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Zen Buddhist koans help us understand life experiences like science helps us understand the world

Science cannot help us understand or describe first-person experience. Zen koans are a powerful form for helping us reach that description.
Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think; Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Koans are a keystone of Zen Buddhism.
  • The practice of spending days, weeks, or even months contemplating a koan helps discipline and focus the mind.
  • Physics gives a powerful account of the world from a third-person perspective. To understand pure experience, however, requires something more, and koans are a very useful means toward that end.

“Stop the sound of the distant temple bell.”

This short sentence is a koan. It was one of the first I was given when I began what is called koan practice as part of my work with Zen Buddhism. As with all the other koans I had encountered up to this point, my first response was simply, “Excuse me?” followed by laughter. “Stop the what, where?” 

Many people have at least heard of Zen koans. They are supposedly nonsensical questions that Zen monks must address as part of their training on the way to enlightenment. The most famous koan people know, if they know any, is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” But while some folks might have heard of koans, my experience is that most people do not understand what they really are, what they are for, or how they work. In fact, that well-known koan above is a misquote. I learned it as, “You know the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand?”

As someone who has worked with koans for a while, I thought I would use my 100th post for Big Think to unpack them a bit today. I do this for two reasons. First, I love koans. I find them endlessly delightful and frustrating, and above all very useful. Second, as a scientist, my job is to answer questions about reality, and koans offer a powerful perspective — a different way to carry forward that job.

Navy SEAL training for the mind

Let’s start with the Zen part of Zen koans. Zen is one form of Buddhism among many. Beginning as Chan in China somewhere around the 6th century, its emphasis has always been on experience. Later Chan would take root in Japan, and that is where took on the name we recognize, Zen. The focus on experience, pure and simple, did not change. Zen teachers emphasized a direct and simple contemplative practice — what we now call meditation — whose goal was to develop an intimacy with the verb “to be.” What is it really like to just be

Zen contemplative practice aims to cut through ideas and concepts about the world and the self. The goal is to stay close to just this. Just this breath in the lungs, just this step over the stream, just this response to the person before you. As anyone who has tried meditation for even a few minutes knows, staying with what is right in front of you is a lot easier said than done. Our minds are like puppies stumbling from one idea, worry, or memory to the next. Such is the human condition, and such is the problem Zen focuses on. 

Zen focuses on this problem for the very basic Buddhist reason of eliminating suffering by eliminating our delusions about ourselves and the world. From the Buddhist and Zen perspective, we are so distracted by our endless self-concern that we cannot see the truth of experience that is right in front of us. If instead we experienced that truth, we would be more free in our response to life with all its changes. (A Buddhist corollary is that we would also be more compassionate.) Zen contemplative practice can be pretty rigorous, though. Zen can be to mindfulness meditation what Navy SEAL training is to a light workout at the gym. But the rigor serves the purpose of calming and focusing our minds.

Koans and the golden age of Zen

So where do the koans come into all this? The term koan in Chinese means “case,” in the sense of a legal case. Most koans are not a single sentence. They are a short narrative, usually involving a dialogue between a monk and a teacher. The story is followed by a short commentary, and then an even shorter verse. All the koans come from the golden age of Zen in China, between the 8th and the 10th centuries. Later they were compiled into books, and these came to comprise the koan curriculum a Zen student is expected to work through. 

To do koan practice means meeting regularly with the teacher who is moving you through the curriculum. You meet, the teacher gives you a koan, then you go spend some time with it — work that can last days, weeks, or even months. Finally, you come back and present your answer, which is nowhere near as simple as it sounds.

Presenting an answer to a koan is never about offering an explanation. You are not there to give an account of what the koan means. Instead, you are to demonstrate the answer. Long ago when I was starting Zen, a teacher said, “Don’t tell me. Show me!” Using movement, sound, or even words, you reveal your answer through action. The answer is your lived response to the koan, embodied in that moment of demonstration. It is not a theory about why the koan is expressing some idea or view about the world. 

To show you what I mean, let’s go back to that koan we started with: “Stop the sound of the distant temple bell.” My initial, New Jersey-style response to this was, “Hey you with the bell. Shut up already!” 

As you would expect, that did not work. 

So I stayed with it. I did hours of zazen — Zen contemplative practice — keeping the koan hanging in my mind. I brought it out into the world with me, asking how this koan was pointing me back to intimacy with just what was happening in that moment. I would go back into meetings with the teacher to present what I found. The answer for a long time was, gently, “Nope.” It was frustrating, but also kind of funny. 

Then, one evening, while I was waiting to meet with my teacher, I was quietly doing zazen. As I dropped down into my breath, I became aware of an air conditioner humming somewhere nearby. The more I quieted down, the more there was just the hum of the machine. Not me hearing the air conditioner — just hearing. Fully and completely hearing. I don’t know how long I was in that state, but suddenly — and I mean like a thunderclap — I knew the answer to my koan, just as fully and completely. 

I went in, gave my presentation, and my teacher and I laughed together.

The rules of Zen say that I cannot tell you what that answer was. You’re not supposed to talk about what happens in those meetings. But even if I could tell you the answer, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t make any sense, or it wouldn’t seem like a big deal. That is because it’s not really the answer that matters. What matters is the path to intimacy with experience that the koan gave to you. That is the point. What I have found is that every koan pretty much points you back to that same direction. They each open the same gate that lets you, for a moment, experience the profound freedom and openness that is just this. They each offer a glimpse into experience without constant self-reference.

A contrast between science and experience

So what does any of this have to do with science? On the surface, it would seem, nothing at all. Zen koans don’t need science and science does not need Zen koans. But as a scientist I have taken, and given, many tests in my day. I have sat before many difficult problems in mathematical physics where I stretched myself thin to find an answer. I cannot help but compare and contrast the two approaches, and in that comparison, I find much of interest. 

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To be clear, there is nothing about koan practice that is going to teach you about the nature of the physical world. There are no insights a koan can grant you about quantum physics or the relativistic structure of spacetime. Physics provides a powerful tool for elaborating the dynamics of the world from a third-person perspective. It asks specific kinds of questions that have specific kinds of answers, and koans have nothing to do with that. 

What koan practice does show me, however, is something about the strange loop that is my own experience. My experience is mine, and no one else can have it for me. As the Zen saying goes, “No one can pee for you.” What koan practice shows me is that words can only go so far in probing that experience. The verb “to be” is always enacted personally, and it is very, very slippery. While it is great to come up with theories, ideas and concepts about it, ultimately those words wither and blow away like dried leaves in autumn. You just cannot understand first-person experience the way you understand how mass curves space. 

Physics gives a powerful account of the world from a third-person perspective. For that reason, it always deals with abstractions about experience. But because experience itself is always first-person, its investigation requires a different kind of question and a different kind of answer. Discursive reasoning of the kind I practice in my scientific and philosophical work will only work up to a point. After that I need something more — something more direct, something more intimate. And that is what koans are for. For all the ways I am left laughing when introduced to a new one, for all the ways I think “that’s just crazy,” in the end I have seen over and over again how this old, strange form can constantly surprise me.

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