Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Koans Are Not About Santa Claus

This essay is a reply to a talk titled “Dogen’s Use of Koans” by Griffith Foulk given on November 12, 2011, at the Bringing Dōgen Down to Earth conference held at FIU Miami.  The audio of the talk is available at Ancient Dragon Zen Gate, Audio #124, http://audio.ancientdragon.org/20111112DT_ADZG_dogen2_griffith_foulk_koans.mp3 -

Though I am critical of Foulk’s perspective on koans that is presented in this talk, I do very much appreciate his willingness to present his views and make them available to the public like this.  The Dharma neither increases nor decreases, but discussions of the Buddha Dharma like this help to increase people’s awareness and realization of the Dharma.

Griffith Foulk is an academic scholar and my criticism of his approach to koans is centered on his academic orientation on “understanding” koans, as if that is what koans are about.  Zen koans are not created by scholars, not used by academics, not appreciated by pundits, and not realized by professors; they are created, used, appreciated and realized by Zen practitioners.  This fundamental distinction is lost in talks by academics who tell their audience as Foulk does that after a brief academic presentation “You will understand koans.”  The core error with this type of “understanding” is that it applies an inert doctrine as an overlay to a living koan and then claims to have established “understanding” thereby.  This is like saying you understand a dog because you know the name of its breed and the major anatomical features of the species.  This kind of understanding is so limited that it in no way approaches real understanding of this particular living dog. Likewise, Foulk in no way has approached real understanding of the particular living koans.

Foulk’s talk is titled “Dogen’s Use of Koans” and he attempts to bring Dogen’s use of koans down to earth by presenting a key to understanding all koans through the use of two primary doctrines of Madhyamaka analysis, that is, the doctrines of emptiness and the two truths.  Most of the talk describes his method of understanding koans as metaphors used in the context of teaching emptiness. 

Foulk begins by alluding to the fact that there is a common misunderstanding that portrays Dogen as not using koans. Foulk is quite correct that this view is erroneous and that Dogen did indeed use koans frequently in his writings and talks as a central teaching device and that Dogen even compiled a collection of 300 koans.  It is most unfortunate that in the first half of the 20th century a legend arose within the Soto branch of Zen that Dogen was opposed somehow to koans.  It is amazing to consider how this legend grew independently of Dogen’s actual writings in which any plain reading must clearly observe Dogen’s abundant appreciation and use of koans.

In asking “What are koans?” Foulk also points out correctly that koans are not riddles as the term is commonly used and as koans are often misunderstood to be.  But then he refers to a koan and says, “When I’m done in ten minutes you’ll understand it,” which no one who seriously knows koans would ever say even in jest.  That a koan is not a riddle, i.e., a problem to be solved or guessed, doesn’t mean the opposite, that it is a locked box that can be opened simply by applying the doctrine of emptiness as a skeleton key to understand every koan.  .    

Foulk points out that because koans use striking imagery or irreverent non sequiturs that they are often thought of by some scholars as nonsensical statements intended to stop the workings of the intellect or to cut off discursive or dualistic thinking.  He dismisses this view as “totally idiotic,” because koans would not be around for over a thousand years if they were nonsensical.  But then he throws the baby out with the bath water and leaves aside the basic working of the koan: that even though the koan is not “nonsensical,” there is in fact a strong component to all koans that is intended to cut off dualistic thinking.  This is the soteriological “understanding” of koans whose purpose is to act as the ferry to cross over the ocean of afflictions by turning awareness around to its own source. This function of “turning the light around” is called in Sanskrit paravrtti and will be discussed further below.

On the question of the translation of the word “koan,’ Foulk says “The term ‘koan’ is often translated as ‘public case,’ but that also is not correct.” However, it is Foulk who is incorrect on this point.  The word koan as it has come into English is from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word gongan composed of two characters gong (J. ko) and an (J. an). Foulk wants to make much out of the fact that gong means “public official, a magistrate or a judge” but he is just plain wrong when he says it doesn’t also mean “public” without the “official.” Chinese characters do not change form as English does when a noun is made plural, turned into a verb, or made into an adjective. So the term gong means both “public” and “public official” and the term gongan or koan means, depending on usage, either “public case” or “case of a public official.”  In the current usage within Zen practice, it makes much more sense to use just “public case” as the koan has become public and none of the players in koan are actually “public officials, magistrates, or judges” even though, as Foulk points out, they can be metaphorically imagined to be acting judicially.   This little detour into translation points just appears to be an attempt at scholarly one-upmanship. 

Next, Foulk presents some of the traditional contexts for koan use. He points out that in public meetings, a monk may come forward and ask about a koan or a teacher may raise a case on their own to comment on as part of their teaching.  Also a student may bring a koan into a private interview with the master.  However, at this point Foulk leaves out the most important aspect of current koan use in Zen practice today in those Zen schools that use koan inquiry, which is that in the private interview setting the teacher will raise a koan and present it to the student to measure or check the student’s realization.  This is the hub of all koan use, and Foulk’s omission or lacuna on this point says much about how he misperceives koans.

 The central point being made is the following: “Koans are not nonsensical. This is the point I want to stress. There is a standpoint from which they make sense and they’re perfectly logical. They do involve a lot of word play, punning, joking, metaphorical flights of fancy, but all of those are grounded in an understanding of the point being made.”   He concludes this analysis saying that “The meaning of any koan can be explained in logical philosophical language, but that’s not the rules of the game. The rules of the rhetorical game of commenting on them call for a rhetorical response in kind.” 

First, there are many different kinds of “understanding” and “logic” and Foulk seems to ignore that every understanding is based on its particular standpoint.  So koans may be “understood” from the standpoints of history, sociology, psychology, phenomenology, ontology, soteriology, etc., and even from a standpoint of Madhyamaka Buddology, but so what?  Of course there is a logical standpoint that can be overlaid onto koans to make them appear “perfectly logical” but does that really have anything to do with the function of koans or just with the analytical measuring tool that results in what is labeled as “understanding”?  

Koans are not “rhetorical games” and to call them such is to malign them just as much as one does by calling them “riddles.”  Why Foulk acknowledges that koans are not “riddles” but then calls them by the equally erroneous term “rhetorical games” is expressive of his scholarly approach in which nothing about koans is really understood, but the gamesmanship of the academy is front and center.  What Foulk misses is that the “logical philosophical language” that he uses to “understand” koans is after the fact of the koan itself and is merely a case of putting the cart before the horse.  Koans are about the horse, or the ox to use the more Buddhist associated animal, that is pulling the cart and not about the cart.  And focusing on the ox rather than the cart is not merely a rhetorical game; rather it is the essence of Zen itself and the factor that distinguishes Zen from all other forms of Buddhism that focus on the carts.  And it is the factor that Foulk has completely missed in this presentation.

Foulk would have people believe that koans are making points of Buddhist doctrine to be understood. This is wrong, but it is a nuanced error.  In its fundamental aspect, the koan represents a nexus or nodal point of awakening or potential for awakening.  Buddhism is about awakening and Buddhist doctrine when rightly understood is about the various paths to awakening. Therefore koans may be analyzed in terms of Buddhist doctrine because it is the function of Buddhist doctrine to analyze life in terms of awakening and koans are both about awakening and life.  But that analysis does not mean that the koan is understood, it only means that the doctrine applied to the koan is understood. There is a big difference between these two aspects. 

In other words, every koan has within it a presentation of some Buddha Dharma. Why? Because Buddha Dharma is about life and Buddha Dharma can be related to every aspect of life and koans represent life and thus also represent the Buddha Dharma of the life represented in the koan. 

I like the analysis that every koan can be understood through the multidimensional prism of the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  That is, every koan has a Buddha aspect, a Dharma aspect, and a Sangha aspect.  Foulk primarily focuses on the Dharma aspect and mostly ignores the Buddha aspect.  But more importantly, Foulk only focuses on one Dharma aspect, that of the Madhyamaka analysis of Emptiness and the Two Truths.  This is nothing other than a Buddhist version of philosophical reductionism.   

So how does this work for Foulk?  He compares Dogen’s use of koans with the Linji lineage Zen master Dahui Zonggao (大慧宗杲) (1089–1163), the most well known koan master of the time, as advocating focusing on the koan and “go into trance” to have a breakthrough experience.  The crassness of the term “trance” in this context is only understandable when one recognizes that Foulk has a pejorative view of koan practice calling it by the derogatory term “kanna zen.” He says Dogen did not advocate using koans as a device in mediation for a single moment of awakening and instead used koans in his teaching so that over a long period of time one would get a different point of view that could be called awakening.  Of course this ignores the fact that in his own life Dogen did indeed have a single moment of awakening, but whether it is Foulk or Dogen who is ignoring that Dogen had his own all important single moment of awakening is something to be left to another discussion.

Then Foulk takes up Dahui’s favorite koan and perhaps the most famous koan in the West, “Zhaozhou’s Dog.”  He relates the koan like this:

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Even in a dog, is there Buddha nature or not?” 
And Zhaozhou said “Wu” (or in Japanese “Mu”).

Foulk explains that saying “Wu” means “there is none,” so that Zhaozhou is saying the dog does not have Buddha nature which files in the face of standard Buddhist teachings that all beings have Buddha nature.  Foulk then says it can be explained like this: “To ask if a dog has Buddha nature is just like asking, ‘Does Santa Claus have a red suit?’”

From here, Foulk goes wrong.  He says that everyone knows Santa Claus has a red suit just like all Buddhists know a dog has Buddha nature, but that everyone knows that Santa Claus does not exist and so the red suit also does not exist, just like Buddhists know that a dog does not exist so the Buddha nature of the dog also does not exist. It seems to make no difference to Foulk that the non-existence of Santa Clause is a different order of non-existence from the non-existence of either the dog or Buddha nature. By ignoring this distinction between the two kinds of non-existence, Foulk is ignoring an important distinction of Buddha Dharma. 

When he says Santa Claus doesn’t exist in an ultimate sense, he is relying on Madhyamaka analysis and its two primary doctrines of Emptiness and the Two Truths.  He says that the doctrine of Emptiness is that there is no subjective being and no objective thing (dharma) as both are mere empty categories, and the doctrine of the Two Truths is that there is the conventional truth that beings and things exist and the ultimate truth that in its Emptiness no being or thing exists. Foulk then goes on to say “Emptiness makes all language defective.” 

The limitations of this flawed dualistic analysis of the Two Truths are what led to the Yogacara analysis of the Three Natures or Three Truths.  In this analysis, there is a significant difference between an actual living dog and Santa Claus.   While both the dog and Santa Clause have the constructed nature of conventional truth, that is, the constructed images of identity based on language, only the dog has the interdependent nature that can be petted, can retrieve a ball, can lick its master’s face, etc., and Santa Claus doesn’t, and only the dog has the fulfilled nature of its Buddha nature and Santa Claus doesn’t.  In other words, the dog is a living being and Santa Claus is not. It is the evidence of Foulk’s entanglement in Madhyamaka philosophical scholasticism rather than Buddhist practice that he does not recognize this living distinction between a dog and Santa Claus and instead says, “there is no such thing as Santa Claus or a dog.” 

Based on this faulty analysis, Foulk then asserts that this view of Emptiness and the Two Truths is the underpinning of all of koan literature.  He says that since all language is defective because it can only convey conventional truth and never ultimate truth, that a hit or a blow is more appropriate than even saying “Wu” because even the word “Wu” is defective as it too is language.  In this shallow analysis, Foulk makes himself appear completely ignorant about how the “hit” is used to communicate various meanings or messages, none of which are usually a message that “language is defective.”  In other words, the “hit” presumes as its context the understanding that language is limited within the field of duality and that the hit is effective to get around the usual distractions of duality, but that is the presumption for the context of the message, not the message itself. Foulk loses this point completely.

Again, Foulk takes up another famous koan, again one with Zhaozhou as the protagonist, Zhaozhou’s Cypress Tree.  Foulk calls it the “Oak Tree in the Garden,” which, by the way, reveals that he is using the Japanese sources that call the tree an oak tree rather than the Chinese sources that call the tree a cypress tree. This koan, as I translate it, goes like this:

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Like what was the intent of the ancestral founder coming from the west?”

Zhaozhou said, "The cypress tree in front of the hall.”

The “ancestral founder” is a reference to Bodhidharma who brought the Zen lineage to China in the East from India in the West. So the question translates into “What was the purpose of bringing Zen Buddhism to China?”  (Foulk unfortunately, misremembers this koan when he presents it and has it coming from Yunmen by mistake rather than Zhaozhou and he has the question as “What is Buddha?” rather than the question as above. Be that as it may, it doesn’t matter as far as Foulk’s wrong turn in understanding the koan.)

Foulk, then says, “When he is asked, ‘What is Buddha?’ how about saying ‘Santa Claus’?”  Like when he could not distinguish between the dog and Santa Claus, now Foulk is unable to distinguish between the living tree and Santa Claus.  This inability to differentiate between living breathing feeling sentient beings and myths on Foulk’s part must give us pause as this is the primary issue of the Bodhisattva path of Mahayana Buddhism.  . 

tTo Foulk “one of the tricks of koan rhetoric” is that if often uses metaphors and similes without using words like “like” or “as if” to indicate the presence of metaphor.  This is a bogus charge of the academic. No Zen practitioner worth his or her salt gets confused by such things.  Often, as the above example of the Cypress Tree shows, the word “like what” is often in the question, so there is no need for the reply to include it.  But even if the word “like” is not present there is no infirmity in the verbal exchange because it is not a rhetorical game relying on metaphor.  Foulk seems to completely misunderstand the use of metaphor in koans.  Yes the “Cypress Tree” can be seen as a metaphor, but that is only one aspect of it, and not even the main or central aspect.  More important, is the fact that the cypress tree is a living being actually present in its living appearance.  Again, this deconstructs Foulk’s “Two Truths” analysis, where all language is defective, in favor of the Zen preference for the “Buddha nature” analysis of living beings as expressions of living Suchness. 

It is at this turning point that Foulk misapprehends the point of koans.  Koans are not as Foulk states, teaching points about emptiness or the Two Truths based on the underpinning of seeing that ultimate truth is just the understanding of the limitations of language.  Koans are not about anything even remotely intellectual as that.  Koan work is within the context of recognizing that language is limited by its inherent duality, not by its inability to express ultimate truth. Koan work is about seeing through the limitations of the dualities that frame our views of reality and our lives, including the structural dualism of views such as doctrines of “the Two Truths.” 

In Foulk's view, koans are rhetorical games used for the purpose of teaching us the ultimate truth that language is defective. However, koans are not that at all. Koans are living expressions of teachers pulling out the nails and pegs of dualism that hold together our constructed realities.  Here, recognizing that language is limited is not the ultimate truth, but only the signpost that suggests we are going the wrong way in search of the ultimate truth that is our Buddha nature and own true suchness.  The point of koans is all about turning us around from grasping at externals based on our dualistic views, to turn the light of our own awareness around to see the source of awareness itself.  

This “turning around” is what I call the Buddha Treasure aspect of the koan.  The Dharma Treasure aspect is seeing how the koan relates and conveys an aspect of Buddhist teaching, and this Dharma Jewel aspect is often conveyed in metaphor as well as practical imagery and presence.  When Zhaozhou was asked what was the intent of Bodhidharma coming to China to convey the Zen lineage, his response of “The cypress tree in front of the hall,” was not a teaching about the emptiness of language like Santa Claus is empty, but about the living presence of a living tree in the living world before the hall.

In the metaphorical aspect, Zhaozhou was saying that as the tree gives shade and solace and beauty so does the practice of Zen.  He was saying, too, that this very tree and its actual location before that hall was the living realization of the purpose of Bodhidharma’s Zen lineage, not some conceptual idea as Foulk would have it about Two Truths or a fantasy that the existence and nonexistence of the cypress tree is equal to the existence and nonexistence of Santa Claus.. Zhaozhou’s response was leaping clear of that exact hot water of duality of existence and nonexistence that Dogen refers to in his essay Genjo Koan.  That which is the leaping clear of the dualistic framework of language is the Buddha aspect of complete unity and clarity that is in all koans, in both the question and response, and that is only found by the turning around that all the past Zen masters including Dogen emphasized in their practical teaching of zazen.

This turning around of paravrtti is at the heart of Dogen’s Zen just as it is at the heart of koan practice and is directly how he used koans in his literary efforts.  Everything that Dogen wrote that included koans was about confronting our own grasping at externals by affirming our dualistic frameworks and about turning around from that wrong practice.   Based on the paucity of the available records, none of us will ever know definitively how Dogen did or did not use koans in personal interviews or as meditation methods, but there are enough suggestions in his writings to confidently conclude that he used koans in both contexts of personal interviews and in meditation, at least to some degree.

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