What is truth? An erroneous and creative reading of Zen Kōans

- through Francois Leclercq

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In my thoughts on this article, I will examine some gongans/koans (“public cases”) to see if they have a broader meaning for us today, beyond their role as an educational device in the spiritual formation of Zen Buddhism. I believe that some can function as philosophical texts and contribute to today's debates.

Wumen Huikai (1183-1260). Taken from laphamsquarterly.org

Le koans that I would like to talk about all come from Wumenguan. The title can be translated as The door without a door, The barrier without a doorou Wumen Barrier/Gate. This text constitutes a collection of 48 koans plus a commentary and a poem, each presumably written by Wumen. Some authors, such as DT Suzuki, describe koans as riddles designed to demonstrate the limits of rational and discursive thought. These riddles are generally presented as encounter dialogues, encounters between a master and one or more disciples. They are used in spiritual training in the form of a conversation between master and disciple.

There is another way to use koans, however: they communicate some basic teachings of Zen. In some ways, such a reading contradicts their use as a tool in the spiritual pedagogy of Zen Buddhism, but I think such a reading has its own merits. And while some may argue that such a reading contradicts whatever the author's original intent was, many Zen philosophers have also recontextualized, appropriated, and, quite often, misinterpreted earlier Buddhist texts. Therefore, I follow at least the hermeneutic strategy of some Zen philosophers.

Here I would like to examine the fifth case of Wumenguan“The Man from Kyōgen (Xiangyan) in a Tree”:

Master Kyōgen said: “He'It is like a man at the top of a tree, hanging from a branch by his mouth; his hands cannot grasp a branch, his feet have won'not reach a branch. Suppose there is another man under the tree who asks him: "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma?"'does it come from the west?' If he does not answer, he is going against the wishes of the person asking the question. If he answers, he will lose his life. In such a moment, how should he react? »*

Illustration by L’Engle Charis-Carlson. Image courtesy of the author

The case presents a dilemma: the man in the tree is us. If we communicate, in this case answer the question, we fall from the tree and die. This riddle seems to evoke the Buddha's famous refusal to answer so-called metaphysical questions about the origin of the universe or the nature of the self. Interestingly, Immanuel Kant considered these questions unanswerable and called them “antinomies.” On the other hand, silence is not an option because it would violate the conventions of social interaction and the basic rules of decorum. Additionally, this is not a normal interaction. To ask a Zen Buddhist: “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the west?” is to ask, “What is the purpose of your religious belief, practice, and life?” Not answering this question renders the practitioner's practice meaningless. Yet there is no right answer: every possible answer is considered a symbolic death.

And if that wasn't enough, Wumen's comment makes the situation even more difficult:

Even if your eloquence flows like a river, it is of no use. Even if you can expose the entire body of sutras, it is of no use. If you can answer it appropriately, you will bring those who are dead back to life and those who are alive will die. If, however, you cannot do this, wait for Maitreya to come and ask him.**

The first line seems to emphasize the point I just made: words and teachings cannot express the truth. The second principle of Zen Buddhism states: “Do not trust letters and words.” The sixth case of Wumenguanalso known as "Flower Sermon», affirms the primacy of non-verbal communication over linguistic expressions. The famous novel of the Ming Dynasty Travel west also asserts that true scriptures are empty, devoid of words and teachings. This feeling is not unique to Zen. Most religious traditions have given rise to one or more forms of apophatic or negative theology, the belief that truth cannot be expressed in words and therefore must be expressed through negations.

But then there is the second sentence: “If you can answer it appropriately, you will bring back to life those who are dead and you will put to death those who are alive.” » Apparently there is a correct answer after all. How can this be reconciled with the previous statement? Despite the emphasis on nonverbal expressions and transmissions, some/many Zen thinkers emphasize "living words": words that give life or, as Wumen asserts, take it. These are words appropriate to a specific context, words beneficial at a specific time. And if all else fails, wait for the future Buddha Maitreya to teach you.

Finally, the verse adds a third layer to our thinking:

Kyōgen is really absurd,
His perversity knows no bounds;
He blocks the monk's mouth,
Transforming his entire body into the glowing eyes of a demon.

Why does Wumen claim that Zen Master Kyōgen is absurd? It was Kyōgen who posed the alternative: words or silence? Well-being and death or well-being and life? The verse claims that Kyōgen is absurd because it poses a counterfactual alternative. Is it either this or that? Are we either right or wrong? Are we for or against? Either my belief is right or yours? Is it either science or religion? All these are false alternatives as the Buddhists say. affirmation of the “two truths” (dvastaia) asserts. They arise when we view words as absolute, when we view our beliefs as absolute, when we forget that words are vehicles of communication and not absolute truth itself, and when, to quote an ancient adage, we confuse the finger that points to the moon for the moon itself.

This error of reifying sentences into beliefs has far-reaching implications: we divide communities into two camps, between “us and them.” See, for example, case 29 of the Wumenguan:

The wind was blowing a temple flag and two monks were arguing about it. One said: “The flag is moving. » The other said: “The wind is turning. » They argued, but failed to discover the truth. The Sixth Patriarch said: “It is not the wind that moves. It's not the flag that's moving. It's your mind that moves. The two monks were struck with admiration.****

Neither monk was right, neither of them was wrong. Each highlighted one aspect of reality and forgot the other. As Dōgen said: “When one aspect is highlighted, another is obscured. »***** This is how language works. Unfortunately, attachment to linguistic formulas breaks down not only discourses and conversations but also communities and, as in case 14 of Wumenguan illustrious, sometimes leading to violence.

Once, the monks of the East and West Zen Halls of Master Nansen Temple were arguing over a cat. Nansen raised the cat and said, “You monks! If one of you can say a word, I'll spare the cat. If you can't say anything, I'll put him to the sword. No one could answer, so Nansen finally killed him. »******

Words, attachment to words, as well as silence as a denial of linguistic expressions, can lead to violence. We see it every day in the news, in our communities, in our lives. Words, formulas and beliefs have become symbols of personal and community identities for which people seem ready to exclude, kill and die. The only way out of these situations seems to require taking a step back, realizing that the flag and the wind move, understanding that beliefs and values ​​only reveal ideas but not the truth, realizing that behind community identities lies our common humanity. . As Trinh Minh Ha writes in his Lovecidal: “Sometimes the mind freezes and the heart continues to fast: the name, the nation, the identity, the citizenship disappear. I used to be a human. »*******

* T 48.2005.293; Yamada 2004: 31-34.

** T 48.2005.293; Yamada 2004: 31-34.

***T 48.2005.293; Yamada 2004: 31-34.

****T 48.2005.296; Yamada 2004: 70-73.

***** DZZ 1:7.

****** T 48.2005.294; Yamada 2004, 143-47.

******* Trinh 2016, 1.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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