Koans & jokes: an unlikely connection

A koan is in some ways rather like a joke.

For centuries Zen teachers in Japanese monasteries have held the attention of their followers by telling brief stories with a punch-line, known as koans.

Joke-tellers, like Zen teachers, often ask questions at crucial points in the narrative. ‘Explaining’ the joke or the koan doesn’t work; we need to be confronted by an unlikely situation which we then explore using our own conscious or sub-conscious minds. That’s why questions are essential to the process. And you’re on your own; no-one can tell you the ‘answer’.

Why do jokes and koans both jolt the mind into an ‘Aha’ moment when the paradox becomes transparent ? Theorists say that this results from an incongruity which seems to be insoluble until a flash of inspiration or intuition shifts us into an altered state of consciousness. But that doesn’t add much to our understanding.

There are obvious differences between jokes and koans so it would be a mistake to take this comparison too far. A couple of examples might help to highlight the differences.

A woman walking along the street saw a man coming towards her taking a duck for a walk on a lead. He was unkempt with a big paunch and had a ciggie drooping from his mouth. This strange sight intrigued her; she exclaimed ‘Where did the pig come from ?’ The man retorted, ‘It’s not a pig, stupid. Don’t you know the difference between a pig and a duck ?’  She answered, ‘I was talking to the duck’.  A delightful impossibility but not leading to any special insight.

So here’s a *koan (?) featuring a pig. One day an old Zen master had a vision of his next life. He immediately called in his favourite disciple and begged a favour of him. ‘Anything for you master.’ the disciple replied. ‘In my next life, I will come back as a pig. Soon after I die, our sow will give birth and I will be the fourth pig of the litter. You will recognize me by a mark on my brow. When that happens, please take a sharp knife and end my life quickly.’  Within the year, the master passed away and the sow gave birth. The disciple sharpened his knife and found the small piglet. Suddenly the little pig screamed ‘Stop! Don’t kill me!’ The disciple dropped his knife in surprise and stared at the little pig. ‘When I was like you, I didn’t know what a pig’s life would be like. It’s great. Please please let me go.’

Is this a koan or a joke or both or neither? As a koan, it could be interpreted in a number of ways. If you were a Zen teacher, what questions would you ask ? And what kind of answers could you expect?

When a koan is introduced in the StoneWater Zendo, and a question is asked, this is when alarm bells start ringing in my mind. Was the ‘story’ of the koan clear? Did I hear the question correctly? What’s the ‘answer’? Is there an ‘answer’? Is this a test? Where am I? What is the point? Who is asking the question? Is Sensei looking at me and expecting me to answer? Is he an alien?

Why does my mind go blank at that moment and suffer some kind of paralysis?  (It’s tempting to see this as an aspect of realisation.) My life-long trust in logic seems to have deserted me.

And then another question comes out of nowhere before I’ve had time to process the first one. And so on. At this moment an old-style Dai-Osho would have used his stick to improve my concentration.

The questions and responses in Zen can seem impenetrable. ‘What about the rice and the tea?’ (Pardon?) ‘If a million objects come to you, what do you do?’ (Why do I feel so stupid?) ‘Yunyan held up the broom and said ‘Which moon is this?” ‘When cold, be thoroughly cold; when hot, be hot through and through.’ ‘Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?’ I give up.

Trying to analyse the workings of koans would be futile. They appear to depend on a combination of intuition, sub-conscious links, guesswork and other inexplicable processes. And there may be aspects of the human mind that we are completely unaware of. Koans defeat rationality and can’t be ‘solved’ by ticking boxes or constructing charts or algorithms. An extra puzzle is that some people ‘get’ koans while others don’t.

The easy way out is to describe koans as paradoxes. ‘I always lie’ is a paradox because if it’s true, it must also be false. But Buddhism is full of paradoxes. ‘Nirvana and the mundane world are the same.’ ‘Neither not-one nor not-two.’ ‘The gate-less gate.’ ‘The river does not flow but the bridge does.’ No old age and death and no end to old age and death.’ We really don’t have to **explain these contradictions because there is no such thing as a contradiction. And in deep zazen there is no-thing at all.

The most significant thing about koans is that they have sometimes led in mysterious and instantaneous ways to Nirvana. This flash of inspiration is known as ‘kensho’ in Japanese.  Some Zen teachers suggest that this is the result of a long and painful process. But maybe we shouldn’t get too serious about koans. Maybe the whole point is that a koan should be fun.

People have spent vast amounts of time trying to define or explain Nirvana. So I won’t bother.

Back to the Zendo. The koan has left its mark. But in case you have the impression that I’m a skilled practitioner, I should mention that I’ve taken only the very first step up the Koan Mountain. I only hope that in writing this piece, I may be encouraged to resume that journey with more insight from where I left off.

Nevertheless the odd thing is that I sometimes reach some glimpse of realisation on the train home. Or next week. It’s never too late …

Maurice Shokatsu George July 2014

P.S. Of course our esteemed teacher, Sensei David Scott, is renowned for telling koans and jokes.

* From www.nozen.com
** This is not a koan. It’s my personal ‘thought for the day’.