A Koan of My Own

(no, that doesn't rhyme)

I've always liked Zen and Tao. I have a number of books on both lying around. (Smullyan's The Tao is Silent is a favorite.) Religions, if you want to call them that, with no dogma and no rituals.

Well, I'm not going to go into a lecture. Other people have done that. I'm sure I could come up with Zen writings just as good as the next guy's -- ha ha (little Zen joke there) -- but that's not the topic.

I'm talking about koans here, and a koan is the little story / paradox / riddle / joke which pops up when someone starts describing Zen. Koans have students going up to masters, asking unanswerable questions, getting incomprehensible answers, and then being whacked with sticks. Sometimes birds fly in and out of the Buddha's nose. (I told you I liked Zen.)

The purpose of a koan (they tell me, "they" being people who think about Zen -- ha ha) is to "break the back of logic". You hear that phrase a lot. It sounds good, but it's good anyway. The idea is, studying or thinking about Zen is a complete waste of time, so you give the wise-ass student a koan, a piece of utter illogic, and tell him to make sense of it. The moment he gives up, he's getting somewhere.

(I don't mean for a minute to imply that koans have no meaning. A good one has all sorts of implications. You can think about it for hours, although of course that's not Zen, that's philosophy. Zen is just swallowing the thing whole. Or so I understand. ...Ha ha.)

Anyway, sometimes the master assigns a particular koan to a given student. A koan peculiarly relevant to that student's preconceptions, one assumes. Although with Zen masters, you never know.

I don't have a Zen master; I don't practice Zen. (Or do I? See below.) However, I do have a koan. I realized this just recently. It's something I've been struggling with on and off for at least ten years, so it must be peculiarly relevant to me. It alternately baffles me, angers me, and cheers me up. Sometimes I ignore it for months or years at a time. It must be a koan, or I would have figured it out by now.

It goes roughly like this:

I don't practice Zen. Meditation takes up a lot of time, and I'm both busy and lazy. I think mindfulness and enlightenment are nice in theory, but (being lazy) I don't think about them much in everyday life. I go to work, I read books, I write code, I eat and sleep and, um, think about sex at least, and I ignore the philosophical issues just like most people.

But lots of Zen and Taoist writing says that enlightenment is in everyday life; certainly a Zen master doesn't walk around saying "Hot damn, I'm enlightened!" all the time. Enlightenment is living right here and right now. (One koan has the line "When I'm hungry, I eat; when I'm tired, I sleep.") So maybe I'm enlightened after all!

That's awfully nice. Hot damn, I'm enlightened!

Uh, wait a minute. Maybe I'm not so enlightened, if I'm so proud of the fact that I am enlightened.

But I really don't spend a lot of time worrying about the fact that I'm proud. I know I'm an arrogant and egotistical person; I like being smart, and I'm not ashamed of that fact. When I'm hungry, I eat; when I'm tired, I sleep; when I'm smart, I'm proud of it! So that isn't a barrier to enlightenment after all.

Now, this is very clever reasoning. I'm proud of it. The problem is, in Zen, both ego and reasoning are the big barriers to enlightenment. So I'm obviously not enlightened after all.

But this fact doesn't bother me. I go about my daily business entirely unencumbered by the fact that my basic pride and smartness and egocentricity will forever prevent me from attaining enlightenment. I'm comfortable with it. And this is, of course, a very enlightened attitude!


I used to call this the Zen Death-Spiral. It's really just bouncing back and forth between two ideas -- I've spun out a few variations on each one, in the above sequence, but you see the underlying problem.

Being a spiral, it can start nearly anywhere, but it always winds up at the same center. Here's another variation:

I've read a lot about Zen, and I think I understand it pretty well.

But understanding Zen is entirely beside the point. So I don't really understand Zen at all.

But I accept that fact. I don't go reading dozens of Zen books trying to "really" understand Zen. I know that Zen is illogical, or beyond logic, or something; so if I don't try to understand it, I'm really grasping the essential point.

This is very clever reasoning. Which worries me, because reasoning about Zen is entirely beside the point...

My koan winds through the same ideas over and over, but it's not a fixed loop. It keeps getting higher, or tighter, or more strained, or...
The Zen Death Spiral is a contradiction. You can't have ego and no-ego at the same time; you can't have logic and swallow it too.

But Zen is full of contradictions. By trying to encompass the entire spiral all at once, I'm practicing Zen.

But as long as I'm having all these ego-laden thoughts, and worrying about whether I'm worrying, and analyzing, I can't possibly be practicing Zen. People who practice Zen sit.

This is a contradiction!

But Zen is full of contradictions, including the ones about whether something is Zen or not.

So the spiral is very Zen.

But when I think about it --

But that's a contradiction too...

When I try to think about this, I can practically hear my brain overrevving. The worry and the acceptance chase each other around, getting tighter and hotter and more complicated with each revolution: am I worrying about being proud, or being proud of not worrying about being proud, or worrying about being proud of not worrying about... you get the idea. Since I'm a programmer, I can synthesize this into a single recursive loop and think about it all at once -- but that immediately brings up the problem of being proud / not proud / worried / not worried about the entire loop -- all at once. And then the problem of thinking about that.

It's very much like the sequence of cardinal infinities. You can consider the set of the first number {1}, and then the first two numbers {1, 2}, and so on; and then you can consider the set of all integers, which is no problem; but then you can throw that in and have a set containing all the integers plus one more thing; which imples the set of all integers plus two more things; and then generalize that all the way up to two infinities worth of things; but hell, you might as well make that two infinities plus one, or two infinities plus two, or... three infinities... four infinities... well, obviously there must be a set with an infinite number of infinities, infinity squared, so to speak... infinity cubed? ...uh-oh...

This happens in my head every time I start on the Zen Death Spiral. It hurts.

(Plus that whole analogy is really a single concept, since I learned about Cantorian cardinal infinities a long time ago. (See "Birthday Cantatatata...." in Hofstadter's GEB.) So I think about that, and then there's analogy-plus-one, and analogy-plus-two... whoops.)

It seems quite obvious to me that this koan is the only thing standing between me and enlightenment. If I just sat down and spun that wheel in my head until it caught fire, it would burn away and the whole question of ego, no-ego, pride, worry, and acceptance would become irrelevant.

But it's such hard work! I'm not superhuman; I can only keep adding those layers of logic for a few seconds before I lose track. (Of course, then it forms a single lump, like the infinity analogy, and I can start adding layers to that... which is another analogy...)

Anyway, I'm too lazy to meditate and expend all that mental effort. Mostly I just ignore the whole problem, and get on with my life.

Isn't that what an enlightened Zen master would do?

Ha ha.

Last updated September 3, 1998.

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