Quora Answer: How do zen koans work?

Oct 18 2014

Zen Koans are an example of Supra-rationality. This is something that is not well understood in the West. The problem is that of the limits of the Divided Line of Plato, it is the limit of contradiction, paradox and absurdity that we are obsessed with and so the possibility of supra-rationality is almost completely forgotten in our tradition, even though it is represented as a limit of the Divided Line in the Republic of Plato:  Analogy of the divided line.

The divided line divides experience into doxa and ratio. One limit is para-dox and the other is the supra-rational. Paradox is mixture and confusion.  Note the best example of a study of this is Godel Escher and Bach by Douglas Hofstadter.  From Quantum Mechanics this is entanglement. What we don’t have is a good example of the study of Supra-rationality in our tradition. Supra-rationality means that two opposite are true at the same time without interfering. From Quantum Mechanics this is superposition.

Supra-rationality can be seen in Zen Buddhism, and buddhism in general. This and other nondual traditions emphasize the Supra-rational over the Paradoxical. In the West it is part of our Orientalism to expect that Buddhists are mostly referring to Paradoxicality as a limit as we do. But that is part of our mis-understanding of other traditions to expect them to be like us. In fact they are mostly referring to the Supra-rational rather than the Paradoxical limits, because their tradition is the dual of ours in many ways.

There are other ways in which their tradition is essentially different from our own. For instance our tradition is for the most part Set based with syllogistic logic, while the Buddhist tradition is mostly Mass based with pervasion logic.

If we just take these two extreme difference we can see why the Buddhist tradition is so misunderstood in the West, and by Westerners in general. Many of the books that introduce Buddhism to the West are part of this Orientalist tendency. If we just take these two differences and we interpret Buddhist texts in terms of Pervasion Logic and Masses with Supra-rationality we will get a lot further than if we follow our own tradition and interpret everything in terms of Syllogistic Logic and Sets with Pradoxicality or Absurdity as the key to attempting to understand Buddhist texts.

When we see that emptiness pervades consciousness in Buddhism just as Void pervades nature in Taoism then we can understand these forms of nonduality better.

When we see that emptiness and void themselves are non-dual duals of each other then we must ask whether they are supra-rational, i.e. both true at the same time without interfering, or whether their interface with each other produces absurdity that we can see in Ultra Being.

One other problem is that the Indo-European tradition is the only one with Being. Buddhism denies Being with the concept of emptiness within the Hindu Indo-European tradition. China never had Being as part of their tradition because their languages are for the most part non-indo-european. It turns out that there are meta-levels of Being and that eventually those meta-levels run straight into existence, which in terms of Absurdity is seen as the singularity of Ultra Being. If Emptiness and Void are not supra-rationally separate them we get the absurd singularity of Ultra Being as our characterization of Existence.

But just as Emptiness and Void are dual nonduals, so too Absurdity and Supra-Rationality are duals as well. What is not well appreciated is the fact that the lines that divide the Divided Line need to be interpreted. There are three lines that which divide Doxa and Ratio, two of those lines divide each of the divisions of the line and one central line separates Ratio from Doxa. Void separates grounded and ungrounded opinion. Emptiness separates representable and non-representable intelligibles. These are the dual nonduals that are seen as either supra-rational or absurd. But there is also the middle line which represents ‘manifestation’ which is utterly nondual. It is this deeper nondual that is the object of Hua Yen Buddhism, of DzogChen, and Sufism. The deeper nondual is at the center of the Divided Line, not at its extremes. And this is the balance we are looking for in any path that claims to be a middle path. An excellent place to look at this deeper nonduality is the basis of the DzogChen tradition in  Mañjuśrīmitra‘s Gold Refined from Ore. Much of Zen Buddhism is based on Hua Yen Buddhism for its underlying theory. Zen Buddhism uses Koans to teach the variations on nonduality. We see in the work of Stonehouse for example the blending of Emptiness and Void, where there is one line of emptiness and one line of void in certain of his poems. Some Zen koans go beyond this and point directly to the underlying nonduality of nonduality, i.e. manifestation beyond the duality of Emptiness and Void discovered by later Chinese Buddhism. At first the Chinese thought that the Buddhists were saying the same thing as indigenous Taoists. But eventually they learned that Buddhist nonduality related to emptiness is different from Taoist nonduality of the void. Later Chinese explored the supra-rational relation between the two like Stonehouse. But of course it is clear that there must be something beyond that nondual duality which can be subtly indicated and attained if one were able to immerse oneself in what is primordial before the arising of the duality between emptiness and void. I call this primordial archetypal wholeness.

Zen Koans work by indicating states of nonduality that are supra-rational, or even deeper states beyond the duality of emptiness and void in which like Quantum Mechanics entanglement and superposition are them selves entangled and superpositioned in relation to each other. It is necessary to understand the theory as developed in Hua Yen Buddhism by Fa Tsang and others. These theories were developed further on Soto Zen by masters like Dogen Kaigen and others. Indicating states and transmission of states directly come from the indication within lived situations in which master and student are intertwined in subtle showing and hiding relations with each other. The Zen Koans are very deep when they point to emptiness, then point to void, then point beyond emptiness and void to what lies in kernel of existence. For instance at one point Dogen Kigen talks about Existence Time which is an example of this kind of pointing in the Shobogenzo.

What is really amazing is that although we live in the most dualistic of traditions, which has fought nonduality tooth and nail such as that embodied in the Western nondual heresy called Islam, at the very core of the tradition is the Divided Line that covers the entire spectrum of experience. And at the center of this core is the lines that divided the line, and they are the traces of emptiness and void, but more than that there is the trace of manifestation beyond the duals of emptiness and void as well. And so what is achieved in Sufism, in DzogChen, in Hua Yen Buddhism is there at the kernel of the Western tradition as well in spite of its vehement rejection of nonduality. As Nagarjuna showed logic has within it emptiness, as the difference between the logical operators. This proof is what causes Buddhism to be reabsorbed into Hinduism and gave rise to Advita Vedanta through Shankara’s nondual interpretation of the Upanishads. Similarly we show that the Dualistic Western tradition whose core gives rise to nihilism and emergence as meta-nihilistic opposites has at its center not just emptiness and void but the deeper nondual of manifestation. When we say ‘manifestation’ we take this word from M. Henry in his book called The Essence of Manifestation which is based on the ideas of Meister Eckhart who was the fundamental proponent of these ideas within the Western tradition who was one of the few of such proponents who were not murdered by the Inquisition. Henry accuses Heidegger of having an assumption of Ontological Monism that covers up the possibility of the Essence of Manifestation known by Meister Eckhart as the Godhead, and in Hinduism as the nirguna Brahman. Thus we have in the Western tradition our own Koans like the Divided Line of Plato that indicate various types of nonduality, and we have those who have explained them within our tradition even if they are very rare, like a white hair on a black bull. Thus we have everything that is necessary to understand Koans ourselves if we do not Orientalize by assuming that the radical Other is the same as ourselves.

Zen Koans work just as Plato says in the 7th Letter by staying close to one another seeking wisdom and beyond wisdom nous (prajna), and paying attention to the indications, until a divine spark jumps from soul to soul. Plato says that this practice is all that he is really interested in. And it is this same spark that has been jumping in the Zen tradition, the DzogChen tradition, and the Sufic tradition. And that spark can also still jump in the Western tradition if we take the Homeward Path, the path indigenous to our own tradition. Take that path and you will see wonders.

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