3. On Methods to the Madness of Koans: A New Theory of Interpretation

From: Zen Koans

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Koans to Live By: Issues in Creating Interpretations Despite an appearance of disarming simplicity owing to their brevity and wit, koan cases are anything but straightforward and thus are not easily defined or classified. In fact, they are deliberately mystifying and reason defying, if not necessarily irrational, and this inherently puzzling and paradoxical quality undermines and defeats superficial interpretations. Nevertheless, to formulate a theoretical framework for exploring multiple levels of significance uncovered in the rhetoric of case records, it is crucial to resist relegating Zen dialogues to the realm of the absurd. Instead, it is important to recognize that koans tell stories about enlightenment that make sense once the narrative structure reflecting diverse thematic elements is clearly discerned and described. The functions of storytelling in koans that are instructive and inspirational should be examined carefully yet critically in light of the tradition’s historical development . These spiritual factors must also be understood not only in relation to the contexts of legalism, fine arts, folklore, and art-ofwar imagery, but also with an awareness of the continuing impact of intense sectarian ideological disputes. The methods that we will use to understand koans, which are also used for other traditions in religious studies, take into account sociocultural influences on the development of Zen in order to explain what sense case narratives make so they can be comprehended in a systematic way. However, this approach may stand in contrast to a CHAPTER 3 On Methods to the Madness of Koans A New Theory of Interpretation On Methods to the Madness of Koans 71 number of recent popular readings of koans, which focus on how cases point beyond reason. Since absurdity is considered crucial to what is most intriguing and thought provoking about case records, numerous contemporary commentators highlight the nonsensical rather than the sensible side of koan discourse. In doing so, however, they may lose sight of the complex formative factors that shaped the composition of the source narratives. Some of the cynical critics of Zen refer to case records as a highly refined but, in the final analysis, disguised and duplicitous form of twisted and incomprehensible oratory. Koans used in the modern world are said to hide in the pretense of replicating an archaic and essentially irrelevant doctrine. Some skeptics in the West, ranging from missionaries to cultural commentators such as Arthur Koestler, who claimed that Eastern meditation turned humans into robots, have attacked koan literature for constituting nothing more than nonsensical utterances or a relentless kind of mumbo-jumbo or fanciful gobbledygook that is designed to befuddle and obfuscate, and do no more. The Zen koan seems like some oddity extracted from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or a Gilbert and Sullivan libretto , whose only sense lies in making nonsense or conveying a random quality in which “no” means “yes” or a tree is more (or perhaps less) than a tree. This distrustful attitude is powerfully expressed in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), a famous Japanese novel published in the late 1950s by renowned author Yukio Mishima. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is based on a real incident in which a disabled young acolyte burned down a famous medieval monastery in Kyoto during the American occupation of Japan. The temple had once been the moon-viewing pavilion for a shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who repented at the end of his life in 1408 and donated the facility to the Zen sect. Note that in the picture of the temple, its reflection in the pond below can look as real as the actual building. Made of wood construction with gold plating, rare for a Buddhist monastery in Japan, the temple had been destroyed by fire during a late-fifteenthcentury civil war battle and rebuilt to appear as old as the original building. 72 zen koans According to Mishima’s account, which reflected his careful reading of the 1950 trial transcripts, a mishandling of koan rhetoric lay at the root of the trainee’s distress. Case records were deliberately interpreted in vague and indecipherable ways by the corrupt and lecherous temple abbot in order to keep his disciple at a psychological distance. Whenever a concern or crisis arose—ranging from military affairs and the possible bombing of Kyoto to the abbot’s scandalous personal behavior or the protagonist’s severe social problems as a stutterer—the high priest failed to demonstrate leadership that would have helped the troubled novice. Instead, he resorted to spouting out, and thereby shrouding himself in, mystifying...