Saturday, October 26, 2013

koans, real and otherwise

In Zen Buddhism -- a preference I chose to express -- there is some emphasis put on koans. Koans are intellectually-insoluble riddles that aim to help individuals to express/actualize/realize their own true nature, so-called.

"What is the sound of one hand clapping?" is a koan, for example, as is "Who am I?" or "What is this?" or "Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?" In some traditions, there are 1,700 formal koans a student might confront or choose from. Once having chosen or been assigned a koan, a student may dig deeper and deeper into it, largely with meditation as the arena in which to address the question for which there is no intellectual or emotional solution.

All of this is pretty serious for those who choose Zen Buddhism as a format within which to straighten out the uncertainties or unsatisfactoriness of their particular lives. It's rather consoling, having a formatted playground. Koans are part and parcel of a discipline the student has chosen to take seriously.

But koans are tricky ... and not just because they defy intellectual or emotional solutions. They are tricky because the student must be willing, sooner or later, to give himself or herself to the question at hand -- to sink into it with a personal surrender that is akin to sinking into a warm bathtub. In this realm, the seriousness of Zen Buddhism falls away. This is serious... very personal, very complete, very ahh and eek simultaneously. This is no-fucking-around simple and real. Zen Buddhism, God, and all the other much-praised stars can go suck an egg. This is my life.

And it was for this reason, perhaps, that I never was any good at the formal koans passed around in Zen Buddhism in the same way some somber waiter might offer up canapes. I think I didn't trust anyone else's questions. I had enough questions of my own and the bathtub I was willing to sink into lay elsewhere, however much I might caterwaul about taking Zen Buddhism seriously, however much I might practice meditation (zazen) or go to retreats (sesshin) or whatever.

I guess I was a lousy Zen Buddhist, but at this late date I make no apologies. And ... I am grateful. My bathtub is just my bathtub, much as yours is yours. Everyone chooses or is chosen by the koans of a quite specific, quite wonderful and occasionally quite horrific life. It's no big deal. On the other hand, of course, it is quite a big deal... your koan or mine, awaiting attention, awaiting the willingness to stick more than a toe in the toasty waters that may, at first, seem to be scalding.

Here is one teeny-tiny (which is to say, humongous) koan that once touched my life:

Before leaving for a three-week tour of Russia in 1968, there were a number of lectures that sought to acquaint us would-be tourists with the customs of the land we were about to visit. And it was during one of those lectures that it was impressed upon us that Russians did not give gifts lightly and we would be well-advised not to give them lightly. A gift was serious in Russia. The American tradition of giving gifts as a means of meeting some imposed responsibility was off the table. In other words, giving a set of place mats to Aunt Sally on Christmas just because she was Aunt Sally and part of the family and family required presents ... well, forgetaboutit! Giving was serious and personal and from the heart: Leave the quid-pro-quo mentality at home!

As with all good advice, I got the superficial understanding ... and then blew it in the application.

It was on a grassy knoll somewhere south of Ulyanovsk that I ran into five boys of about 10-12. They were roaming as I was and we sat down together. I could speak little or no Russian. I could say, "please" and "thank you" and "bathroom" and "I love you" and "cold beer," but otherwise was up the creek. The boys spoke no English. So, as we all sat on the grass, I took a number of coins from my pocket, some American, some Russian, and laid each side by side with a coin of approximately the same value. When I finished this small exercise in communication, I gave each of the boys one American coin. And then I got up to return to the ship I had come on -- the one parked at a small dock along the Volga River that lay below the knoll.

I hadn't got a hundred paces when I heard a voice calling from behind me. I turned and looked as the leader of the small band hurried to catch up with me. He stopped in front of me, slightly out of breath. And without further ado, he extended his hand ... and within it, a length of twine. The twine was perhaps 12 inches long and consisted of black and white strands that culminated at either end with black and white tassels. And looking into the boy's face, I knew this was clearly one of his most prized possessions.

The boy didn't look happy or sad. What he did look, and what cut me to the heart, was open and honest. He was giving me his heart without a backward glance. And that gift split me open like a kumquat. He was giving it in part because I had given him a coin ... but this was no merchandizing exchange. He trusted my heart in my gift and was willing to extend his with his.

And I was utterly stymied. I did not want to deprive him of his prized possession, but there was no way I could honor his heart by offering to undo what I had done. What could I do? I wanted to escape, but there was no escape. I wanted to be as honest and easy as this 12-year-old and yet I seemed to lack the wherewithal. I was a complete phony by comparison. I felt terrible as I received his gift ... terrible and yet thankful and yet terrible. I wanted, somehow, to cry, and yet in the end, I said "thank you" as I took the string and felt speechless at the wonder of this gift. It was richer and more important than the Mona Lisa ... and far more beautiful. I really, really did not want to deprive him of his treasure and yet his face clearly told me that this was no deprivation. How the fuck was I supposed to cope with -- not to mention match -- that?

No escape. Stuck with the farm. No undoing what has been done and yet yearning like crazy to do just that. Deeper and deeper into the bathtub's warm water for which there is no explanation and no meaning and no simpering belief and yet flashes like lightning ... honest and direct and plain ... and is gone. Beautiful before the word "beautiful" leaves the tongue or enters the mind.

Ah well ... I have told this story before, but this morning it came back to me again. It was and remains a koan I am capable of and willing to credit.

I kept that string for years and then one day it got lost in the array of stuff I had accumulated in life.

Gone ... and all that's left is a lousy Zen Buddhist.


  1. "I had enough questions of my own"

    I found your book in my shelf the other day, it has been awhile since I last read it. It was the best book I bought myself I reckoned, just like the huge Avamtasaka Sutra I received as a birthday present last year, the books mattered because they were the source of wise knowledge, my source of wise knowledge, yet as my cousins prepare their school examinations the questions they discuss with me range from my koans of yesteryear, from macro economics to big bang theories. All knowledge itself appears like a massive koan in itself, what for?

    Taking a brief glance at family, it occurred that sex was the thing left as part of zen practice. I have done my pathetic share of zazens, chanting, dana, questions yes questions, and a bit of intellect. I looked at mom, and all I could see was her giving my dad an oral job when she was 31.

    31. Jesus got pinned on a cross at 33, so that his girlfriend 2 years younger could keep him still, strip his pants, and give him the best oral job she could muster.

    Koans. What in Jesus is the name of his girlfriend that gave him the blowjob?

    I don't know how to ask Mother Mary about it she is a virgin dang! I won't understand how drunk my mother was when she got pregnant with me with my dad also drunk are they supposed to know how it happened and tell me about it?

    I had enough questions of my own.

  2. "koans, real and otherwise" certainly pulled on my heart strings, Genkaku. Thanks.