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Thread: A modern koan

  1. #1

    Default A modern koan

    This is based on my faulty memory but was written in a book as a supposedly true event witnessed by the author. A zen master answers the phone and the caller says "I want to kill myself!". The master cheerfully responds "Good! Do it!", and hangs up.

    This presents a little bit of a stumbling block to my western way of thinking, which, of course, is what zen excels at. Western logic would try to make a judgement as to whether or not this was a good response based on the facts and the context in which it was given. Religious thought, on the other hand, hints that there is another way to perceive things that is not based on western logic. This seems to be the basis for the concept of "enlightenment" or the concept of being "born again". Do these two concepts mean the same thing?

    Was the master's response a good one?

  2. #2


    In Buddhism, enlightenment means to free oneself from delusions (and by extension, the cycles of suffering induced by the ignorance of such delusions, including the cycle of birth and death). A fully enlightened being reaches a state called Nirvana, which essentially means cessation. Rather than incarnating again as another being that will endure suffering, you "become one with the Force," to put it in Star Wars lingo for lack of better term. A good bit of Zen seems aimed at breaking habitual thought patterns so that you can look at things from a fresh perspective. As I understand, the main difference from "Western logic" is that what we call objective reality is regarded as a kind of illusion versus being an immutable basis of knowledge.

    Having been suicidally depressed in the past before... I would say that as the story was relayed here, the Zen master's response was not very wise.

  3. #3


    I have never heard of that to be honest. I'm not saying however that it would not be true, since there are many hard to understand parables of a Koan around.

    As anyway, the act of suicide, Seppuku, is an old Japanese ritual. Which is something that is very hard to understand in our western culture. Killing yourself as an act to remain your honour and that of your family intact (as also to not fall into the enemies hands) is a very unique cultural part of their history.

    What I remember however, in different variations would be basically the "three more days" narratives. So perhaps you mean one of those?

    The background usually differs a bit. Once it's about a student from the southern part of Japan trying to pass a test, while sometimes it's a monk learning from his one master. Which comes down to giving the insight that another master might not change the fact that the pupil unable to reach his goal.

    The middle and end parts are all the same. After years of studying/trying to pass the test or reaching enlightment the pupil tells his master that he cannot reach his goal. The master tells him however that he should try it some more for a certain amount of months or weeks.
    This repeats itself until the point where the Zen master says: "Meditate for three days longer, then if you fail to attain enlightenment, you had better kill yourself." -> On the second day the pupil was enlightened / the pupil ran crying to the master since he understood the meaning of the test.

    And... in short without trying to sound all too metaphorical, Zen is a very distinctive demerged part of buddhism.
    The core element regarding buddhism is partially the same. However it lacks the whole part of being released from the cycle of rebirth. It's rather taostic, with the elements of trying to do your best day in and day out for the people. Typically the point of saying that buddhism is about kindness. Much more practical in it's own way, instead of learning about different doctrines, guidelines and insights.
    Hence you can funnily describe it as "effortless salvation".
    Last edited by daLira; 25-Oct-2014 at 02:09.

  4. #4


    I think that as westerners, we often misinterpret religious texts. Many if not all the stories in the Bible were not understood in their time as fact. They represented truth, and there is a big difference. I heard a lecture last year that Joseph and Mary would never have gone to pay their taxes in Bethlehem. The people of their time understood that. The Nativity story is a great and wondrous story. Whether Jesus was born in a stable is immaterial. The greater truth is that He is the son of God, someone and something different from the rest of us.

    The ark story is another example. No one in their right mind would believe that every species of animal could be collected and put on a relatively small boat. The truth of the story is that sinful man pays for his misdoings, and the righteous are eventually rewarded.

    Should you encourage someone to commit suicide? Of course not, but I have had some enlightened moments on this concept. When I was working three jobs and taking care of my wife's health needs, I was deeply exhausted. Several times as I was driving to my evening job, I would in my mind, see and in some ways, experience the next reality, what we call heaven. I wanted to see my parents again, sit around the dinner table with my past relatives, and driving off the bridge that I crossed every night was an enticement, to not end this life, but begin the next one. These feelings would happen when I was very tired. They reveled a truth, that if we truly believe in the next life, one of eternity, why wouldn't we want to go there? There is your Buddhist logic, perhaps.

  5. #5


    This is what I was talking about when I said "my western way of thinking". We naturally try to be rational and objective when discussing issues, but spiritual issues are difficult to address this way. One way around this difficulty is to turn spiritual beliefs into dogmatic objects. This makes it possible to objectively examine issues in a spiritual light. For example, in this case we can rationalize suicide as a way to a better life, or as the way to maintain honor when honor is viewed as more important than life. We may not agree with either of these sentiments but the rationale behind them is fairly clear. In the same way we can rationally determine the correctness of the zen master's advice by seeing it either as a path to enlightenment, or as a colossal error in judgement, depending on our beliefs and experiences. We form our opinions based on the best rational and objective thinking we can muster, but are quick to admit we don't know everything and could be wrong. Therefore, we defer to the spiritual leaders, like Jesus or the zen masters, under the assumption they can rationally and objectively explain these things to us. But they never do. Instead they talk in parables, or koans, or some other mumbo-jumbo. Is that to get us to think differently?.. or to not think at all?

  6. #6


    If you're posting here, you're thinking, are you not?

    The beauty of Zen at least is it doesn't tell you what to think, it just hints at how. The Zen master speaks from a perspective of release and freedom. He's still wrong though. Maybe not logically wrong, that varies by perspective. He's wrong because my gut twists up when I try to imagine that situation happening for real. Don't ignore that instinct just because the logic can be confusing.

  7. #7


    I get the feeling that zen is aimed at an experience beyond thinking. But, there I go again... thinking about it. It's a trap.

  8. #8


    Quote Originally Posted by Drifter View Post
    I get the feeling that zen is aimed at an experience beyond thinking. But, there I go again... thinking about it. It's a trap.
    I think Zen is more about quieting the mind and fully experiencing the moment. But it's much easier said than done... so far I've found it helpful to recognize that conceptualization is just an inductive means of building heuristic models. That's basically what cognition is -- building models of how to interpret things by educated guesswork until it lines up well enough with observation that we declare it "right". To me, Buddhism suggests that "the truth" per se is beyond all concepts, that no heuristic model can capture it. So the goal is to recognize those habitual thought patterns and conceptualizations as the guesswork that they are, and try not to rely on them or take them as givens. That way, one can start to see things without looking at them through the particular lens of those ideas and tendencies. Does that make sense?

    You can't stop thinking, but you can stop becoming entrapped by your thinking. ^_^

  9. #9


    What you say makes sense, Sapphyre, and that's the problem.

    I'm just thinking out loud and not trying to be difficult. I suspect the goal is to have no goal, whatever that means. What it all boils down to is whether or not there really is something that exists outside the realm of scientific possibilities.

  10. #10


    Quote Originally Posted by Drifter View Post
    What you say makes sense, Sapphyre, and that's the problem.

    I'm just thinking out loud and not trying to be difficult. I suspect the goal is to have no goal, whatever that means. What it all boils down to is whether or not there really is something that exists outside the realm of scientific possibilities.
    I don't think you're being difficult at all; I was just hoping I was expressing myself clearly and not spewing gibberish. ^^; What do you mean by "the realm of scientific possibilities," precisely? If you mean something to which the scientific method would not apply, then I doubt any such thing could exist (but then, I'm of a scientific mindset, so I might be biased!). If you mean something beyond the currently accepted scientific model of reality, then I can practically guarantee there is "more out there," and that it will supercede what we understand now (much as modern physics has superceded Newtonian mechanics). Science is the art of testing and refining concepts / models of reality, and as such it produces extremely useful models -- but it's important to see them as models rather than truths, no matter how useful they are or how well they seem to apply.

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