What is it with Zen proverbs really? Or even more so – Koans? Dry, cryptic, mind-bending and thought provoking up to the point of sounding perfectly nonsensical! Why do they fascinate us so much yet we love to hate them and shrug them off as some eastern-mystical hogwash? Think of the classical Koan: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Interestingly they have found their way in western pop-culture probably starting through the 50’s beat generation and then mostly seeping in with other eastern-inspired notions and ideas in the 60’s counter-culture (That time Zen started being introduced in America through a handful of masters and Gurus from the East who established schools and retreats).
We have romanticized the idea of Zen sayings and rendered them iconic in movies – stereotypically as some long-bearded old Asian sage inciting timeless words of wisdom to his now-ready student or disciple. Karate kid comes in mind since there is now on the screens the 2010 version of Karate kid with Jackie Chan – an all family fun movie which I’d probably love to watch.
Anyway, whether we have installed them as some background furniture in our western pop culture or not, the fact remains that old zen sayings,proverbs or Koans are not digested quite easily by the western mind. The famous depth-psychologist Carl Jung would have probably explained this as a deep-rooted difference between the western and eastern psyche – the western one being and extrovert and outward looking while the eastern one being more introvert and inward seeking. I think this is probably right on many counts.
Zen proverbs, but to a larger degree Koans, are in a way intended to hack the mind and puncture a hole through its veil of reality. It is meant to invoke a sudden moment of clarity and the grasping of certain inner truths (hence why it comes more easy to introverted characters). The short cryptic message is a code that like a virus is meant to shock the sytem. It is meant to be the Neo in the matrix so to speak – the code in the matrix that awakens itself and the whole system.
Zen masters usually hand down a Koan to their students for them to come up with an answer if they’re ready. The point is that a Koan cannot be cracked open by analyzing it rationally for it doesn’t make any rational sense. It is meant to bypass the student’s rational mind and keep sinking down through deeper layers of his or her subconscious where it is ‘worked upon’ in an intuitive and synthetic way rather than in an analytical way. The idea is implanted deep inside the student’s subconscious where it remains there like a key swimming inside the mind until it finds the right lock to open. Then zap! – awakening!
I find this as a curious way of looking at it but yet again it’s probably me, a western mind, trying to make sense of it by using metaphors and points of reference embedded in our own western culture. Maybe so but what the heck? In the meantime I’ll leave you to enjoy some nice (and not so cryptic) Zen proverbs in the slideshow above.