Koans are Zen riddles that you do not solve so much as step through, as through Alice’s looking glass, into Mad Hatterish conundrums designed to stun rational sense and in its place induce wordless insight. Perfect, simply perfect, for driving a professor of philosophy insane. The most famous koan is, What is the sound of one hand clapping? (Don’t try hitting one hand in the air. Do, and you’ll hear the sound of one hand clapping – the roshi’s against the side of hour head.) My koan concerned a monk who asked Joshu (a famous master in Tang-dynasty China), ‘Does a dog have Buddha-nature?’ Joshu’s answer seemed to imply no. The conundrum: since the Buddha said that even the grass has Buddha-nature, how can a dog not have it?
Every day I came up with another ingenious answer; every day the roshi frowned and shook his head no; every day the bell would ring and I would be told to come back tomorrow. I turned the koan upside down; I pulled it inside out; I unpacked each word and repacked its meaning. Finally I thought, I’ve got it. The key word was have. A dog does not have Buddha-nature, not the way I have a shirt or an ice-cream cone. Rather Buddha-nature has, or is momentarily taking the shape of, that dog. But the roshi did not even hear out my ingenious solution. Halfway through my explanation he roared at me, ‘You have the philosopher’s disease!’ Then he softened a bit: ‘There’s nothing wrong with philosophy. I myself have a master’s degree in it from one of our better universities. Philosophy works only with reason, though, and there’s nothing wrong with reason, either. Your reasoning is fine, but your experience is limited. Enlarge your experience, and your philosophy will be different.’ Ding-a-ling-a-ling sounded the little bell – signal that the interview was over. I had my impossible assignment: to think of how to think the way I do not think.
If a koan is mentally exhausting, try it on sleep deprivation. It all but pushed me over the edge. At the end of my stay at Myoshinji there was something like a final-exam period, when the monks meditated virtually around the clock. Since I was a novice, I was permitted the sybaritic luxury of three and a half hours’ sleep a night, which was grossly insufficient. That prolonged sleep deprivation was the hardest ordeal I’ve ever endured. After the first night I was simply sleepy. By the third night I was a zombie. From then on it got worse. The koans force the rational mind to the end of its tether, and then sleep deprivation kicks in. Since you are not sleeping and hence not dreaming, you in effect dream or lapse into quasi hallucinations while you are awake, a kind of a temporary psychosis. I was in that altered state during my last days at Myoshinji.
And in that state I stormed into the roshi’s room. Self-pity had become boring; fury was the order of the day. What a way to treat human beings, I raged to myself. I wouldn’t just throw in the towel, I’d smack it across the roshi’s face. However, a certain decorum prevailed as I entered his audience room. I clasped palms together and bowed reverentially; as I approached him I touched my head to the tatami floor mat and flexed my outstretched fingers upward to symbolize lifting the dust off the Buddha’s feet. Then our eyes met in a mutual glare. For a few moments he said nothing, and then he growled, ‘How’s it going?’ It sounded like a taunt.
‘Terrible!’ I shouted.
‘You think you are going to get sick, don’t you?’ More taunting sarcasm, so I let him have it.
‘Yes, I think I’m going to get sick! Sick because of you!’ For several days my throat had begun to contract and I was having to labor to breathe.
And then, curiously, his face relaxed. His smirking expression disappeared, and with total matter-of-factness he said, ‘What is sickness? What is health? Put aside both and go forward.’
I despair of ever conveying the uncanny impact those twelve words had on me. I thought, He’s right. He is right. Sickness and health suddenly seemed beside the point of what it means to be human; compared to that more abiding reality, health and sickness were two sides of the same coin. Buddhism speaks of the ‘Great No’s,’ such as ‘no birth, no death’ and ‘no coming, no going.’ There is something within us that is not born and does not die and that comes from nowhere and goes no place. Somehow after the roshi’s few words I found myself unexpectedly in a state of total peace. I did my prescribed bow to the floor and exited the room, not only determined to complete the two remaining days but confident that I could do so. Since then I have often been sick, but off it goes to the side, and I go forward.