How Delicious! Koans Are a Literary Game
"The Koan: Growing Before Your Eyes, the Last Strawberry on the Vine, as You Dangle Precariously Above a Man-Eating Tiger"

Let's get right to the point: the Zen koan is a powerful literary form that we should all seek to understand and wield. And yet, it is unstable, and requires a lifetime to master. A lifetime you have.

A monk asked Tozan, "How can we escape the cold and heat?" Tozan replied, "Why not go where there is no cold and heat?" "Is there such a place?" asked the monk. Tozan commented, "When cold, be thoroughly cold; when hot, be hot through and through."

Superficially, the koan has a lot going for it already. It's got the ambiguous charm of the poem, but with the accessibility of prose. It's shorter than a short story, but smarter than an anecdote. At the same time, the best koans have a complexity rivaling that of novels.

Koans are full of harsh and stoic figures who speak in riddles and do dramatic things like attacking emperors with swords to prove a philosophical point. Koans do with brevity and words what ice cold warriors do with the severed arms of their opponents when their own swords become bent and useless. They beat you to death in the snow under the moonlight.

The heart of the koan, however, lies elsewhere.

One day Banzan was walking through a market. He overheard a customer say to the butcher, "Give me the best piece of meat you have." "Everything in my shop is the best," replied the butcher. "You can not find any piece of meat that is not the best." At these words, Banzan was enlightened.

One of the biggest strengths of literature, apart from pirates and swordfights, is the chance it gives to look at the problems of existence from a detached perspective. It is hard to contemplate something like THE VOID when you are flailing waist-deep inside it.

Read about the exploits of fictional characters in that same void, however, and you have the necessary distance to see clearly (or what the author thinks is clearly), and to try and make sense of it without being distracted by whether or not the bills are being paid on time or whether that clerk in the book shop really thought you were an asshole or was only innocently adjusting her glasses.

You see, koans require analysis by their very nature. There is no such thing as a koan that is meant to be taken at face value, and there is no social realist school of koan criticism. No one is ever going to say of a koan that you're reading too much into it, because they're utterly valueless without being interpreted. In a sense, they are the literary form that demands the most audience participation.

Of course, this demand for human involvement has its own set of problems.

A soldier came to Hakuin and asked "Is there really a paradise and a hell?" "Who are you?" inquired Hakuin. "I am a samurai," the warrior replied. "You, a samurai!" exclaimed Hakuin. "What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar!" The soldier became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued. "So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably as dull as your head!" As the soldier drew his sword Hakuin remarked "Here open the gates of hell!" At these words, the samurai, perceiving the discipline of the master, sheathed his sword and bowed. "Here open the gates of paradise," said Hakuin.

Before these and other canonical koans were set down in the inaugural texts that all koan geeks like me know by heart (The Blue Cliff Record, the Book of Serenity, the Gateless Gate), koans developed from a Chinese practice called the "literary game."

This was essentially a contest where people would gather around and perform an improvised fictional piece on the spur of the moment, being judged against one another on criteria like literary quality, the drama of the narrative, and the delivery itself. Does this not sound familiar, to those of you who must attend the Fiction Circus?

Because of time constraints, participants in the literary game were forced to leave much up to the audience, to make points that were both ambiguous and striking, to tell stories that were made stronger because of their cursory nature and their lack of supplied detail. Needless to say, the "literary game" was a popular social event; and its winners were given the title "master poets" and heaped with wine, women, and riches. Love from both critics and the fair alike; is this not a model worthy of veneration, of emulation?

There's something essential in the koan that today's fiction writers ought to grasp. The art of the koan is the difference between additive sculpting -- building an image up out of lumps of formless clay -- and subtractive sculpting, where you take away the lumps that do not matter.

Wakuan complained when he saw a picture of bearded Bodhidharma, "Why hasn't that fellow a beard?"

Is there ultimately more value in ignoring parts of reality than in choosing which parts to include from a starting point of nothing? If so, what can be learned from crafting koans and reading them? Why is it that few other forms seem to encourage such immediate engagement in the "literary game"?

Is it the promise of enlightenment?

If, by leaving things unsaid and offering relief from the burden of being, we can brutalize the reader into direct participation with a story, generating a new level of engagement by force, have we not discovered a new weapon to add to our literary arsenal?

Shuzan held out his short staff and said, "If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?"

Posted by harlock on Thu, 20 Mar 2008 08:45:07 -0400 -- permanent link

The Gallery at LPR
158 Bleecker St., New York, NY
Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

All content c. 2008-2009 by the respective authors.

Site design c. 2009 by sweet sweet design