Monday, November 2, 2009

Chop Suchness, Carry Brahman

There’s a difference between questioning the paradox of a Zen koan until your mind disappears, and answering it, or worse, mistaking the question for an answer.

For example, take the ‘chop wood and carry water’ comparison. The same occurs before enlightenment and after enlightenment, the saying goes. But to accept this as some answer involving an ordinary continuum is entirely missing the point. Yes, chopping wood and carrying water happens before and after. But there’s a world of difference, and that’s the paradox, and the point.

Then there’s the Zen triplet made popular in the Sixties by Donovan: “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” It’s similar to the previous wood and water, except it presents the fulcrum in the middle, the mystical point of the absolute truth.

Not to travel too far off course, but Prabhavananda speaks to three ways that the Upanishads approach the concept of Brahman, what he calls three “spontaneous records of mystical experience.”

In the first, Brahman is presented as something almost separate from the world. It’s the unmanifest presence behind the manifested universe. It’s the duality of body and soul. The first mountain, objective, though in an enlightened view.

In the second, the fulcrum of our proposition at hand, there is no Brahman, just silence, that which is not seen by the eye, but that by which the eye sees. No mountain. Prabhavanada says this is the mystical union with the truth, “the peak of unitary consciousness,” from which one will return to...

The third, the intermediate stage. Here, one witnesses the world, but sees that it is Brahman. The Upanishads refer to figures of clay as a metaphor for the names and forms of the world. But all is the clay, all is Brahman. Shankara’s famous statement: “The world is an illusion, Brahman alone is real, Brahman is the world.” Our mountain of clay is a mountain of Brahman.

And this is the point. In the first wood or water or mountain, there is the objective reality of wood or water or mountain. But in the second wood and water and mountain, there is Suchness, there is Brahman.

There is not a continuum of the ordinary. To suggest so is either irresponsible, ignorant, or lazy, depending on where “you” are, and to "whom" you are speaking to. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

But of course, these have been a lot of words to say something that can’t be said. And that is the real point of the koan, after all.

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