I was in eigth grade when I heard my first Kōan.
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” asked Miss Glidden, my social studies teacher. I liked her because I would write my essays in a comic style, somewhere between Jackie Vernon and James Turber, and she loved them.
And here she was offering a kōan, one of those paradoxical questions that are designed to create “great doubt” and test students in Zen Buddhism.
I was fascinated by the idea of a note to think on. I had loved my first real theological experience, fourth grade confirmation class with a pastor who chain smoked King Sanos and who soon after would go to visit a mental health facility for a while. I had to go through another class in eighth grade, though the pastor, a brush cut ex-military chaplain who wished he was still helping our boys kill gooks, accused me of cheating when I answered a question right, so we must have used the same book before. No, sir, I did the fundamentals the first time rather than having multiple choice tests.
Miss Glidden soon showed herself. She snapped her fingers a few times, expecting us to understand.
“This, this,” she cried, snapping her fingers again. “This is the sound of one hand clapping!”
I may have been only thirteen, but I knew she had missed the point.
Ever since then, and probably before, I loved taking some idea and thinking about it. I suppose some would call it meditation, but for a compulsively pensive person, meditation is different than clearing your mind. For me, it’s always more of a fight, an active struggle to take a quote, an epigram, a concept, an idea and apply that all around.
People who like clear desks and empty in-boxes have always confused me. Shouldn’t you always have piled of interesting ideas hanging around where you might find a use for them, a new way to connect or explore?
I was recently talking to a young shaman about developing her tool kit, about finding the modes and modalities that work for her to do the work of deconstructing and reconstructing ideas and situations. How can she bring power to the world, the power of analysis to take things down, and the power of synthesis to build them back up again? What are the word, images, objects, rituals, processes, techniques, that can let her help her actualize authentically, let her help others integrate and transcend?
If you look at my blog posts, I’m sure that you can see how I use ideas as Kōans to start and inform understanding. They start essays because they start thinking because they start doubt.
To me, Kōans are the tiny crackers that help pry open my vision, helping me go from emotion to understanding what is going on inside of me.
Creating great doubt? For a liminal person who lives inside the questions and not the answers, that’s just cool.