understanding fails to serve them, some will discard the practice.

But, that's true of religious practice in general.  Mondo zen is nothing out of the ordinary, which makes it really special.