Koan: The Dust of Diamonds and Buddhas
Zen abridges the tradition of deciphering the most complex concepts of Buddhism in brief paradoxical stories that radiate a brilliant simplicity.
The koan is an important tool within Zen Buddhism that is generally imparted through a story, a dialogue, a parable or a question with the end of generating an ontological question that speeds the progress of a student towards a sort of epiphany.
In Western culture we seem to have the notion that koans are some sort of hermetic riddle that have no clear sense and are meant only (if that) as rhetorical stimulants. Contrarily, however, in the East some schools consider that they must be answered with immaculate precision —some monks can spend years meditating intently upon a koan until he finds the answer. In every case, the answers that are generated ––without having to be univocal–– are clear indicators of the students’ evolution. The apparently absurd and impenetrable nature of koans is merely a reflection of the state of consciousness of the novice.
Many koans revolve around the understanding of non-duality or the identity of opposites, for which it tends to be incredible useful to formulate paradoxes.
Two hands clap and there is a sound, what is the sound of a single hand clapping?”, as if asking you know what duality is, but what is non-duality? Also seeking to annihilate the distance between object and subject, or in the same sense: “what was the face you had before your mother and father were born?.
This paradoxical nature of koan seems to be inscribed in its own etymology. The word literally means “table or a judge’s board”. A definition that alludes to great rigidity; the practice, none the less, requires great lightness and mental flexibility.
The brilliant simplicity of koan can only be appreciated by listening and meditating about them, an example of this:
Hogen, a master of Japanese Zen, lived alone in a small temple in the fields. One day four traveling monks appeared and asked him if they could build a fire in his yard to warm up. While they were setting up the campfire, Hogen overheard them discussing subjectivity and objectivity. He joined in and said “This is a big stone. Do you think it is inside or outside of the mind?” One of the monks answered “From the point of view of Buddhism everything is an objectification of the mind, so I would say the stone is in my mind”. “Your head must feel very heavy” Hogen observed, “if you’re carrying a stone like that inside your mind”.
We recommend the Stone and Sand collection (Shaseki-shu) that can be consulted online here.
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