The Human Condition:

The Practical Kōan – February 12, 2017

One hand

It is a common thought that all religions are based on some acceptance of the supernatural and the mystical as the basis of belief. God or gods, angels or other divine beings, the environs of the afterlife encompassing either eternal ecstasy or unrelenting torment, and the minds of the priests or shamans who are in touch with these things are all supposed to be matters beyond or outside of the real, mundane, everyday aspects of human life. To be religious is thought to be entering another plane which does not touch the world as the average person perceives it.

This may be so for mystery, just-so religions like Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam. But from my own study, I have found Buddhism—that is, the mind practices of Hinayana Buddhism, as originally taught by Gautama, rather than the social worship of Mahayana Buddhism, as practiced in most countries today1—to be eminently practical and not at all supernatural. True, some of the sutras, the dialogues of the Buddha, can be obscure and flowery, but the teaching itself rests on common sense and good psychology.

One of the supposedly mystical aspects of the Zen Buddhist tradition are the kōans, or questions, puzzles, and riddles used in meditation. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “What is your original face before your mother and father were born?” These ask you to explore the concepts of duality and oneness: it takes two hands to make a clapping sound; it takes a father and a mother to make a baby.2

The purpose of the kōan—as nearly as I understand it, and one must always qualify one’s understanding of Zen with humility—is to interrupt the normal, everyday chatter of the active mind, which keeps throwing out words and sequences, images, memories, and logical interpretations of everything that is passing through the forefront of our brains. The kōan is meant as a logical impossibility, an irresolvable question, and so an end of logic and a stilling of the active mind. Once the little squirrel inside the wheel stops its endless spinning, the mind can be at peace and open to new ways of seeing and interpreting the world.

Unlike the catechism, scripture, or doctrine passed along in other religions, Zen has no object, no direction, no predictable endpoint, and no core teaching that can be put succinctly into words and formulas. It is not about turning the student into something, but turning him or her out of old habits and everyday perceptions. No system of thought or doctrine can, by itself, create a clear and settled mind. You must do that for yourself, because your mind, your mental habits and thought patterns, are unique. You alone know best about your own mind and its workings.

Some commentaries suggest that the purpose of these kōans about clapping hands and faceless babies is to force the meditating student to confront—and become one with—the nonduality of subject and object. In this sense, Zen might almost be the spiritual precursor to quantum theory, because it turns observation and action on their heads. It teaches—that is, one of its core ideas postulates—that the observer and the subject under observation are not separate. “Look at the flower, and the flower also looks.” Or, rather, when you detect a quantum particle, the act of detection also changes the particle’s momentum and direction. So you can know where the particle is, or where it’s going, but not both.

Like quantum mechanics, Zen is usually repugnant to the everyday mind. In our normal state, into which we are essentially born and which becomes confirmed by our every social interaction, most of us assume that what goes on inside our heads—my thoughts, my perceptions, my values, my life—is separate and distinct from whatever is going on outside in “the world.” There is the existence of I-me-my and the existence of you-they-them-it, and the two are separate. In the greater view, the perspective that resides somewhere above our skulls and—for some people at least—might be thought of as the god’s-eye view, there is no I-or-you, no I-or-they, but only one system of reciprocating interaction, cause and effect, playing out eternally.

When you become attuned to this level of thinking, then you can attempt to still your mind, close down those actions and reactions, and “disappear from the play” or “go out like a candle”—which was the whole point of nirvana. Not a state of unending bliss, but a final rest from the oppression of being and becoming. To enter nirvana is to achieve the stillness from waking each day—or, in the Hindu tradition of reincarnation, returning after death to another new life—and climbing the same hill, finding your way anew, struggling to make your life function, reacting to pressures and influences, igniting more pressures and influences, and remaining caught in the middle, like a fly struggling in a web.3

Much of the original Buddhist teaching is filled with poetic language that I find simply impenetrable. But the Zen variant is often clear and practical. The stories are meant to impart a simple understanding.

For example, in “A Cup of Tea,” a university professor visits a Zen master. The master pours him a cup of tea, and when the level reaches the brim, the master keeps pouring. The professor watches and finally says the cup is full; no more will go in. The master replies that the professor’s mind, like the cup, is full of opinions and ideas. He cannot show the professor Zen unless the man firsts empties his cup.

In “Eating the Blame,” the cook at a Zen monastery is late in preparing the evening meal. He rushes into the garden and begins hurriedly chopping up greens for the monks’ soup. Unfortunately, in the process he collects and chops up a small snake. When the soup is served, the abbot pulls from his bowl the snake’s head. “What is this?” he asks in astonishment, because the monks are supposed to be strict vegetarians. “Oh, thank you, Master!” the cook exclaims and pops the snake head into his mouth.

In “Black-Nosed Buddha,” a young nun has a statue of the Buddha covered in gold leaf. She enters a shrine where there are many Buddha statues, each with incense burning before it. She wants to burn incense, too, but for her own statue and not share it with any other. She makes a funnel to guide the perfumed smoke to her Buddha’s nose. The smoke blackens the nose and makes the golden statue ugly.

These are not specifically riddles but stories about relationships and perspectives—being open to ideas, accepting blame in an intolerable situation, sharing blessings with others—that are the components of a magnanimous, or “great-souled,” existence. They are good psychology rather than any kind of mystical doctrine.4

For me, that is the attraction of Buddhism, in its original variant, over other religions. It does not require belief. Instead, it asks for patience and acceptance of principles that anyone can understand.

1. Hinayana translates as “Lesser Vehicle” and refers to the strict moral and mentally purifying practices taught in the earliest form of the religion, by which a person achieves release from the wheel of rebirth, quiets the endless give and take of personal karma, and so prepares him- or herself to enter the condition of nirvana. And that does sound pretty mystical, doesn’t it? Mahayana translates as “Greater Vehicle” and refers to the later definitions of the religion, where advanced souls, the bodhisattvas, can be prayed to and will intercede for and share their good karma with less advanced souls in order to hurry them along the route to salvation.

2. Clearly, the riddle is not meant to be something that only a clever mind can answer. “One hand clapping” is not the sound of snapping fingers. Nor is it an invitation to indiscriminately approach the experience of reality, so that the “clapping” is something universal or whatever you happen to be hearing at the moment. If the answer were that simple, it could be published in a book of proverbs or jokes with the punchlines spelled out and explained.

3. It is ironic that the Hindu idea of reincarnation—that what happens after you die is not an actual ending, fearsome death, but a return to life in a new body—has generated a sense of ennui and discontent. It is an oppressive vision of eternal climbing and slipping back, life after life, with no possible escape. Even the thought of sitting on a cloud in Heaven, playing the harp and singing with the angels … forever can be oppressive.

4. For more such stories and perspectives, see Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps and The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism by Garma C. C. Chang. The latter was one of the first books I edited—and really very lightly—while working at the Pennsylvania State University Press.