The Koan

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Ways to glimpsing intuitive mind

Chan grew out of both Buddhism and Taoism, extracting from them the belief that a fundamental unifying quality transcends all the diversity of the world, including things that appear to be opposite. However, Chan taught that this cannot be understood using intellectualism, which rationally makes distinctions and relates to the world by reducing it to concepts and systems. One reason is that all rationality and concepts are merely part of a larger, encompassing reality and trying to reach this reality intellectually is like trying to describe the outside of a building while trapped inside.

A monk named Seizei asked Sozan: "Seizei is alone and poor. Will you give him support?"

Sozan asked: "Seizei?"

Seizei responded: "Yes, sir."

Sozan said: "You have Zen, the best wine in China, and already have finished three cups, and still you are saying that they did not even wet your lips."

Mumon's Comment: Seizei overplayed his hand. Why was it so? Because Sozan had eyes and knew whom to deal. Even so, I want to ask: At what point did Seizei drink wine?

The poorest man in China,
The bravest man in China,
He barely sustains himself,
Yet wishes to rival the wealthiest.

There is, however, a kind of thought—not beholden to concepts, systems, discriminations, or rationality—that can reach this new understanding. It is intuitive, operating in a mode entirely different from rationality. It is holistic, not linear; it is unselfconscious and non-critical; and it doesn't bother with any of the rational systems of analysis we have invented for ourselves. But since we can't call on it at our pleasure, the next best thing we can do is clear the way for it to operate— by shutting off the rational part of the mind. Then intuition starts hesitantly coming out of the  shadows.

Now, if we carefully wait for the right moment and then suddenly create a disturbance that momentarily short-circuits the rational mind the way shock suppresses our sense of pain in the first moments of a serious accident, we may get a glimpse of the intuitive mind in full flower. In that instant we intuitively understand the oneness of the world, the Void, the greater Reality that words and rationality have never allowed us to experience.

Koans are a very efficient technique for making all this happen. Zen teachers first discredit rationality, rebuffing the student each time they submit a rational solution to a koan. As the student's intuitive mind begins overcoming its previous repression, distinctions slowly start to seem absurd. Little by little he dissolves his sense of object and subject, knower and known. The fruit now is almost ready to fall from the tree. Enter at this point the unexpected blow, the shout, the click of bamboo. . . . If the student is caught unawares, rationality may be momentarily short-circuited and suddenly he glimpses—Reality.

Although enlightenment cannot be made to happen, it can be made possible.