Psychologically speaking, koans are a unique way to inoculate a human mind to the anxiety of uncertainty. When we encounter uncertainty, we are stumped. Uncertainty frustrates us with its enigmatic nonsense. Koans, in their unanswerable quality, effectively simulate such moments of uncertainty. Author Hee-Jin Kim explains: the koans are “realized, not solved” (1975, 101).
Admittedly, this explanation is a bit of a puzzle itself. But here’s how I make sense of it. A koan, once again, is an unanswerable puzzle. If we take it on, we begin banging our head against the wall of the unknown. At some point, we realize that there is no solution, and we settle into a don’t-know mind. This realization, of course, comes up pretty early in the koan work. And it serves as the true beginning, not the end of the process.
Knowing in advance that you are working with an unanswerable question, you accept your limitations. No longer trying to know the unknowable, you calmly remain with the question in a state of not knowing. Knowingly, you keep chasing the tail of not knowing in a process that, I believe, very much parallels the day-to-day mystery of life. Thus, the potential therapeutic value of koan work as a kind of one-question-therapy that can help soothe the perfectionistic thirst for answers.
Here are a few of the koans [from the Present Perfect book] that I developed to challenge perfectionistic thinking for my clients and my readers:
What shall you do with these self-help koans? Here’s some Buddhist guidance on answering questions:
“There are […] four ways of answering questions. Which four? There are questions that should be answered categorically [straightforwardly yes, no, this, that]. There are questions that should be answered with an analytical (qualified) answer [defining or redefining the terms]. There are questions that should be answered with a counter-question. There are questions that should be put aside.” (Buddha)
As a I see it, a koan is a kind of question that you mull over at length and then you put it aside.
I’ll be sharing a few more of these koans in a follow-up post.
[Excerpt from Present Perfect]
[Reference: Panha Sutta, as translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu]
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Last reviewed: 9 Jul 2011