A Kong-An is Nothing Other than the Present Moment
The function of a kong-an is to spark a question, to give rise to that which in the Zen tradition has been called the Great Question. When the mind "questions," it awakens and opens. This moment of questioning, however fleeting it is, is a manifestation of a pure and unconditioned mind. In this moment all filters of pre-conception and pre-judgment are taken away and only pure questioning remains.
This "questioning" is vastly different from "checking." A "checking" mind is always resisting, trying to find an argument based on its preconceived ideas and opinions. A "questioning" mind, on the other hand, is one which is stuck, which truly doesn't know. This mind only asks, "What is this?" The mind that truly asks "What is this?" does so in response to something in the present moment, whether it be a concrete life situation, a feeling, an emotion, an incomprehensible thought or whatever. In asking, "What is this?" the mind stops assuming, even if only for a fleeting second, stops operating on pre-conceptions and instead feels and looks attentively at the moment in hand.
There are two stories that have helped me tremendously to understand how kong-an practice applies to daily life. As it happens, both stories are about mothers. The first was told by Zen Master Seung Sahn when someone asked him how to "keep" a kong-an:
A mother of four has just watched her oldest child board a plane headed for Vietnam. In the months that follow she attends to her family, her part-time job, her friends and community. She plays bridge, goes to her daughter's class play, shops for food, etc. Through all of this she never forgets that her son is in Vietnam. She never doesn't feel some fear and concern. There is never a time when she doesn't wonder where her son is or what he is doing. She always asks herself, "When is my son coming home?" Because of her tremendous love for her son, she always has him in the recesses of her mind. At the same time she is totally present in her daily life.
Kong-an practice can be like this mother's mind. The "Great Question" of a kong-an, like the "Great Question" in the mother's mind about her son, remains with you, always in the recesses of your mind. The kong-an reminds you always to ask, look into "What is this?" rather than to know.
The second story is about a mother lion. This mother lion takes her five cubs out for their very first walk. They instinctively form a single line behind her. Up until this point, she has been their only source of love, warmth, protection, and nourishment; their world so far has been safe and most generous. So as they walk the cubs take in the sights, sounds, and smells around them and innocently delight in nature's gifts. Suddenly, the mother lion turns to one of the cubs and bats him five feet into the brush. The cub is shocked and hurt. Why would the thus-far warm and benevolent mother do such a thing? The cub scrambles back to the line and continues with the others. The mother has just taught the cub to be careful, be aware. She did it in the simplest, most direct way she knew.
A kong-an is able to wake up the mind in the same way. An alert mind can see through the kong-an and bring it to a wholesome conclusion, like a wise lion walking through the forest perfectly in tune with all that is there. As the mother lion swings her great paw towards her child, she has no thought as to being superior or better. She only wants the child to learn. A genuine Zen Master shares this mind.
The questions that a kong-an can raise can bring a deeper attentiveness to both sitting meditation and to daily activities. Just as a weight attached to a fishing line can help the hook to sink deeply into the ocean rather than bobbing on the water's surface, a kong-an can guide the mind to places of deeper insight, to places that are often difficult to enter without a persistent, steady direction. Using the mind's natural tendency to question gives it more focus and perception.
Thus, bringing the mind to the present moment by asking "What is this?" is to enter the space of not-knowing. Trusting this process of not-knowing is to go beyond the edge of what is familiar. Going beyond the edge of what is familiar is to let go of the self-imposed constructs of reality that we have created for ourselves and to which we cling so desperately. It is to look at each moment with a pure awareness rather than through colored filters. So, maybe when you ask someone, "How are you?", you are really asking, really open to see, feel, and listen to the response. Then true intimacy is possible and compassion naturally arises.