Griff Foulk - Sarah Lawrence College
Kôans (kongan) are often described as nonsensical or paradoxical questions, posed by Chan/Zen masters to their students, that are designed to confound the discursive intellect and trigger an awakening to an ineffable state beyond the reach of all dualistic thinking. Most Kôans, however, do not take the form of questions. They are, rather, ostensibly
verbatim records of dialogues between ancient Chan patriarchs and their disciples, which came to be held up as customary topics of discussion in the contexts of public debate in a lecture hall and individual consultation in an abbot’s private quarters. Historically, Kôans were “raised” both by students and by teachers in order to test each other’s understanding. What was called for in response was not an answer or solution, as if a question or riddle had been posed, but rather a comment that demonstrated one’s insight into the meaning of the original dialogue or “root case.”
It is true that the dialogues selected for use as Kôans or “test cases” are often perplexing to the uninitiated, but I categorically reject the notion that they are (in principle) nonsensical, illogical, or beyond the grasp of the intellect. What they represent, for the most part, are basic doctrines of Indian Mahayana philosophy, couched in a quasi-colloquial, highly metaphorical mode of rhetoric that was developed by the Chan tradition in China. Anyone who knows the underlying Buddhist philosophical principles and has grasped the rules of the Chan language game can see that most Kôans (with the exception of badly written ones) make perfect sense. In any case, to comment effectively and properly on a Kôans, one must hazard a meaningful interpretation of it and couch that interpretation in the mode of pithy, indirect speech that linguistic convention calls for in the Chan/Zen tradition. To merely babble some random nonsense in response is not profound, it is profoundly stupid.