by Eve Myonen Marko and Wendy Egyoku Nakao
Zen koans, beginning some 1500 years ago, refer to stories or questions arising in encounters between monks and old Chinese and Japanese masters, and include commentaries designed to help the Zen practitioner awaken. Koans like Hakuin’s What is the sound of one hand clapping? are well-known, and the word koan has even gone mainstream.
Thousands of classic koans emerged from the lives of monks living inside a Chinese or Japanese culture, and the commentaries on those koans contain poetic elements and images that have proved challenging for many Westerners.
The Book of Householder Koans is a collection of koans created by 21st century Zen practitioners living a lay life in the West. The koans deal with the challenges of relationships, raising children, work, money, love, loss, old age, and death, and come from practitioners across three continents, and with commentaries by two Western teachers.
The collection is based on the premise that our lives as householders contain situations rich with challenge and grit, the equivalents of old Zen masters’ shouts or blows meant to sweep the ground right from under their students. They become koans, or koan practice, when they jolt us out of our usual way of thinking, when we’re no longer observers of our lives but plunge in, closing the gap between ourselves and the situation we face.