I had wrote a post a short time ago called “Tasting a Koan.” In it, I tried to explain what a koan was – Looking back I am not happy with my explanation, and so I would like to try again here.
Riddles and Puzzles are meant to exercise the intellect, requiring ingenuity in order to strive towards an ‘answer’. A Koan doesn’t have an answer in the classical sense. The essence of a koan is much more sophisticated than a problem which needs a solution.
A koan is more like a metaphorical narrative that invites you to experience reality in a more direct way, beyond thought, beyond words. It’s an invitation to leave your conceptions and assumptions about things behind and instead intuit ‘what is’, rather than what you tell yourself it is through language. I apologize if this sounds a little cryptic.
- A question intentionally phrased to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer.
- A thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, esp. something abstract.
- A spoken or written account of connected events; a story: “a bare narrative of the details”.
Humans are social creatures, and so language is the corner stone of our interactions between each other. Language is also the tool we use to ascribe ‘meaning’ to things and situations.
Meaning is important to us in that it helps us to make distinctions between the things in our lives:right and wrong, good and bad, heaven and hell, etc. However, these distinctions are merely ‘points of view’ based on how we have inuited their associated meanings. This becomes a truncated reality. Absolute truth is never black or white, but both.
- The quality of dealing with ideas rather than events.
- Something that exists only as an idea.
And so as we attach ourselves more and more to an abstraction of reality that we create for ourselves, based on language and meaning, we loose touch with the absolute reality that lies beyond our conceptions. A koan then is an invitation to experience the fullness of reality, beyond intellection.
So, to demonstrate how your intellect can be influenced by language and concepts, I have borrowed two syllogisms (a logical construction of reasoning in which two premises are drawn into a conclusion) the latter which is from the late Gregory Bateson, an English Anthropologist.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates will die.
Men are grass.
The conclusion that ‘Men are grass’ may have struck you oddly as if the logic seemed to have broken down. However, if you expand your conceptions beyond straight logic, in a poetic sense, people are like grass. They are natural living systems that come into existence, thrive for a time, and then expire.
It was due to the juxtaposition of the two syllogisms that influenced you to feel the second was wrong or paradoxical. Actually you were just reading the line without an open mind. You were suffering from logic having been primed for it during the first part of the example.
In a way then, my example behaves much like koan in that it arrests your conceptualizing mind and asks you see beyond the words.
It seems then our common awareness of what we feel is truth, is inherently limited by Verballism as it necessarily truncates the fullness of reality, if you let it.
But then as I write this, I am using language to describe what is beyond language – so is all this very inadequate then? Only if you dont see what i am pointing at - like a finger pointing to the moon – if you stare at the finger, you don’t see the moon.
Okay, but isn’t the ability to ascribe meaning the very thing that makes us human? Yes, but there is conventional meaning and there is absolute meaning. We should strive to acknowledge and live with both – conventional, we all have a good handle on (most often). Absolute, well this comes via different means (spirituality, religion, etc), and from the poet as well, if you find it there.
So – precise language, although useful, is limited… and the poet uses metaphor to speak beyond meaning… that is how poetry can be powerful. Perhaps a koan is a poem then? or the poetry between the finger and the moon.
Let’s have a go at it then:
The Colour of Wind
by Christian Joore
What is White atop the crests
of the waves out at sea?
What is Black whilst I sleep
and the storm looms outside?
What is Red on the shoulders
of the blackbird overhead?
and blows Green on the grass
that bows to the earth?
The colour of wind,
harmony in hue,
a quality best expressed
not as two, or one,
but as …
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