Very distinctive to Zen practice is kong-an practicing. Kong-an practicing has two main functions. First, to help us to always return to our correct practicing direction. Some people practice to feel better. Some people practice to take away problems. There are many kinds of reasons, and all those reasons can be very good, but very important is our practicing’s original direction, which is don’t know, only go straight don’t know. So when you can’t answer a kong-an, already your mind returns to don’t know. So this helps us keep our practicing direction. Some people just want quiet for meditation. That’s okay, but that cannot really help your life. So kong-an practicing helps you keep this correct practicing direction of don’t know.
Kong-an practicing helps us to find correct function. As we go through kong-an practice, we begin to see very clearly substance, truth, and function, and can find the correct function in our life. There are basically two kinds of kong-ans. One kind checks our meditation mind, how much our mind is unmoving. It’s like sword fighting; the teacher attacks, you go back, then the teacher, then you, then the teacher, then you. Then you can see how long you can keep this not moving mind. The second type of kong-an checks our wisdom, that means our functioning. Another kind of kong-an is checking our cognition.
Very important is that our kong-an practicing connects with everyday life. So the three main aims of kong-an practicing are to help us keep our correct practicing direction, don’t know, to find correct function, and finally, to attain no hindrance.
Here’s a famous example:
A monk asked Joju, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joju answered, “Mu.”
That’s the kong-an. Then there are questions attached to the kong-an, for example: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”
Sometimes the kong-an and the question are the same, for example: The whole universe is on fire; through what kind of samadhi can you escape from being burned?
Associated with kong-ans are short commentaries, sometimes in the form of poems.
There is a form to use in the interview room, involving prostrations. The Head Dharma Teacher or any senior student will help you through it your first time, and as many times as you need afterward.
In our school, we use the kong-ans collected by Zen Master Seung Sahn in a book “The Whole World is a Single Flower”.