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The Experience of Not-Self

If "koan" was a more widely used and understood word in English, I would have described this blog as "Essays on the Koan of Life." In Zen, a koan is a question, problem or situation that requires (sometimes demands) resolution, but cannot be resolved through reason. According to the Shambala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, "a koan requires a leap to another level of comprehension."

I like the understanding of conundrum as "a logical postulation that evades resolution, an intricate and difficult problem," but feel ambivalent about the more classical definition of the word as a "riddle whose answer is or involves a pun or unexpected twist."1 I do not mean to imply that I think life is a joke. Life has its moments of lightness and humor, but to summarize it as a riddle with a pun for a punchline suggests a sad cynicism with spiritual desperation at its core.

Still, there is a sense in which "a riddle whose answer involves… [an] unexpected twist" is appropriate when we are talking about the Koan of Life. Life offers us countless koans. How do I live each day to the fullest? How do I avoid being paralyzed by fear of illness, loss and death? How do I deal with that co-worker that sets my teeth on edge? Who am I, really? Is there anything in this universe upon which I can rely? When we resolve these koans for ourselves (and yes, it is possible!), inevitably it requires a radical shift in perspective reminiscent of the one required to answer the conundrum, "When is a door not a door?" with "When it is ajar!"

One last note about koans, from E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful:

"G.N.M. Tyrell has put forward the terms 'divergent' and 'convergent' to distinguish problems which cannot be solved by logical reasoning from those that can. Life is being kept going by divergent problems which have to be 'lived'… Convergent problems on the other hand are man's most useful invention… When they are solved, the solution can be written down and passed on to others, who can apply it without needing to reproduce the mental effort necessary to find it. If this were the case with human relations – in family life, economics, politics, education, and so forth – well, I am at a loss how to finish the sentence."

     A koan is a divergent problem as faced by an individual, who must live out the answer him or herself.

1 Wikipedia:

The Experience of Not-Self