Monday, June 21

Ice Cream Koans And Enlightenment

After by-now-70-plus years of reflecting and meditating – at times even agonizing – about the issue, I have come to the conclusion in my “twilight years” that the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of the time we spend in religious observance / activity consists of an at-times-frantic, gut-busting effort to go where we already are. In fact, an effort to go, not only where we already are, but to go where we cannot not be, simply because there is nowhere – and no-when – else to be. We spin our wheels like a car mired in quicksand. At least, that is where I spent most of the last 55 years or so as a religious believer. Do I, like the Delphic oracle, make myself sufficiently obscure? If so, please allow me to clarify.

If that first sentence of the first paragraph sounds nihilistic … well … I suppose in a way, it is. But not really. For I have also found that, spiritually, life is a great koan, i.e., one protracted effort to exhaust ourselves solving an unsolvable Problem, and, having exhausted ourselves, to thereby shove the Problem itself out of the way, invite the Problem to do something biologically impossible for a bisexual species, and thereby just – dammit all! -- live. (Perhaps a more contemporary analogy would be the Kobayashi Maru problem Cadet James T. Kirk solved as an eminently studly student at Starfleet Academy by changing the rules of the game.) Or you could think of a koan as a method the Dairy Queen Company uses to make frozen dairy products to sell to the public … you know … ice-cream koans. Or not. (Put the pitchforks and torches down. I promise to serious up.) A koan, as Keats said of a Grecian urn, "dost tease us out of thought as doth Eternity." (And if you ask me "What does a Grecian earn," I will reply "About 26 euros an hour" ... Oops! Saw-reee!) Anyway, consider …

Where could you be other than where you are right now? “Any number of places,” you say. Granted, but saying that requires projecting yourself into the future – which, by definition, does not exist. What I asked was Where could you be other than where you are right now. When you pose the question that way, it should be instantly obvious that the answer is Nowhere. You cannot be – none of us can be – anywhere other than at that vanishingly evanescent instant we choose to call The Here-And-Now. Furthermore, not only does the Future not exist … neither does the Present … neither does The Here-and-Now. All time is an abstraction – granted, a necessary abstraction for carrying on our human affairs, but an abstraction, nonetheless.

So … if I may phrase this in theistic terms … when is God going to save us? In some non-existent Future? In some non-existent Present? In some ever-receding, and no less abstract, Past? When? In addressing these questions, we are immediately confronted with the limitations of time-bound language. But postmodern literary critics have a very suggestive locution for talking around such limitations – especially the deconstructionists. They use the expression “always already”. If God is going to save us – you, me, others – God is “always already” saving / has saved / will save us. As Boethius convincingly argues in The Consolations of Philosophy, God exists in an Eternal Present, an Eternal Now – and even terms like “Present” and “Now” are instantly misleading. God, argues Boethius, does not do things serially, “just one damn thing after another” – in that sense, God does not “do” anything at all, because “do” tacitly implies temporal sequence and causality -- but rather all of God’s acts are “always already” present. So salvation is a fait accompli in the most radically possible sense:  in process, already accomplished, ever being accomplished.

In the Buddhist understanding – at least in my understanding of the dharma – enlightenment / satori / kensho is being / has already been / will ever be attained. To me – speaking only for myself – the Jewel in the Lotus of the dharma is that we are, all of us, “always already” enlightened. If we experience enlightenment as a discrete bo-tree moment, it is because we are bound by social convention, in particular, the social convention technically known as “language,” to thinking in terms of temporal succession:  enlightenment consists of realizing that we are “always already” enlightened.

In a very real sense, there is nothing to do. So why do we bother doing religious stuff at all? Ah Grasshopper! Grasshopper wants to know the reason for all this at-times-frenetic religious activity. Very good, Grasshopper! The following is the answer of “Sensei Jim”. His answer, though perhaps no one else’s.

William Blake

Perhaps the best way to approach this question is through, neither orthodox Christianity nor through Buddhism, but through the poetry of William Blake. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake’s own extravagantly heterodox and Romantic version of Christianity, Blake said “If a fool persists in his folly, he becomes wise.” So the short answer to the question of “Why bother doing all this religious stuff” is to say, returning to the nature of the koan, we need, each of us needs, a “therapeutic folly” to persist in, in order that we may exhaust ourselves, transcend the folly … and in the process transcend ourselves. With some, this therapeutic folly may be “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”. With others, the therapeutic folly may be “What is God’s will / vocation for my life?” Which therapeutic folly you choose will depend, probably be determined by, your current religious tradition. But all therapeutic follies have this in common:  they are all futile, they are all un-answer-able, and they all exhaust the person attempting to solve them to the point that she says “Ah t’hell with it” … whereupon she simply walks away and goes about the business of living. A sense of this is caught by the Ten Ox-Herding Paintings, about which I wrote in a years-ago “Skeptic’s Collection” column. Regardless of our religious tradition, we are, all of us, in the same position as that frustrated farmer who, after futilely trying to whip his ox into obedience, simply rode the ox back home.

Or, an alternative understanding is afforded us by Blaise Pascal, who, in that magnificent collection of fragments known as the Pensees, quotes God:  “Be of good cheer! Thou wouldst not seek Me if thou hadst not found Me.” In fact, Pascal’s famous “Fire” memorial, found sewn into the lining of his jacket after his death, is a superlative example of a koan in action. After an extended time of depression, despair, and struggle, Pascal experienced his illumination and wrote: 

Blaise Pascal

The year of grace 1654,

Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr,
and others in the martyrology.
Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,


GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God,
and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.
May I not forget your words. Amen.

Ox-Herding Painting

So, in a certain sense, religious observance and categories of thinking (like "calling," "vocation," "pleasing God," etc.) are examples of what Stanley Fish, in the context of literary criticism, calls "self-consuming artifacts": modes of thought and belief that exist precisely to be exhausted, overcome, and transcended, rather like an eggshell to a newly hatched baby chick. Once their purpose has been realized, they can be left behind, as necessary but obsolete stages of growth, or they can be returned to in what Paul Ricoeur calls a "second naivete". The dharma teaches that there are people who, despite having achieved enlightenment and therefore being able to escape the wheel of successive reincarnations, nevertheless freely choose to be reincarnated in order to help others along the Way. They are called bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas undertake a second naivete.

Now, without, in any sense, claiming to have equal stature with the great Blaise Pascal, I can say that the following is my own "Fire!" experience ...

There was a time in my life when I aspired to teach – and, for a time, actually did teach – sacramental theology, liturgical theology, Church history, biblical exegesis, the Nicene Creed, etc., etc., etc. At the time, I was engaged in running on the endlessly frustrating treadmill of trying to "discern my vocation" -- I talked and thought in those terms back then -- and teaching was my latest stab-in-the-dark attempt to pursue the endlessly receding vocational rainbow. As it turned out, teaching was my koan -- my personal insoluble problem. But by now, along toward the end of my life, I realize that I actually have very little to teach: not quite nothing, but very little. Things like teaching, vocation, "calling," etc., turned out to be, for me, what Buddhists sometimes call "attachments": futile attempts to arrest the endless flux of reality by frantically trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. Like the farmer trying to drive the ox ... where the ox was heading, anyway. In other words, per the first Great Noble Truth, samsara: suffering.

What little I do have to teach, in fact, I can summarize in a brief story. Once a young Buddhist novice priest stood before his sensei, who asked him “What must I do to attain enlightenment?” The novice began to reply with a description of various meditation techniques. But the teacher cut him off:  “Very bad answer! Go away! Come back next week!” The following week, the young novice stood before his teacher, who asked him “What must I do to attain enlightenment?” The young man replied with a biography of Gautama Siddhartha, but was again cut off:  “Very bad answer! Go away! Come back next week!” This went on for several more weeks. Finally, one day the young novice stood before the teacher: “What must I do to attain enlightenment?” This time, the young man says not a word, and instead goes outside, chops wood, draws water, builds a fire, brews tea, and carries the teapot into his teacher’s hut, where he and his teacher sit in silence and drink tea. A smile illumines the teacher’s face, and he replies “Excellent! Excellent!”

My koan, after several decades, has led me to this conclusion:  Chop wood, make fire, carry water, make tea, share tea.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

DQ logo … Mike Mozart … CC BY 2.0
One hand clapping … Simon James … CC BY-SA 2.0
Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Philips, 1807 … Books18 … CC BY-SA 2.0
Portrait of Blaise Pascal … Versailles Palace … Public domain
Ox herding painting … Museum of Shokoku=ji Temple, Japan … Public domain
"Consolations of Philosophy" … Glasgow University Library … Public domain
Sky … … Public domain

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