Sunday, April 11, 2010
Zen Masters and Koans
Image from La casa giratoria.com
A Koan is a fundamental part of the history and lore of Zen Buddhism. It consists of a story, dialogue, question, or statement; the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking, yet it may be accessible by intuition (Wikipedia.org)
From the Tao of Physics we learn more about Koans:
The rich Indian imagination has created a vast number of gods and goddesses whose incarnations and exploits are the subjects of fantastic tales, collected in epics of huge dimensions. The Hindu with deep insight knows that all these gods are creations of the mind, mythical images representing the many faces of reality. On the other hand, he also knows that they were not merely created to make the stories more attractive, but are essential vehicles to convey the doctrines of a philosophy rooted in mystical experience.
Chinese and Japanese mystics have found a different way of dealing with the language problem. Instead of making the paradoxical nature of reality palatable through the symbols and images of myth, they prefer very often to accentuate it by using factual language. Thus Taoists made frequent use of paradoxes in order to expose the inconsistencies arising from verbal communication and to show its limits. They have passed this technique on to Chinese and Japanese Buddhists who have developed it further. It has reached its extreme in Zen Buddhism with the so-called koans, those nonsensical riddles which are used by many Zen masters to transmit the teachings.
In Japan, there exists yet another mode of expressing philosophical views which should be mentioned. It is a special form of extremely concise poetry which is often used by Zen masters to point directly at the ‘suchness’ of reality. When a monk asked Fuketsu Ensho, When speech and silence are both inadmissible, how can one pass without error? the master replied :
always remember Kiangsu in March-
The cry of the partridge, The mass of fragrant flowers.
This form of spiritual poetry has reached its perfection in the haiku, a classical Japanese verse of just
seventeen syllables, which was deeply influenced by Zen. The insight into the very nature of Life reached by these haiku poets comes across even in the English translation:
Lie on one another;
The rain beats the rain.
Whenever the Eastern mystics express their knowledge in words-be it with the help of myths, symbols, poetic images or paradoxical statements-they are well aware of the limitations imposed by language and ‘linear’ thinking.
THE TAO OF PHYSICSAn Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism by Frifjof Capra