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Q: How do you work with Zen koans?
This is a very important and very personal question that I cannot possibly address in a single short piece. Zen koans are one of the classic and perhaps unsurpassed treasures of human civilization so there is hardly any room for them here where people normally ask me obscure philosophical and political questions. However I will attempt to oblige the questioner somehow.
The collected fragments of particular legendary conversations held among the adepts of Chan Buddhism — and Chan’s cousins throughout South and Central Asia — provide poetic & cognitive tools that are among the most reliable means of inculcating nondual consciousness in human beings. Working (really working) with these “cases” strokes some half-hidden, existential feature of our being until there is a more-or-less-temporary opening of the True Dharma Eye that presolves all questions.
Ancient and contemporary Zen teachers often disagree with each other about how best to utilize these tools. The plurality of strategies makes this into a seductive thicket whose non-linearity is compounded by the clear need for one’s engagement to be authentic, multidimensional and creative. Tricky, tricky.
Since I cannot possibly accommodate all these features, I will confine myself here to one interesting linguistic feature:
The universal pronoun.
From the Blue Cliff Records:
Two adepts were hiking in a fabled mountain range. They stopped very near the top. The first adept pointed down and said, “This is the summit of a mystical peak.” The other nodded, saying “Indeed it is. What a pity.”
THIS is the summit of a mystical peak.
What is this?
Without reducing koanic logic to a mere language game, we can nonetheless pay special attention to one thread that frequently recurs within the weave. It is a pattern of overladen quasi-specific signifiers. Pronouns, questions and specified objects are used in koans to perform what the French call a “double entendre.” I might call it zenuendo.
The same kind of human analogical thinking that allows children (and not only children) to experiment with covert forms of obscene and erotic implication is also at play in many koans — only the nature of the particular implication is different.
We know what is meant when a giggling adolescent says, “He put it in her.” The vital mystery of sexuality haunts the unspoken nature of that particular pronoun. Imagine the very same process occurring with, instead, the vital mystery of the simultaneous identity of being & non-being.
Now what did he put in her?
THIS is the summit of a mystical peak. Of course that wording may be a concrete reference to the peak of the majestic mountains in which the adepts are hiking. Or it could refer to a unique peak experience that has just occurred to one of the Zen practitioners. Perhaps it refers to their shared altitude of ongoing consciousness?
These are all important considerations but there is yet another mystery presented in & as the act of specification itself. For ultimately everything informs and is epitomized in each thing.
Ultimately (sic) the indistinct wholeness of being-becoming is present as any distinction. The difference between distinct & indistinct does not exactly apply. It is in/distinct.
It has been said that Zen is not the moon but the finger pointing at the moon. Yet what is the moon? It is obviously everything that one hopes to attain through Zen contemplation and Zen living. The radical and comprehensive totality of the Buddhamind. The enacted summary of all wisdom-practices and their existential root. The liberating trap that exceeds and fulfills all teachings. THAT… is the moon.
IT is the moon
WHO is the moon?
HE is the moon.
THIS FLOWER is the moon.
This treatment of the universal as the particular concrete or abstract specification, as the universal pronoun, is very common across many koans.
Who is the great one who makes the grass green?
Master Gutei would always raise one finger when asked any deep and sincere question about the great matter.
Baso said to a monk, “If I see you have a staff, I will give it to you. If I see you have no staff, I will take it away from you.
When the many are reduced to one, to what is the one reduced?
The dramatic (and hilarious and preposterously obscure) problem of the in/difference of sameness & difference is echoed and expressed in this problem of the trans-oppositionality of the universal and particular.
(Think about THAT the next time someone says they are non-binary…)
The utterly delightful poison of Dogen’s writings helps us to take koans very seriously. These are not, he tells us, linguistic or spiritual battles between the all-knowing master and the ignorant student. Instead, every agent, every line is already perfect. Each is the all. Break a koan down by assuming that each question or statement or action is the totalizing punchline that finally reveals the supreme secret. (Work until that is true for you!)
Dogen presents it all as a series of wins. On this hog what is not a prime cut?
What did your master teach you?
Do you see that cloud in the sky?
Is it suspended from a nail or hanging in midair?
I cannot breath to read such illuminating words!
Am I hysterical or did I really see “the great matter” through the sliding window of WHAT and THAT and IT?
You may judge for yourself, of course. I may be quite fit for a state-sanctioned re-education program to correct my incipient madness. Nonetheless, how delighted I am by even this one shard among the ten trillion that comprise the koan work. The WAY in which any “thing” in our speech, perception or our lives can operate as a generic stand-in for ultimate enlightenment.
All the living possibilities of dharmic insight and transformation, this entire ocean, is contained in any specific drop.
What is it that no Buddha knows?
Perhaps, facing this question, the ancient exemplary student throws down the hoe with which she has been gardening and — pointing at it — declares,
“There! That is what no Buddha knows…”