Koans are intellectually-insoluble riddles offered in some schools of Zen Buddhism as a means of focusing the mind and helping students, roughly, to get their shit together. "What is the sound of one hand clapping," is one of the best known and most bandied-about koans, but formally, there are 1,700 koans and Zen students sometimes 'pass' them with the aid of a teacher.
But as my own Zen teacher once said, "Buddha didn't study 1,700 koans." Such a statement can set up an intellectual or seeeeerious pissing contest, but for my money, no one has to go looking for koans except to the extent that they need to sharpen attention. Koans creep into a human life unbidden, like some swift and shadowy ninja in the night.
Koans find people. People don't find koans. This does not mean that formal training is utterly useless ... most of us can be pretty slick and sloppy in our search for peace. So yes, there is a usefulness to formal discipline and yes, koans can play a role ... but on top of that or before that or something, there are the honest-to-god ninjas of the night... the ones that elude all intellectual and emotional defenses, slip in through the back door and offer to murder us in our beds.
One such ninja, perhaps, is framed in the old Peggy Lee song, "Is that all there is?" Of course, how someone else frames the question is not so much the point. Your ninjas are, ipso facto, yours, as mine are mine. But that old musical hit shapes the question well, I think: "Is that all there is?" The lottery player does in fact hit the jackpot ... is that all there is? The young lovers joyfully agree to get married, tie the knot and ... is that all there is? The worker sweats and toils and sacrifices and ... is that all there is? The activist spends years promoting a cause, overcoming one hurdle and the next, weeping in frustration or delighting in victories until the war is won and ... is that all there is?
The intellectually insoluble riddle comes with the stealth of a shadow or the impact of a freight train. Those who have spent much of their lives convincing themselves that they are in control, that they are intellectual or emotional grown-ups, will look on the bullshit I am writing here and have a smooth and ready answer. But smooth and ready answers -- the imagined grown-up in any of us -- is stymied like any other simpleton when the ninja leans over the bed and offers to cut our hearts out. "Is that all there is?" Youth and age, sickness and health, wealth and poverty, maturity and immaturity, savvy and stupidity, meaning and belief, man and woman ... is that all there is?
Is that all there is? Oozing, self-serving answers won't do. Slick psychological nostrums won't do. What will do? Who will answer? What blade will cut this paradoxical knot?
A koan is what is intellectually referred to as a paradox. A paradox is two 'opposite' appreciations asserted or held in the mind simultaneously. "I love/hate you," might be a paradox. "My beliefs rely on the past but I live in the present" might be a paradox.
In one sense, I hate bringing Zen Buddhism to this discussion. Ninjas who come to cut our hearts out in the night don't give a rat-fuck whether we are Zen Buddhists or not. They have an honest job to perform ... and any body will do. But if it weren't Zen Buddhism, it would just be some other prism -- Christianity, philosophy, atheism, psychology, training dogs, blah, blah, blah -- so I guess my prism will just have to be what it is. But it is the ninjas in the night -- anyone's most honest and blood-filled koan that interests me.
I remember the Zen teacher Joshu whose to-and-fro was later immortalized among Zen's 1,700 koans. Joshu was asked, "Does a dog have Buddha Nature or not?" In Zen Buddhism, all things have Buddha Nature or essential nature, so it was a prickly question. And Joshu's answer was likewise prickly. He answered, "No!" or "Not!" and this "No!" (a translation of the word "Mu") has come down to some latter-day Zen students as a koan, an intellectually insoluble riddle that no one can out-think or out-flank. It is utterly paradoxical from the intellectual point of view. Some people consent to take on this paradoxical challenge and make it intimate in their lives. Some do not. As a footnote to this compelling tale, Joshu was asked the same question at another time and his response was, "Yes!" So paradox heaps on paradox for those willing to consent to paradox ... for those willing to sense the ninja who is more than willing to cut your heart out.
Is that all there is ... some shadowy and inexplicable danger that stands implacable over the times where a quiet honesty descends? It is unswayed by virtue or goodness, unmoved by explanation or belief, unconvinced by silvery and slick answers like Peggy Lee's "let's keep on dancing." Is that all there is?
Koans come calling all by themselves. No need to look them up or file them in some mental juke box. No need to insert a quarter and listen to the wistful tunes. And a little at a time, perhaps ....
Who ever said a paradox was a paradox? Is there really a need for war between light and shadow? If so, whose war is it and does a warring life equal a peaceful one?
What is personal is just personal. What is ninja is just ninja. What is light is just shadow. What is "no" is just "yes" or vice versa ... and saying so is more full of shit than a Christmas turkey.
Is that all there is?
I haven't got a clue.
You tell me.
You're the boss.
Just like me.