When I was in Idaho, I would enter a small room where my zen teacher would sit like a furious Buddha who was ready to smash any dilutions—often at unguarded moments. I would nervously recite a koan and present my embodiment of that koan. It felt like taking a college entry exam, again and again... Since I had a perfectionist tendency, any hints of failures or disapproval appeared disastrous. I dreaded the interviews and the sheer number of koans. In the traditional Zen training, you need to pass close to a thousand koans before getting the stamp of the approval. It took my zen teacher more than 20 years to get his stamp of the approval.
At the same time, I was intrigued by koan’s diamond-like edge that cut through layers of my social identities: a misfit in youth, a dropout at college, a Chinese immigrate, an IBMer, and a wife of a white American… I remember a koan helped me a lot to untie my close identification as an IBMer. It says, “What is your original face before your parents were born?” In other words, it asks me: who am I before I was born? Who am I before all these social identities have piled up on me? As time passed on, koans accompanied me when I was mediating, walking or even sleeping.
Koans also connect me with a bigger family: zen ancestry. Coming from a humble family background, the upper part of my family tree disappeared in the clouds of wars, famines, and other ravages of life. My dad became an orphan when he was six, and I only met my grandpa on my mother side when I was young. The stories about past zen teachers become my old family stories—initially subconsciously, and then later happily embraced.
I didn’t care that they were all men. I was just happy to belong to a lineage. And little I realized at the time that zen lineage traditionally only passed onto men because women were unfit for spiritual practice. Even in zen communities in the United States today, most of lineage holders are still men, surrounded by followers who were enchanted by their leaders’ charisma.
Still, when the scandals of the teacher of my Zen teacher broke out in 2012, I felt betrayed and fell in despair. He had received his stamp of the approval decades ago by Maezumi Roshi and taught koan practice to thousands of people all over the world. Why would he not practice his preaching? With time, I realized that the koan of life is the most difficult one to pass, just as the koan about the buffalo that can go through a window with only its smallest part—its tail—getting stuck. If zen teachers believe they are above ordinary people, that little arrogance would prevent them go through the window of liberation.
In addition, Koans can fall into formulated answers or become “Kou-Tou Zen” (sound bites). Students can just talk about zen, but not follow its spirit in life. I ran into a small Koan handbook at a used bookstore at Portland. It is worn-out and looks innocent. But it spells out how to respond to koans as zen students and how to check out a student’s answers as zen teachers. Disgusted, I pushed the book back on the shelf. Koan practice is about Self-discovery, not reciting the sound bits. Although we can fake our understanding by saying all the “right” things, we’d only cheat our own existence.
After a string of Buddhist scandals in 2012, I left Buddhist groups and went through a long grieving period on losing my connections with my adopted zen family. Since then, creating art became my main spiritual practice. Thankfully, I have found profound peace and dived deep into the flow through my creative process. A wide, tender spot is uncovered in my heart when I pinch the clay, splash colorful paints on canvas and transfer old-wisdom text onto wood boards.
Interestingly, koans stay with me and are tightly interwoven with my art and life now. When I start a new art piece, I often ask myself what my life needs most at the moment. Balance? Courage? Connection? I then choose appropriate objects, techniques, materials, or styles. My intentions become my koans of life. Creating art transforms me like koans.
Sometimes I’d work on existing koans or sometimes invent new ones. For example, there is a famous koan: “Is there still sound when trees fall in a deep forest when no one is around?” When I feel pressured for time, I would think about my personal adaptation of that koan: “Does the clock still tick in a deep forest when no one is around?” This thought helps me slow down and notice things around me.
Art creation become gateless gates to enter the vast space of life. Once going through these invisible gates, I have been transformed into a powerful dragon or a graceful crane. Then, there are more gates to go through, to stay forever present, to let go of perfectionism. Moreover, no answers to koans of life can be wrong if I come from pure intention of spiritual growth. My creative process is to answer the koan of life—the most difficult kind.
 “The Gateless Gate” (WuMenGuan) is a classic Koan book compiled by WuMen (1183–1260). The book title implies that there are ways to realize our true nature, despite their invisible nature.