A passing brush this morning with the Mumonkan and the Blue Cliff Record, two books of koans and commentary that are part and parcel of the Zen Buddhism I once signed up to follow, put me in mind of the tigers.
Koans are intellectually insoluble riddles aimed at demonstrating the limitations of the smart-as-a-whip intellect. An example: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Or, "What did I look like before my parents were born?" By focusing whole-heartedly on the issue, the student is invited to see a wider, clearer world.
At one time, I was dying to be given a koan. I wanted to be more closely aligned with the Zen group to which I belonged at that point. I wanted to be thought fierce and sincere. If a teacher gave me a koan to work on, it might indicate my advance upward through the Zen ranks. Eventually, I was given one and set to work holding it in my mind and butting my head against its impossible, immuring nature. I tried and tried on my meditation cushion. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't seem to ingest or care about it. What a chickenshit!
I was a bad Zen student: A koan taken from a revered text simply did not bang my chimes. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself of the serious and deep meaning ... I remained unconvinced. I was a bad Zen student, which, from today's perspective, is a pretty good Zen student.
How long did I keep all this up -- this comparing myself to a revered text and its conundrums? I don't know, but eventually something just gave up the 'revered text' perspective. If I didn't give a shit, I didn't give a shit. If I was scared of what I might find out, well, hell, I was just scared. If the wise men who compiled these wondrous texts were wise, well, I couldn't help that or imagine I might match them in some shiny, esoteric wisdom. They were dead and dead people have a tendency not to argue.
My problem, among others, was that I could not bring my heart to bear. What someone else called important simply did not imply anything I considered important... sort of.
The tiger was creeping up in the grass behind me ... careful, lethal ... but for the moment I was held in thrall to the 'right' way of doing things, the Zen student way, the best-advice way I imagined I must take and yet somehow couldn't.
And then one day, a koan pounced without any particular effort -- leaped on my back and proceeded to make a meal of me. The line might be old and infirm and slower than it once was in the predatory pecking order, but here was a koan that sank its claws and teeth into me.
Try this on for size: "I love you."
As far as I knew, the line had no place in the revered texts. It just hung out in my mind like some saucy teenager leaning against a lamp post, smoking a cigarette, asserting its power without ever moving a muscle. There was no solution and no escape.
Not that I could 'solve' it any better than I could 'solve' the sound of one hand clapping, but still, this koan was close to the bone -- a real marrow-muncher. Fuck the commentary. Fuck the answers. Fuck everything and anything else. "I love you."
No, I never did become a good Zen student and tigers, man-eating and otherwise, still scare the crap out of me. But I did get some hint that when anyone bleeds, the blood is red.
No need to seek out or memorize or mythologize or aggrandize koans. They come creeping and tip-toeing until, until, until ... well, even an old fart still has claws.