A Moment of Zen

A common belief about the teaching methods of Zen Buddhism, most especially the short instructive parables called koans, is that they’re intentionally obscure appeals to non-rational thought, meant to be answered by absurdity and nonsense.  What IS the sound of one hand clapping?

The problem with this line of thinking is that cultural metaphors are difficult, if not impossible, for someone outside of that culture to identify.

Referring to the fox who declared the grapes to be sour, or the frogs who rejected the log as their king, would be easily identified by someone familiar with Western culture as drawing on specific Aesopian fables; the references would be ways of pointing at the fables’ morals without naming them explicitly, which is a powerful rhetorical technique.

Similarly, the students of Zen teachers would be exposed to metaphors of diverse schools of thought functioning like a pair of hands.  In that context, the infamous koan is easily understood – and grasping how the students were expected to provide a spontaneously-generated response indicating that they understood becomes a great deal simpler.

Anyone can memorize and regurgitate dogma.  Testing for true understanding requires fresh, unplanned responses, and that’s the heart of many Zen practices.  Mere nonsense doesn’t cut it.


2 Responses to “A Moment of Zen”

  1. Are there methods for creating Zen koans, or must they arise spontaneously like their responses? If there are methods, then koans would make great pedagogical tools when adapted to common Western contexts.

    Still, I suspect that training teachers in Zen methods would be futile. It probably takes innate creativity and resourcefulness to pose a koan relevant to the moment.

  2. “Are there methods for creating Zen koans?” Are there methods for professors to create exam questions?

    There probably are, but they’re likely idiosyncratic to the practioner. It might be useful to examine collections of previous koans to recognize the stylistic and conceptual framings they utilize.

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