Zen kōans: unsolvable enigmas designed to break your brain – Puqun Li

Zen kōans: unsolvable enigmas designed to break your brain – Puqun Li
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How do we explain the unexplainable? This question has inspired numerous myths, religious practices, and scientific inquiries. But Zen Buddhists practicing throughout
China from the 9th to 13th century 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. But fighting the urge to explain
the unexplainable can be difficult. So to help practice living
with these mysteries, the meditating monks used a collection
of roughly 1,700 bewildering and ambiguous philosophical
thought experiments called kōans. The name, originally gong-an in Chinese,
translates to “public record or case.” But unlike real-world court cases,
kōans 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 one’s true “Buddha-nature.” But by framing those lessons
as illogical anecdotes, they became tests to help practicing monks
learn to live with ambiguity and paradox. By puzzling through
these confusing “cases,” meditating monks could both internalize
and practice Buddhist teachings. Hopefully, they would let go
of the search for one true answer and trigger a spiritual breakthrough. Since these are intentionally
unexplainable, it would be misguided to try
and decipher these stories ourselves. But like the monks before us, we can puzzle over them together, and investigate just how resistant
they are to simple explanations. Consider this kōan illustrating the
practice of no-attachment. Two monks, Tanzan and Ekido,
are traveling together down a muddy road. Ahead they see an attractive traveler,
unable to cross the muddy path. Tanzan politely offers his help, carrying the traveler
on his back across the street, and placing her down without a word. Ekido was shocked. According to monastic law,
monks were not supposed to go near women, let alone touch a beautiful stranger. After miles of walking,
Ekido could no longer restrain himself. “How could you carry that woman?” Tanzan smiled, “I left the traveler there.
Are you still carrying her?” Like all kōans,
this story has numerous interpretations. But one popular reading suggests that despite never having
physically carried the traveler, Ekido broke monastic law
by mentally “clinging to” the woman. This type of conflict – examining the grey area between the letter
of the law and the spirit of the law – was common in kōans. In addition to exploring ambiguity, kōans often ridiculed characters claiming total understanding
of the world around them. One such example finds three monks debating a temple flag
rippling in the wind. The first monk refers to
the flag as a moving banner, while the second monk insists
that they are not seeing the flag move, but rather the wind blowing. They argue back and forth,
until finally, a third monk intervenes, “It is not the flag moving,
nor the wind blowing, but rather the movement of your minds!” One interpretation of this kōan plays on
the supposed wisdom of the arguing monks – the first asserting the importance
of the observable world, the second favoring deeper knowledge
we can infer from that world. But each monk’s commitment
to his own “answer” blinds him to the other’s insight,
and in doing so, defies an essential Buddhist ideal:
abolishing binary thinking. The third monk identifies
their conflict as a perceptual one – both arguing monks
fail to see the larger picture. Of course, all these interpretations only
hint at how to wrestle with these kōans. Neither the wisdom
from practicing monks before us, nor the supposedly wise characters
in these stories can resolve them for you. That’s because the purpose of these kōans
isn’t reaching a simple solution. It’s the very act of struggling
with these paradoxical puzzles which challenge our desire for resolution, and our understanding
of understanding itself.

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