How do we explain the explainable? This question has inspired numerous myths, religious practices, and scientific inquiries. But Zen Buddhists practicing from the 9th to 13th Centuries asked a different question. “Why do we need an explanation?” For these monks blindly seeking answers was a vice to overcome, and learning to accept the mysteries of existence was the true path to enlightenment.
‘Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?’ — Hakuin Ekaku
The name kōan originally comes from the Chinese word gong’an. Which when translated literally means ‘Public case’ or ‘Public record’. Now the word gong’an is actually an abbreviation of the word gōngfǔ zhī àndú. Which translates to “official correspondence; documents; files” of a gongfu “government post” which referred to a “public record” or the “case records of a public law court”. Kōan/gong’an thus serves as a metaphor for principles of reality beyond the private opinion of one person, and a teacher may test the student’s ability to recognize and understand that principle.
‘What was never lost can never be found.’ Zen Saying
But unlike real world court cases koan‘s were intentionally incomprehensible. They were surprising, surreal and frequently contradicted themselves. On the surface they contained a proverb about the Zen Buddhist monastic code- such as living without physical or mental attachments, avoiding binary thinking and realizing ones true “Buddha-Nature”. But by having these lessons framed in such a manner, Meditating monks could practice and internalize Buddha teachings. Through pondering over these intentionally confusing anecdotes, it would teach the monks to let go of there search for one true answer and trigger a spiritual breakthrough.
‘Contradictions do not perplex the logician. They arise because there are more rules to an open game than can be known.’ Donald Kingsbury
With this in mind lets take a look at a famous Zen kōan. A cup of tea.
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?“
The purpose of these koan’s isn’t to reach a simple solution. But its the very act of struggling with these paradoxical puzzles which challenges our desire for resolution, and our understanding of understanding itself.
‘Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.’ Buddha