Zen and the koan

Written by on October 8, 2014 in Commentary with 0 Comments

Zen and the koan

Buddhism was brought from India to China in the 6th century CE by a monk named Bodhidharma. Its teaching was adopted and adatped by the Chinese people as ‘Chan’, which is more popularly known as Zen (the Japanese word for Chan).

Zen Buddhism is unique in the world of religion and philosophy. It is not a belief, theory or dogma. Zen’s primary concern is to achieve enlightenment in meditation. Enlightenment is the realization experience of the true nature of the universe. This direct experience of reality is unlike how we tend to think about it conventionally. And so Zen wishes to disengage the thinking mind in order to ‘see right away’.

Zen regards the human intellect as limited and illusory, a hindrance in relating the enlightened experience. And so zen masters would sometimes use ‘koan’ study to train their monks. 

A ‘koan’ is a short narrative, phrase or question that is paradoxical and counterintuitive. The koan would be used to break through the intellect and point at a monk’s realization. It does this by creating a mental blockage which redirects the thought process in the pupil. The very fact of the blockage is the teaching itself, the invitation for the mind to release into a non-intellectual experience of reality. The trouble people have with koans is that they are too smart to understand them. Koans are not thinking questions, Koans are before-thinking questions.

To describe a banana to a person that has never seen or tasted one, will never be as good as giving them a banana to eat. This is Zen, the immediate experience beyond description and knowledge. It has been said that a koan is “dark to the mind and radiant to the heart.”

Here is an example of a Koan: “A master and his students were travelling through a forest. The master stopped and picked up a fallen branch. Holding it towards a student, he asked what it was. The student hesitated, so the master struck him. The master then turned to another student and asked the question again. The student requested to examine it more closely before answering, and so the master gave it to him. The student then struck the master with it.”

In conventional thought, our mind operates with the presumption of the separation between subject and object; meaning, outside one’s skin there is an outer world, and from this world subjective experience is delivered by the five senses, language and thought. Zen finds this second-handed awareness as dualistic and instead teaches direct experience. If you call a stick “a stick” you absorb it into the categories of linguistics and necessarily reduce it essential reality. Any word or description of something is not the real thing, and so the master struck the monk for pondering the stick dualistically (subject/object). However the master got struck himself for handing over the stick dualistic ally to the student. The master should have thrown the stick away or burned it in a fire.

Koan #2: “A master holds a short stick of Bamboo towards a monk and asks, “If you call this a stick, you affirm; if you call it not a stick, you negate. Beyond affirmation and negation what would you call it?”. This is an all out attack on a student. There is no way out of being punished here. If you seek to verbalize an answer, it will be wrong; or if you say nothing you are still wrong. How to express it then? The question itself is the trap. It is like the question, “have you stopped beating your wife?”. It needs to be un-asked. To extend beyond the question is the action to take—snatch the stick from the master and break it over your knee or throw it out a window. This will save the situation for both of you.

Here’s a variation of the koan to demonstrate the idea again: “A master holds a pencil towards a student, “if you call this a pencil, you affirm. If you do not call it a pencil, you negate. Beyond affirmation and negation what would you call it?”—Take the pencil and draw a circle onto paper, then discard the paper and return the pencil.

Koan #3: “A man named Riko once asked Zen Master Nansen to explain the koan of the goose in the bottle.

“If a man puts a gosling into a bottle,” said Riko, “and feeds him until he is full-grown, how can the man get the goose out without killing it or breaking the bottle?”

Nansen clapped his hands abruptly and shouted, “Riko!”

“Yes, Master,” he said startled.

“See,” said Nansen, “the goose is out!”

Koans invite you to wake from a dream. If you concede to the conditions set out by the koan then your mind is in the bottle. Break the delusion to awaken, shatter your conventional awareness. Then apply this to everyday life. This is living zen. This is not zen. How did the banana taste?

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