In the Buddhist discourses the Buddha is depicted as teaching his followers or those outside of his following. This is Buddhist pedagogy. After his awakening, the Buddha thought that what he had awakened to was too difficult for the common person to understand. In fact, the Buddha said, “If I were to teach the Dharma and others were not to understand me, that would be a weariness, a vexation for me” (M. i. 168). Pedagogy was certainly on his mind, that is, how to teach the recondite Dharma that is “fine, subtle, the sense of which can only be understood by the wise.” To be honest, not all of his followers were wise.
When we compare the Buddha’s pedagogy with that found in our primary schools and universities there is considerable difference. For one thing, the subject matter is completely different and difficult. Not all have the same capacity; nor in this lifetime will all attain supreme Buddha knowledge. Only a few will be able to do so. There are many reasons why this is so. But basically it is a problem with our karma which I have said before has to do with our ability or inability to grasp the teachings of the Buddha. Most people, unfortunately, are plagued by bad karma. They have little or no capacity to understand the spiritual purport of the Buddha’s teachings. They hear it incorrectly.
The various discourses of the Buddha certainly speak to each person’s reach and capacity. We might even say there are many levels from simple stories and similes, to deep and profound discourses. The pedagogy of the Buddha, nevertheless, is always trying to remove some of the thick mantle of ignorance that each person bears which inhibits their understanding. We, at this point, can ask is this is what is going on with koans? The answer is of course, yes. Koans are entirely pedagogical. Their intention is to exhaust our attraction to the “dead words” of interpretation and, hopefully, take us to the “living word” which is the very source of the mysterious phrase or gesture. Unfortunately, koans have a tremendous weakness. They are, for the most part, suited for testing whether or not a student is getting close to the Buddha’s Dharma “which can only be understood by the wise.” Unless, one is practicing koans with a realized teacher they are best used as a test. If we are honest with ourselves, koan after koan will pronounce us far away from the Buddha’s yonder shore.