Friday, September 4, 2009

Koans, Contrarianisms and Paradoxes....

Before I began to study the connection/similarities/differences between Buddhism and Christianity, I was not familiar with the term "koan." 
I didn't know the word but like most everyone I've heard some of the well known koans:

"What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

Another one that comes to mind...not sure if it has it's origins in Buddhism or not....

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?"

Following are several definitions of the word koan...found on the internet (where else?)

Wikipedia: a story, dialogue, question, or statement in the history and lore of Zen Buddhism, generally containing aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding, yet may be accessible to intuition.

Word Net Web: a paradoxical anecdote or a riddle that has no solution; used in Zen Buddhism to show the inadequacy of logical reasoning

Mokurai's Temple:  A seemingly paradoxical riddle or statement that is used as a training device in Zen practice to force the mind to abandon logic and dualistic thought.

Well, well, well...I may not have known the Buddhist term for it, but I have been frustrated by koans galore...found right in the pages of Bible.  I don't think it is only in Zen that we find paradoxes that "show the inadequacy of logical reasoning." Some biblical koans come to mind. 

A biggie for me has been free will vs. total sovereignty. 

The existence of evil and the existence of a good God. 

It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me. (huh?)

Thou shalt not kill vs. In the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as the LORD your God has commanded you.

Thou shalt not bear false witness vs Now therefore behold the Lord hath put a spirit of lying in the mouth of all thy prophets.

The topic of Biblical koans...paradoxes...could be the basis for a very long series of posts.  These paradoxes have been discussed and debated by those much smarter than me...and are still not settled to everyone's let's get back to the Keating interview- the part where he talks about koans...biblical koans:

CB: In reading your books, I thought that you saw God as immanent as opposed to transcendent. Did I read that incorrectly, or is this another koan?

TK: That is what it is. [God is] infinitely transcendent and infinitely immanent. That is the extraordinary part: God couldn't be closer, closer even than consciousness. But the Christian articulation of that mystery is a little different from [that of] the East. The Christian would say you are not God, whereas the Vedic tradition says that you become God. I think we may be talking about the same experience of divine union, but our belief system requires us to say that you may be so united to God that you can't distinguish yourself from Him but that He nevertheless remains ontologically-that is, metaphysically-distinct. That theological disagreement could simply be the result of having an experience and trying to articulate the inexplicable according to your particular belief system.

So although it sounds different, it may be the same thing. But we don't have enough experience to say that for sure. We have to have a lot more people in that state and be at a good stage of dialogue to precisely understand each other's terms. We started a little group called the Snowmass Interreligious Conference, where teachers from various spiritual traditions got together and just talked about what helped them the most. This gave us a chance to see a religion through somebody else's eyes, someone who has really been through it and now embodies it.

I had to look up those two words...transcendent and immanent.  I found a good explanation on an atheist's blog  on

Thanks Austin...

On the face of it, the characteristics of transcendence and immanence appear to be in conflict. A transcendent God is one who is beyond perception, independent of the universe, and wholly “other” when compared to us. An immanent God, is one which exists within — within us, within the universe, etc. — and, hence, very much a part of our existence. How can these qualities exist simultaneously?

How indeed?

He closes the post by saying...
The need for both qualities can be seen in the other characteristics normally attributed to God. If God is a person and works within human history, then it would make little sense for us not to be able to perceive and communicate with God. Moreover, if God is infinite, then God must exist everywhere — including within us and within the universe. Such a God must be immanent.

On the other hand,if God is absolutely perfect beyond all experience and understanding, then God must also be transcendent. If God is timeless (outside of time and space) and unchangable, then God cannot also be immanent within us, beings who are within time. Such a God must be wholly “other,” transcendent to everything we know.

Because both of these qualities follow readily from other qualities, it would be very difficult to abandon either without also needing to abandon or at least seriously modify many other common attributes of God. Some theologians and philosophers have been willing to make such a move, but most have not - and the result is a continuation of both of these attributes, constantly in tension.

"Constantly in tension"...what John G refers to as a contrarianism.  Austin therefore chooses, mistakenly in my opinion, to pitch the whole God thing.  He can't figure out the paradox...the contrarianism...the koan. Since his mind cannot comprehend how God can be both..then God must not exist at all...there must not be a God.  Although contrarianisms are exceedingly frustrating, throwing out God because we cannot wrap our brains around the totality of him, is like the oft used baby and the bath water saying.  

Keating goes on to talk about another koan.  In Christianese...grace vs. works. 

CB: Did your experience with Zen inform your Christian faith?

TK: Yes, it enriched it. I read the Gospel from a different perspective and saw the truth of Zen in much of the Gospel. Buddhism is a very advanced religion. Roshi Sasaki, who is still functioning at 89 in Mount Baldy in Los Angeles, thought that Zen could help Christians become better Christians. He saw-and I would certainly adhere to his insight-that there is a certain Zen quality in all religions. It is a fundamental religious attitude. Centering prayer is very rich but quite diffuse and tends to put the emphasis on grace in a way that perhaps needs to be balanced by the Zen attitude, which is that we have to do something, too. Actually, St. Ignatius expressed it well when he said, "Act as if everything depended on you, and trust as if everything depended on God." Well, how do you do that? That is a koan. You could spend a lifetime trying to figure out how to do that. What the world religions all have in common is [the fact that] transcendence is the name of the game. This means first having a self and then surrendering it, opening oneself to union with God, which is a gift.

More on this topic...tomorrow.....


Sue said...

Your blog is a delightful place to visit, and this post is a fine example of that. Delicious! I feel all tingly in my stomach.

This space between Buddhism and Christianity is a wonderful one, and I am learning so much.

Yes, koans everywhere, everywhere. All those parables! :)

Cindi said...

Sue, you are such a great encourager!!! Thank you so much for all your kind words throughout the past couple of years. It is greatly appreciated....