Zen Buddhism is full of paradoxes in its literature, in its thinking and teaching. Here is an example: Question from a teacher: “Who are you? In your answer you cannot talk about yourself!”. Does not make sense isn’t it?
Why such an attraction for paradoxes.?
The existence of paradoxes does not mean that Zen is confused. In fact Zen paradoxes have been created with the unique purpose to create a “short circuit ” in our analytic and logical thinking mind when facing 2 opposites and contradictory statements.
What is the rational behind this practice?
When we are facing a paradoxical statement our mind, being so analytic and logical, will react by saying “It does not make sense, I am confused!”. Since our mind does not know what to think the analytic process is somewhat frozen like being put on holding mode. Zen loves this state where our mind “don’t know what to think ” because this “don’t know” state will progressively neutralize one of our mind main function that is our ego-centered thoughts main source of our anxiety, anger, unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Learning first to accept, learn then practice a “don’t know mind” is the most effective way to control our deceptive ego-centered thoughts. The practice of Koans*** as teaching and assessment tool is based on the same principle. The terminology “Don’t know mind”, “No mind”, “Empty mind”, “Beginner Mind”, “Zen mind”, “Mirror mind” are frequently used by Zen teachers and all mean the same thing:
- Not having preconceived ideas, opinions, concepts and judgments which may be deceptive and source of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
- Things are what they are and not what we want them to be.
It is obvious that Zen does not reject the use of our analytic mind when decisions have to be made. Zen does not want us to be thoughtless, stupid or idiots but want us to control our flow of thoughts since most of them useless and often deceptive.
Here are few examples of paradoxes. This list is not exhaustive & not in any specific order.
- ~2,000 years before Rene Descartes (I think therefore I am) the Buddha said the same thing: ” We are what we think.” BUT later he added: ” We are not what we think we are?”.
- The main source of our anxiety, unhappiness and dissatisfaction comes from ourselves since our ego-centered mind produces our negative feelings; BUT AT THE SAME TIME everlasting happiness, serenity and awakening are within ourselves!. Up to us to find them through daily meditation and social Zen practice.
- To be mindful moment to moment is a very important aspect of Zen practice BUT AT THE SAME Zen is telling us to maintain an “Empty mind”!
- We are expecting “something” from our Zen practice BUT AT THE SAME TIME Zen is telling us not to be attached to anything because source of potential disappointment.
- Zen says: “If you understand Zen you don’t understand it”!
- Koans are riddles, statements, dialogues, short history which are either illogical or do not make any sense. They are given to Zen students (one koan at a time) by the teacher and the goal for the student is to solve the koan i.e. to find the solution. Because koans are illogical, paradoxical and often without any sense trying to solve them by using our analytic, logical and deductive mind is impossible. The student must find other ways. Based on the different responses given by the student over weeks if not months the teacher will assess the progress of the student towards her/his Zen mind and maybe the incoming awakening. Over 4,500 koans have been collected over the last 2,000 years and new ones are produced regularly by teachers.
Here is a list of few koans:
(1) ‘Show me your original face before you were born’.
(2) ‘What is the clap of one hand’ (‘Listen to the sound of one hand.’)
(3) On producing a pitcher, Pai Chang asked: ‘Don’t call it a pitcher, but tell me what it is?’
(4) ‘I am him and yet he is not me.’
(5) ‘Call this a stick and you assert; call it not a stick and you negate. Now you don’t assert nor negate, and what do you call it? Speak and speak.’
(6) ‘Assertion prevails not, nor does denial. When neither of them is to the point, what would you say?’
(7) ‘A long time ago, a man kept a goose in a bottle and it grew larger and larger until it could not get out of the bottle any longer; he did not want to break the bottle, nor did he wish to hurt the goose; how would you get the goose out?’
(8) ‘Suppose a man climbing up a tree taking hold of a branch by his teeth, and his whole body is thus suspended. His hands are not holding anything and his feet are off the ground. Now another man comes along and asks the man in the tree as to the fundamental principle of Buddhism. If the man in the tree does not answer, he is neglecting the questioner; but if he tries to answer, he will lose his life. How can he get out of his predicament?’
(9) ‘When I pass away, I will become a buffalo in the cottage. I shall write my name on my left front leg: I am Monk Kuei Shan. At that time if you call me Monk Kuei Shan, I am a buffalo. But if you call me buffalo, I am Monk Kuei Shan. what should I be called?’
(10) ‘I see mountain not as mountain; and I see water not as water.’
(11) ‘What is gained is what is not gained.’
(12) ‘Attach to this, detach from this.’
(13) ‘Don’t speak about being and don’t speak about non-being.’
(14) ‘When all things are reduced to oneness, where does oneness reduce to?’
(15) ‘The Bodhi tree is not a tree, and the bright mirror is not a mirror (platform). There is originally nothing, where does the dust attach?’
(16) ‘I hold spade empty-handly. I walk on foot and yet I ride on horseback. When I pass over the bridge, the water flows not, but the bridge does.’
(17) ‘A cow in Chia-chou consumes the grass. But the horse in I-chou is satiated. (Instead of) seeking a good physician, (you should) cauterize the left arm of a pig.’
(18) ‘When I say there is not, this does not necessarily mean a negation; when I say there is, this does not signify an affirmation. Turn eastward and look at the western sand; face the south and the north star is pointed out there.’
Ven. Ji Gong Sunim.