…the koan’s purpose is to see things from buddhanature’s point of view, as it were, rather than instill an idea about it from our own point of view.
When we come to the Zen koans, we find a tradition in full engagement with the workings of defamiliarization in a most direct and compelling way. In a famous case from the Sung dynasty koan collection The Gateless Gate (Mumonkan), Goso said, “To give an example, it is like a buffalo passing through a window. Its head, horns and four legs have all passed through. Why is it that its tail cannot?”
The whole beast can pass through this window, so why is it that its little tail can’t? The question would seem to flout all laws of physics, space, volume, size, and so on—to defamiliarize them. The only way to resolve the koan is to somehow surrender our habitual understanding in hopes that a new way of seeing will come forth, in which the apparent nonsense of the koan becomes a new kind of sense—a new way of seeing, indeed.
Similarly, a koan from the Blue Cliff Record records a meeting between Master Isan and his female student Ryu Tetsuma.
Ryu Tetsuma came to Isan.
Isan said, “Old Cow [a term of respect and endearment], you have come!”
Tetsuma said, “Tomorrow there will be a great feast at Mount Tai. Will you go there, Master?”
Isan lay down and stretched himself out.
Tetsuma left immediately.
Tetsuma’s question to Isan is patent nonsense: Mount Tai was some 800 miles from Isan’s temple. The suggestion that he might go there for a feast the following day confounds normal notions of time and space (this was 9th-century China, after all). Then Isan lies down by way of answer; at which point Tetsuma leaves.
Was she satisfied with the visit? Had they communicated in some way hidden to the normal mind? What on earth are we to make of this nonsensical behavior?
But in fact it’s not mere nonsense; it’s more that we have an order or scheme by and through which we ordinarily experience time and space. The koan directly challenges that. If we apply our normal view to the koan we won’t get anywhere. Our concepts of time and space have to collapse: that’s the only way the koan can be resolved.
In a sense the koan is of a piece with the view that buddha-nature is manifestly and inherently present in and as everything, always. Yet in another sense it’s not really a view of that proposition. Rather…
the koan’s purpose is to see things from buddhanature’s point of view, as it were, rather than instill an idea about it from our own point of view.
Or we might say that the experience crystalized in the koan is only revealed when we realize that our own point of view is the very same as buddhanature’s point of view. At which point our usual notions of the physical properties of things may collapse.
Koans seek to draw the student away from a perspective on the teachings and into an experience of the teachings—of emptiness, for example, or of the oneness of subject and object, and so on—through a radical defamiliarizing of perception. We may then experience any ordinary sight or sound in a non-ordinary way; the familiar may become deeply unfamiliar, as the koans deconstruct our view of things in order to release us into a new openness. And in this openness we may discover that all the conceptual and perceptual intricacies of Mahayana philosophy finally are no different from ordinary life as it is, except that they are seen anew and afresh. So the defamiliarization inherent in Zen training also necessarily involves a return to the familiar.
This kind of resolution of the path of practice is expressed with exceptional nuance and thoroughness in the writings of the 13th-century Zen master Eihei Dogen, who is perhaps most famous for his teaching that practice itself is realization. This would seem, at least initially, to contradict the entire Buddhist project:
If enlightenment is from the outset fully present in practice, then what need is there of a path?
Maybe it’s no accident that interest in Dogen has surged over the past hundred years. He goes beyond all normal categories of expression and thought in a way that can call to mind some of the Modernist writings of the early 20th century. In his more poetic teachings he seems intent on taking defamiliarization to all possible depths and in all directions. He turns Buddhist doctrine and even hallmark Zen teachings on their head. His very writing defies categories: it is poetic but usually not poetry; it is philosophical, but it isn’t philosophy; it includes koans, but his approach is entirely his own; and translators say his Japanese is so idiosyncratic it amounts almost to a language of its own, as though he had to invent it to say what he wanted to say.
But Dogen’s assertion that practice is enlightenment doesn’t mean that there is no enlightenment; it means that the fulfillment of enlightenment can’t be found anywhere but here, now, just as things are. As the Zen teacher Norman Fischer has said, “For Dogen the ultimate standpoint of dharma is simply the full affirmation of our ordinaryhuman world of attachment and aversion and their consequences. It is precisely through full appreciation of this vale of tears that Buddha’s illumination shines in us.”
Even in the midst of our woes and troubles, all is already complete and fulfilled: for Dogen, the path is simply about seeing and experiencing this life as it is, in full awareness that all of it is buddhanature itself, even our antipathies and longings, even our very selves. Or perhaps not even in that awareness: rather, we may forget all about that and merely allow the unfolding of buddhanature to happen through and as our experience. “No trace of this realization remains,” he says in the Genjokoan, “and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
At this point it’s no longer possible to say what is familiar or unfamiliar: “The Buddha way is not carried over from before,” Dogen states in the Shobogenzo, “nor is it merely arising now.” It’s not old, and it’s not new, neither familiar nor unfamiliar. The known is both known and new, and the new both new and known. So all is well.
By Henry Shukman, originally published in Tricycle Magazine, Fall 2014