In his article entitled “10 Buddhist koans and why it is useless to try to understand them”, published on the Big Think platform, Derek Beres comments on the technique used by Zen Buddhism to ask the disciple for the meaning of a phrase (koan) that in itself is incongruous or contains elements impossible to relate to one another, as in the example he offers:
Imagine how you would react if I asked you what colour you like the most, purple or orange. Then, think about what you would answer if I asked you what colour you like the most, purple or seven.
The bottom line is that this is the situation we find ourselves in the moment we set out to inquire about any aspect of existence or knowledge. The first thing we discover in our search for the truth is the devastating paradox on which the creation is mounted –the necessary, yet nonexistent, reality of black holes; the dark matter; the singularity; the trillions of useless galaxies; the cosmic order and perfect regularity that emerged from an explosion… Nor do biologists do much better. What with monkeys transforming themselves into sentient beings somewhere in Southeast Africa, although there is this not so remote possibility that everything began in China; or that the African sub-humans in search of new horizons moved on to China at full speed; or, according to the latest, the new species would have developed in the Algerian Sahara, later extending itself to the rest of the African continent, and from there to China; or they may have gone to Australia first.
It is enough to take two or three steps in any area of knowledge to crash into a wall –the existential paradox. With astrophysics being 4000 years old, today we do not know any more about deep space than the Babylonian astrologers did, especially that in fact during all this time we have done nothing more than turn over the paradox of something as extremely complex as life having developed from inanimate and inert matter. Can matter plan, design, have projects and objectives? To what mitochondria, to what ribosome, what coacervate did it seem useful that certain creatures still to come, to “evolve”, should have eyes? What or who designed them? If now we contemplate the possibility that all that, life included, was the work of an external Agent, the paradoxical existential equation still remains unsolved –why then are there anomalies, rectifications or variations? Can these phenomena derive from the work of an Almighty Agent? The Qur-an, on the other hand, states that there is no error in the creation of that Agent:
(3) No want of balance will you see in the creation of the Merciful. Turn your vision again: Do you see any flaw? (4) Look again. Your vision will come back to you overwhelmed and exhausted.
Qur-an 67 – al Mulk
Perhaps these anomalies are just part of the existential paradox. If we were to accept the apparent and general perfection of the observable universe, we could dispel the paradox, but the moment we articulate our doubt or perplexity asking two or three questions, we find ourselves dragged into the whirlwind of incongruity. This was probably the first objective of koans –to make the disciple understand that a paradox or an incongruity can never be resolved with the use of cognitive abilities, precisely because they are not rational propositions.
However, the history of Zen is not as wise as its followers want us to believe, since objectively speaking koans cannot be resolved and, therefore, it is the master that be who decides whether the answer he has obtained from a disciple of his is the “correct one”, that is the one that shows his high level of spiritual realization. Let’s consider an example: According to one account, on one occasion a disciple at a Zen monastery entered the master’s room without knocking on the door and found him drinking sake from a wicker-covered glass carafe. The student, horrified by this disturbing scene, said: “Master, you told us that alcohol does not enter the zendo through the big door. However, I have seen you drinking sake as I entered this room.” The master replied, not without a sarcastic smile:” “The alcohol I was drinking has entered through the little door.” Any Zen adept would smile at the simple-mindedness of the disciple, still at a low spiritual level. However, they would be wrong, since the master’s response is not a koan or the solution to a koan, but rather it reflects cynicism in the face of what is called spiritual realization. There are many examples of this type, and this leads us to realize how difficult it is to separate a koan from the expressions of cynicism by Zen masters.
As D. Beres points out, the first koan with which adepts are usually initiated is the MU koan: “A monk asked Zhaozhou Congshen, a Chinese Zen master (known as Yoshu in Japan): “Does a dog have the nature of Buddha or not? ” Zhaozhou replied: “Wu” (in Japanese, Mu).
From this point on, new versions of the master’s response, the complete question of the disciple and the interpretations that different “authorities” have conferred on the koan have never ceased to appear. However, the most curious thing is that knowing what the term MU itself means is irrelevant, since this question cannot be answered in the affirmative or the negative. Either of the two options will lead us irremissibly to the paradox: Can a dog have the nature of Buddha? Is there something like the nature of Buddha? If it does not exist, what are we then; how do we exist? Do we exist at all? We will never be able to position ourselves outside a situation or a reasoning that is paradoxical unless we introduce a cynical response that reinforces the paradox and, at the same time, justifies it by making the listener blame himself for his lack of understanding and intuitive simplicity: “There are people that have solved the equation. My problem is that I have not yet attained spiritual realization.”
Another koan, and another inevitable paradox: “The wise man lives in an attic and, nevertheless, knows the whole Earth.” At first glance we have the feeling that this time the reason, the logic, the analysis can help us find its solution… but the moment we go deeper into it by asking one or two questions, we plunge ourselves into the existential paradox. We may have travelled widely, we may have met someone who had had a cup of tea in a Himalayan village, had crossed a couple of deserts or had traversed the United States east-west and north-south. And yet, when we talk to such people, we do not recognize in them any special wisdom or better understanding of existence. Is the futility of travelling what the koan refers to? Could it be that one can find true knowledge within oneself? Maybe, but if we confront a Zen master with these reflections, he will immediately interrupt us, among other things because it is tacitly accepted that a disciple cannot all at once find the truth of a koan, but also because reality is not fixed at any point. Many of the most famous Zen masters were unrepentant travelers. It could be that the answer we got from the master who had listened to us was a sharp blow to our back executed with a keisaku. However, his response would not be better or more clarifying, since, master or disciple, we are all victims of the paradox.
The paradox is inevitable, because it is the method chosen by the Creator to guide His servants
The paradox is inevitable, because it is the method chosen by the Creator to guide His servants. There is nothing more pedagogical than a paradox. With it begins our first reflection –what was first, the egg or the hen? Each page of the Qur-an is a koan, a paradoxical text that has made desperate more than one orientalist trying to decipher it by using his most rational cognitive tools –yet, every five lines he encounters a wall.
However, the Qur-an is a koan, but also the solution to all koans. The prophet Ibrahim was an outstanding student in the qur-anic interpretation of the firmament, but, like all Zen disciples and masters who have tried to decipher a simple koan, he failed in his attempt. First, he tried to use reason and evidence: “Without a doubt, the Sun is my god, because it is the biggest and the brightest star in the sky. Its light eclipses everything else.” However, when at sunset the Sun hid below the horizon, he exclaimed: “No, he cannot be my god, he has disappeared. I will not follow something that disappears.” Then he noticed the Moon, its cold and enigmatic light, its roundness, its shadowy areas. He thought: “This is my God. It is the star of the night, the one that illuminates darkness.” However, at daybreak the star of the night vanished. That filled the prophet Ibrahim with perplexity. Any reasoning that he followed led him to the inevitable existential paradox. Then, amid this fruitless and desperate investigation, he heard an order, a strange order: “Submit!” At that same moment the veil of rationality and analysis was torn, and he understood that reason was misled by its own arbitrary subjectivity, which used it to understand the portentous creation from the point of view of its tiny capacity for perception.
There is no solution to a koan…
There is no solution to a koan, because a solution would mean, ultimately, subjectivity. The response of the adept is subjective in the same way as is the rectification of the master. True understanding begins with submission to something that transcends us. Ibrahim abandons all attempts at stealing wisdom from the “gods” and exclaims: “I submit myself to the Lord of all dominions!” It is now when all the koans crumble wrapped up in the paradox.
Islam means salam –peace and submission– since submitting to the Lord of all dominions gives us the peace we long for so desperately (peace being the opposite of stress). The stubborn and insidious incongruity of the koans is over; the investigation is over, and so is the effort to get out of the paradox and the existential labyrinth. There are no more questions –that breathes, that speaks, that beats; rain falls and brings earth to life, plants on which that feeds come up… Everything is fine, everything turns in the most absolute immobility. The night comes and then the day, without crashing into each other; the dead is brought out from the living and the living is brought out from the dead… and all this immense stage is observed by consciousness.
I submit myself to the Lord of all dominions! That is the greatest and resolved koan, the new existential equation without paradox; the way out of the labyrinth.