“Stop the sound of the distant temple bell.”
This brief sentence is a koan. It was 1 of the very first I was provided when I started what is known as koan practice as aspect of my function with Zen Buddhism. As with all the other koans I had encountered up to this point, my very first response was merely, “Excuse me?” followed by laughter. “Stop the what, exactly where?”
A lot of individuals have at least heard of Zen koans. They are supposedly nonsensical concerns that Zen monks will have to address as aspect of their instruction on the way to enlightenment. The most well-known koan individuals know, if they know any, is, “What is the sound of 1 hand clapping?” But though some people may have heard of koans, my knowledge is that most individuals do not have an understanding of what they seriously are, what they are for, or how they function. In reality, that effectively-identified koan above is a misquote. I discovered it as, “You know the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of 1 hand?”
As an individual who has worked with koans for a though, I believed I would use my 100th post for Huge Consider to unpack them a bit nowadays. I do this for two motives. Very first, I appreciate koans. I come across them endlessly delightful and frustrating, and above all extremely helpful. Second, as a scientist, my job is to answer concerns about reality, and koans present a strong viewpoint — a distinctive way to carry forward that job.
Navy SEAL instruction for the thoughts
Let’s begin with the Zen aspect of Zen koans. Zen is 1 kind of Buddhism amongst several. Starting as Chan in China someplace about the 6th century, its emphasis has constantly been on knowledge. Later Chan would take root in Japan, and that is exactly where took on the name we recognize, Zen. The concentrate on knowledge, pure and basic, did not alter. Zen teachers emphasized a direct and basic contemplative practice — what we now get in touch with meditation — whose aim was to create an intimacy with the verb “to be.” What is it seriously like to just be.
Zen contemplative practice aims to reduce via tips and ideas about the planet and the self. The aim is to remain close to just this. Just this breath in the lungs, just this step more than the stream, just this response to the particular person ahead of you. As any individual who has attempted meditation for even a handful of minutes knows, staying with what is proper in front of you is a lot a lot easier stated than completed. Our minds are like puppies stumbling from 1 notion, be concerned, or memory to the subsequent. Such is the human situation, and such is the issue Zen focuses on.
Zen focuses on this issue for the extremely fundamental Buddhist purpose of eliminating suffering by eliminating our delusions about ourselves and the planet. From the Buddhist and Zen viewpoint, we are so distracted by our endless self-concern that we can’t see the truth of knowledge that is proper in front of us. If as an alternative we skilled that truth, we would be much more free of charge in our response to life with all its adjustments. (A Buddhist corollary is that we would also be much more compassionate.) Zen contemplative practice can be fairly rigorous, even though. Zen can be to mindfulness meditation what Navy SEAL instruction is to a light exercise at the health club. But the rigor serves the goal of calming and focusing our minds.
Koans and the golden age of Zen
So exactly where do the koans come into all this? The term koan in Chinese signifies “case,” in the sense of a legal case. Most koans are not a single sentence. They are a brief narrative, commonly involving a dialogue involving a monk and a teacher. The story is followed by a brief commentary, and then an even shorter verse. All the koans come from the golden age of Zen in China, involving the 8th and the 10th centuries. Later they had been compiled into books, and these came to comprise the koan curriculum a Zen student is anticipated to function via.
To do koan practice signifies meeting often with the teacher who is moving you via the curriculum. You meet, the teacher provides you a koan, then you go invest some time with it — function that can final days, weeks, or even months. Lastly, you come back and present your answer, which is nowhere close to as basic as it sounds.
Presenting an answer to a koan is by no means about supplying an explanation. You are not there to give an account of what the koan signifies. Rather, you are to demonstrate the answer. Extended ago when I was beginning Zen, a teacher stated, “Don’t inform me. Show me!” Working with movement, sound, or even words, you reveal your answer via action. The answer is your lived response to the koan, embodied in that moment of demonstration. It is not a theory about why the koan is expressing some notion or view about the planet.
To show you what I imply, let’s go back to that koan we began with: “Stop the sound of the distant temple bell.” My initial, New Jersey-style response to this was, “Hey you with the bell. Shut up currently!”
As you would count on, that did not function.
So I stayed with it. I did hours of zazen — Zen contemplative practice — maintaining the koan hanging in my thoughts. I brought it out into the planet with me, asking how this koan was pointing me back to intimacy with just what was taking place in that moment. I would go back into meetings with the teacher to present what I located. The answer for a extended time was, gently, “Nope.” It was frustrating, but also type of funny.
Then, 1 evening, though I was waiting to meet with my teacher, I was quietly undertaking zazen. As I dropped down into my breath, I became conscious of an air conditioner humming someplace nearby. The much more I quieted down, the much more there was just the hum of the machine. Not me hearing the air conditioner — just hearing. Completely and totally hearing. I do not know how extended I was in that state, but all of a sudden — and I imply like a thunderclap — I knew the answer to my koan, just as totally and totally.
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I went in, gave my presentation, and my teacher and I laughed collectively.
The guidelines of Zen say that I can’t inform you what that answer was. You are not supposed to speak about what takes place in these meetings. But even if I could inform you the answer, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t make any sense, or it wouldn’t look like a massive deal. That is mainly because it is not seriously the answer that matters. What matters is the path to intimacy with knowledge that the koan gave to you. That is the point. What I have located is that each and every koan fairly significantly points you back to that identical path. They every open the identical gate that lets you, for a moment, knowledge the profound freedom and openness that is just this. They every present a glimpse into knowledge devoid of continual self-reference.
A contrast involving science and knowledge
So what does any of this have to do with science? On the surface, it would look, practically nothing at all. Zen koans do not need to have science and science does not need to have Zen koans. But as a scientist I have taken, and provided, several tests in my day. I have sat ahead of several tough difficulties in mathematical physics exactly where I stretched myself thin to come across an answer. I can’t support but evaluate and contrast the two approaches, and in that comparison, I come across significantly of interest.
To be clear, there is practically nothing about koan practice that is going to teach you about the nature of the physical planet. There are no insights a koan can grant you about quantum physics or the relativistic structure of spacetime. Physics delivers a strong tool for elaborating the dynamics of the planet from a third-particular person viewpoint. It asks distinct sorts of concerns that have distinct sorts of answers, and koans have practically nothing to do with that.
What koan practice does show me, nevertheless, is one thing about the strange loop that is my personal knowledge. My knowledge is mine, and no 1 else can have it for me. As the Zen saying goes, “No 1 can pee for you.” What koan practice shows me is that words can only go so far in probing that knowledge. The verb “to be” is constantly enacted personally, and it is extremely, extremely slippery. Though it is excellent to come up with theories, tips and ideas about it, eventually these words wither and blow away like dried leaves in autumn. You just can’t have an understanding of very first-particular person knowledge the way you have an understanding of how mass curves space.
Physics provides a strong account of the planet from a third-particular person viewpoint. For that purpose, it constantly bargains with abstractions about knowledge. But mainly because knowledge itself is constantly very first-particular person, its investigation needs a distinctive type of query and a distinctive type of answer. Discursive reasoning of the type I practice in my scientific and philosophical function will only function up to a point. Right after that I need to have one thing much more — one thing much more direct, one thing much more intimate. And that is what koans are for. For all the approaches I am left laughing when introduced to a new 1, for all the approaches I feel “that’s just crazy,” in the finish I have noticed more than and more than once more how this old, strange kind can continuously surprise me.