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

28 分類 收藏
林宜悉 發佈於 2020 年 4 月 4 日
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