The Koan of Jake
The Koan of Jake
“Koan (Ko-an) — a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.
Origin: Japanese, literally ‘matter for public thought,’ from Chinese gongan ‘official business.’” – Webster’s Dictionary
In Zen Buddhism we find uniquely enlightening and sometimes frustratingly elusive pronouncements by the masters called “koans.” These are teaching tools that the master might pass on to the student, that he might meditate and contemplate their meaning. Some can be humorous, some pithy and some brilliantly insightful. We’ve all heard the koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Here are a few examples of koans by Zen Masters.
“A monk told Joshu: “I have entered the monastery. Please teach me.” Joshu asked, “Have you eaten?” The Monk replied, “Yes, I have eaten.” Joshu said: “Then you had better wash your bowl.” At that moment the monk was enlightened.
— The Washing Bowl Koan
A Zen student arrives at a temple and finds an audience with a Zen master. He asks the master how long it will take him to become enlightened. The master tells him, “Ten years.” With that answer, the seeker says to the master, “If I work very hard to achieve enlightenment, how long will it take?” The master’s response is, “Twenty years.”
— The Enlightenment Koan
“Out of nowhere, the mind comes forth.” — The Diamond Sutra Koan
“Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
— The Cup of Tea Koan
The “Eastern Mind” is culturally acclimated to accept wisdom as it is, and to search for the meaning of a seemingly meaningless pronouncement by one seen as “holy” or “personally enlightened.” In the Jefferson Starship song, Ride the Tiger, there is a line that illustrates this point, and could easily be seen as a koan by a western “master.”
“It’s like a tear in the hands of a western man (will)
Tell you about salt, carbon and water;
But a tear to a Chinese man —
He’ll tell you about sadness and sorrow or the love of a man and a woman.”
Now, the “Western Mind” might not see the significance of a koan in the same way that those acclimated to their use as a teaching tool. This might be due in part to our over emphasis on the scientific methodology. We are taught to break it down… to see what makes it “tick,” as in our academic training in English, we are taught to diagram sentences and analyze them to minutia; to visualize how the different parts of a sentence fit together.
In this koan by John Tarrant, director of the Pacific Zen Institute, we might tend to “read western” into it, but it’s a simple and evocative koan that stands well on its own without diagramming or over analysis.
“The coin lost in the river is found in the river.”
Let it roll around in your mind for a while and see how it brings images of that shiny coin there, where it might have been for a thousand years, waiting for the lucky person, one in a thousand who have passed this way before, to notice it and pick it up. Thoughts and ideas can be like that. Every now an then, was will read something in a book of philosophy, or hear something in a song, or a few suddenly meaningful words jump out at us from the pages of a magazine, and we, like the ancient Buddhist monk, find wisdom and enlightenment. Ten thousand others might read the same book or magazine, or hear the same song, and nothing registers with them. Or they see something else entirely.
And indeed, there are times when someone does find that elusive coin in the river, but for some reason, loses it in a moment of fleeting thought, or simply tosses it aside as not worth the time or effort to continue. Perhaps their mind, like Nan-in’s guest’s is already full of ideas and speculations and he is simply not ready for the insights or wisdom that can be attained through this simple coin, carelessly lost by others.
The koans of many Eastern Zen Masters are often eloquent and erudite. The words can be flowery and flowing or as deceptively insightful as the seemingly throw-away lines of some of the great thinkers of our time. Here in the Western world, and specifically in the United States, our development is full of home-grown koans that began in the earliest days of the nation, with our founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin, for example, was known for his homespun homilies, such as:
“A stitch in time saves nine.”
“Fish and visitors stink after three days.” ”We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
“Well done is better than well said.”
“The way to see by Faith is to shut the Eye of Reason.”
As “civilization” moved west, the wit and wisdom of the few traveled with it, and in the time following our great Civil War, a plain-spoken and humorous man named Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain wrote new western koans, like:
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”
“Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work. “
“It is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them.”
“The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”
From the wild west, we can see a lot of wisdom in the throw-away lines of cowboys. They come to us through the works of early writers who penned “dime novels” about life on the western plains. You could read the western drawl into the character’s voice on the page, and read the words:
“If you climb in the saddle, be ready for the ride.”
“When in doubt, let your horse do the thinkin’.”
“Don’t mess with something that ain’t bothering you.” “Lettin’ the cat outta the bag is a whole lot easier than puttin’ it back.”
“When you give a lesson in meanness to a critter or a person, don’t be surprised if they learn their lesson.”
Later, one of these western characters would come to life in the guise of a American stage and motion picture actor, vaudeville performer, American cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist, and social commentator named Will Rogers. Will Rogers (1879 – 1935) was born in Oologah, Oklahoma, and was a Cherokee Citizen. He arose to be a prominent American citizen, and wrote over 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns. He had the ear of the “common man,” but was a beloved character who could walk just as easily with presidents. Some of his wisdom and wit lives on today in quotes like:
“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”
“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
“Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today.”
“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”
“It’s not what you pay a man, but what he costs you that counts.”
Typically, “American koans” of the past tend to be in the self-deprecating and introspective vein. This is often at odds with the sometimes bombastic realities of our nature in the current era. But there can be wisdom still if we learn to strip away the hyperbole to which we have become accustomed in our speech and writing. Wisdom comes in knowing that we don’t know everything, and we can learn even from those we feel are wrong.
I’m sure we’ve all employed koans of our own to enlighten and to entertain. And the wise man knows that one can only make their statement of fact as they know it, and it’s the responsibility of those who read and hear them to either accept or reject them as befits their own sensibility. Our personal influence is quite a bit less than we believe, and we would be deluding ourselves if we were so gauche as to think that we have any right to impose our personal philosophies or preferences upon others.
And so, I leave you with The Koan of Jake. Take it for what it’s worth. There’s a box of salt in the cabinet, in case you need it.
“What we too loudly declare ourselves to be, and what others have to do, we probably aren’t, and they most certainly don’t.”
The Orders of The Sect of the Horned God