Take a step from the top of the 100-foot pole.
– Zen koan
Some bits of the universe are profoundly alive; they show up in the morning even before we are fully awake. We at Uncertainty Club are attracted to lively pieces because they’re beautiful or because they are destabilizing and that’s exciting. The pieces that jump out at us refer to something larger than our usual interests, to how we know things and what we are and our place in the matrix of everything. A piece here is a piece of the pattern, something that opens a door out of whatever prison the mind might have wandered into.
Zen koans, like art, can change your life. The change is in the direction of strolling through such doors. On the one hand you can get up and move through a landscape of inert stuff to get to work where the people are also more or less impervious, like billiard balls banging around. On the other hand, you can step onto a footpath in which the birds announce you and the oaks and stones greet you as you pass. Here, each person you meet is mysterious and surprising. In this second world, the world that koans usher you into, you are a member of a great swirling totality. You have a different feeling for what you are, and an intimation that you’ve always been here.
Zen koans were marketed in the west as gadgets or can openers, but that notion seems to point toward certainty so it can’t be quite right. Koans are more subversive than gadgets: they alter you when you pick them up; they are doors to the other world that is inside this one.
Meanwhile, the world is also just the world. Sometimes it shines. And when it doesn’t shine, when we seem to be outside of the living world, and on the wrong side of the door, where does all that brightness hide? What are the clues back to it?
I first followed the trail of metaphor, and what it could offer me in my curiosity about consciousness, from English poetry through Chinese poetry to Chinese koans. A book of koans actually fell off a library shelf and onto my head in Melbourne when I was 23.
After this somewhat random introduction, I got interested in koans because they opened the mind the way metaphor does. Metaphors alter the very mind that’s exploring them. Most of language is based on metaphor—language from Latin lingua for “tongue”—metaphor from the Greek μεταφέρω for “transfer, bear across.” All of our understanding rests on this uncertain and uneasy footing. Koans embrace our vital unsteadiness, the way we are not actually standing on anything. One koan goes, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
Uncertainty leads in the direction of not being separate from things. It’s also in the direction of not believing most of the things I might otherwise have believed, even things about who I am. The origin of a koan was often spontaneous; they arose out of conversations about reality that took a strange turn. At the same time they act like a designed system, feeling toward a more accurate description of what we know and who we are.
Wondering what we are is part of the human condition and koans go to the heart of the wondering. If I step into the koan world I might ask, “What is it like to be me, or what is it like to be a dog, a bat, a victim, you?”
“Does a dog have Buddha nature?” is a koan. The question might mean, “Do even I in my lamentably unimproved condition have something valuable about me? Do I have a place in the pattern of life?” It could also mean, “Is there something it’s like to be a dog, or a bat, or a dolphin—is there something it’s like to be a me?”
If I engage with such a koan, I move in and out of the bright fragments of the world. I might become a tree in a the wind, a young girl, a soldier, a dog, a corpse, a river, a fire, a homeless woman, the Loch Ness Monster — and all the while what is it like to be me? is unfolding. I’m larger than the boundary of my skin.
'Is it that kind of party?'
(Cartoon by Corey Hitchcock)