Attention, and the creative response
Zen koans are an important part of the practice of Rinzai Zen, one of the main schools of Zen. They help people to learn that intelligence and creativity function by themselves, like breathing, or heartbeat - that we don’t have to rack our brains to come up with creative solutions to problems. Racking the brains usually means that we are rummaging among our known data looking for something unknown - looking for something that isn’t there - a needless waste of energy.
Christianity approaches this matter with statements like, “Why do you worry? It doesn’t add a single hair to your head.” Or, “If you are being taken before the judge, don’t practice how you are going to respond. Your Father in Heaven will give you the answer after the question is asked.” (or something like that)
Most of us premeditate how we are going to deal with situations that haven’t happened yet, so our responses aren’t creative. Koan practice, on one level, is a simple exchange between student and Zen Master in which the student goes into the question and answer session with no premeditated or rehearsed answer. The student goes in empty, and responds ‘off the top of his head’, depending on what the Master says or does. If you take aim before the target appears, you’ll never hit the mark. Koan practice helps the student to see the effectiveness and creativity of the unrehearsed response. He learns to trust himself. He learns to pay attention to what’s being said and done, instead of just waiting to blurt out his premeditated response. This is one of the main reasons why the samurai were interested in Zen. (Wage war with surprise moves). (The sparrow can’t catch the butterfly, because even the butterfly doesn’t know which way he’s going to dart next).