How Zen Buddhist koans assist us perceive life experiences

“Cease the sound of the distant temple bell.”

This brief sentence is a koan. It was one of many first I used to be given after I started what known as koan observe as a part of my work with Zen Buddhism. As with all the opposite koans I had encountered up up to now, my first response was merely, “Excuse me?” adopted by laughter. “Cease the what, the place?” 

Many individuals have at the least heard of Zen koans. They’re supposedly nonsensical questions that Zen monks should deal with as a part of their coaching on the way in which to enlightenment. Probably the most well-known koan individuals know, in the event that they know any, is, “What’s the sound of 1 hand clapping?” However whereas some people might need heard of koans, my expertise is that most individuals don’t perceive what they are surely, what they’re for, or how they work. Actually, that well-known koan above is a misquote. I realized it as, “You understand the sound of two palms clapping. What’s the sound of 1 hand?”

As somebody who has labored with koans for some time, I assumed I might use my a hundredth put up for Large Assume to unpack them a bit immediately. I do that for 2 causes. First, I really like koans. I discover them endlessly pleasant and irritating, and above all very helpful. Second, as a scientist, my job is to reply questions on actuality, and koans supply a strong perspective — a unique method to carry ahead that job.

Navy SEAL coaching for the thoughts

Let’s begin with the Zen a part of Zen koans. Zen is one type of Buddhism amongst many. Starting as Chan in China someplace across the sixth century, its emphasis has all the time been on expertise. Later Chan would take root in Japan, and that’s the place took on the identify we acknowledge, Zen. The deal with expertise, pure and easy, didn’t change. Zen academics emphasised a direct and easy contemplative observe — what we now name meditation — whose objective was to develop an intimacy with the verb “to be.” What’s it actually prefer to simply be

Zen contemplative observe goals to chop via concepts and ideas concerning the world and the self. The objective is to remain near simply this. Simply this breath within the lungs, simply this step over the stream, simply this response to the individual earlier than you. As anybody who has tried meditation for even a couple of minutes is aware of, staying with what is true in entrance of you is so much simpler mentioned than finished. Our minds are like puppies stumbling from one thought, fear, or reminiscence to the following. Such is the human situation, and such is the issue Zen focuses on. 

Zen focuses on this downside for the very fundamental Buddhist motive of eliminating struggling by eliminating our delusions about ourselves and the world. From the Buddhist and Zen perspective, we’re so distracted by our limitless self-concern that we can’t see the reality of expertise that’s proper in entrance of us. If as a substitute we skilled that fact, we might be extra free in our response to life with all its modifications. (A Buddhist corollary is that we might even be extra compassionate.) Zen contemplative observe may be fairly rigorous, although. Zen may be to mindfulness meditation what Navy SEAL coaching is to a lightweight exercise on the gymnasium. However the rigor serves the aim of calming and focusing our minds.

Koans and the golden age of Zen

So the place do the koans come into all this? The time period koan in Chinese language means “case,” within the sense of a authorized case. Most koans will not be a single sentence. They’re a brief narrative, often involving a dialogue between a monk and a trainer. The story is adopted by a brief commentary, after which a good shorter verse. All of the koans come from the golden age of Zen in China, between the eighth and the tenth centuries. Later they had been compiled into books, and these got here to comprise the koan curriculum a Zen scholar is predicted to work via. 

To do koan observe means assembly frequently with the trainer who’s shifting you thru the curriculum. You meet, the trainer offers you a koan, then you definitely go spend a while with it — work that may final days, weeks, and even months. Lastly, you come again and current your reply, which is nowhere close to so simple as it sounds.

Presenting a solution to a koan is rarely about providing a proof. You aren’t there to present an account of what the koan means. As an alternative, you’re to exhibit the reply. Way back after I was beginning Zen, a trainer mentioned, “Don’t inform me. Present me!” Utilizing motion, sound, and even phrases, you reveal your reply via motion. The reply is your lived response to the koan, embodied in that second of demonstration. It’s not a principle about why the koan is expressing some thought or view concerning the world. 

To point out you what I imply, let’s return to that koan we began with: “Cease the sound of the distant temple bell.” My preliminary, New Jersey-style response to this was, “Hey you with the bell. Shut up already!” 

As you’ll count on, that didn’t work. 

So I stayed with it. I did hours of zazen — Zen contemplative observe — holding the koan hanging in my thoughts. I introduced it out into the world with me, asking how this koan was pointing me again to intimacy with simply what was occurring in that second. I might return into conferences with the trainer to current what I discovered. The reply for a very long time was, gently, “Nope.” It was irritating, but additionally form of humorous. 

Then, one night, whereas I used to be ready to satisfy with my trainer, I used to be quietly doing zazen. As I dropped down into my breath, I grew to become conscious of an air conditioner buzzing someplace close by. The extra I quieted down, the extra there was simply the hum of the machine. Not me listening to the air conditioner — simply listening to. Absolutely and utterly listening to. I don’t understand how lengthy I used to be in that state, however out of the blue — and I imply like a thunderclap — I knew the reply to my koan, simply as absolutely and utterly. 

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I went in, gave my presentation, and my trainer and I laughed collectively.

The foundations of Zen say that I can’t inform you what that reply was. You’re not supposed to speak about what occurs in these conferences. However even when I may inform you the reply, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t make any sense, or it wouldn’t appear to be an enormous deal. That’s as a result of it’s not likely the reply that issues. What issues is the trail to intimacy with expertise that the koan gave to you. That’s the level. What I’ve discovered is that each koan just about factors you again to that very same route. They every open the identical gate that permits you to, for a second, expertise the profound freedom and openness that’s simply this. They every supply a glimpse into expertise with out fixed self-reference.

A distinction between science and expertise

So what does any of this must do with science? On the floor, it could appear, nothing in any respect. Zen koans don’t want science and science doesn’t want Zen koans. However as a scientist I’ve taken, and given, many checks in my day. I’ve sat earlier than many troublesome issues in mathematical physics the place I stretched myself skinny to search out a solution. I can’t assist however examine and distinction the 2 approaches, and in that comparability, I discover a lot of curiosity. 

To be clear, there’s nothing about koan observe that’s going to show you concerning the nature of the bodily world. There aren’t any insights a koan can grant you about quantum physics or the relativistic construction of spacetime. Physics supplies a strong instrument for elaborating the dynamics of the world from a third-person perspective. It asks particular sorts of questions which have particular sorts of solutions, and koans don’t have anything to do with that. 

What koan observe does present me, nonetheless, is one thing concerning the unusual loop that’s my very own expertise. My expertise is mine, and nobody else can have it for me. Because the Zen saying goes, “Nobody can pee for you.” What koan observe exhibits me is that phrases can solely go to this point in probing that have. The verb “to be” is all the time enacted personally, and it is vitally, very slippery. Whereas it’s nice to provide you with theories, concepts and ideas about it, in the end these phrases wither and blow away like dried leaves in autumn. You simply can’t perceive first-person expertise the way in which you perceive how mass curves area. 

Physics offers a strong account of the world from a third-person perspective. For that motive, it all the time offers with abstractions about expertise. However as a result of expertise itself is all the time first-person, its investigation requires a unique form of query and a unique form of reply. Discursive reasoning of the sort I observe in my scientific and philosophical work will solely work up to some extent. After that I would like one thing extra — one thing extra direct, one thing extra intimate. And that’s what koans are for. For all of the methods I’m left laughing when launched to a brand new one, for all of the methods I feel “that’s simply loopy,” ultimately I’ve seen again and again how this previous, unusual type can always shock me.

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