We’ve all heard a Zen kōan or two during our lives, including the shortened version of this one:
“Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?”
That, perhaps, is the most well-known Zen kōan there is, but there are many that are far better.
For example, this beauty:
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
This kōan offers a simple lesson reminding us that we come even to new experiences with our presumptions, expectations, and former learnings, and allow them to impede us from learning and absorbing new perspectives. This is a problem that’s been with us since at least the modern era, but probably since “civilization” started. And this is a lesson of which we need regular reminding, so that we don’t fall into that trap. (In karate, our instructor often reminds us to empty our cup at the entryway of the dojo so we can be present while we practice.)
What is a kōan?
The two Japanese characters making up “kōan” (pronounced ko-an) literally mean “public case” in Japanese. According to Zen master Zhongfeng Mingben, a kōan is a metaphor for “the principles of reality beyond the private opinion of one person.” In Zen, these little riddles, stories, and questions are used to make students think, to provoke doubt, and ‘test their progress in their studies of Zen.’
Gaians need kōans too. To test our progress of our understanding that Gaia is alive, the source of all life, and that keeping Gaia healthy therefore becomes the central defining purpose for humans. While we could borrow some relevant Zen kōans to serve in this role, the beauty of these short stories, riddles, and even one-liners is that we can easily create our own.
So here are some Gaian kōans of varying length and without commentary, though it’d be fun to discuss if there’s interest. (And please note all are works in progress!)
Moths to a Flame
Two friends are drinking a beer on their porch one summer night. Suddenly the quiet is disturbed by a continuing zapppp.
“How pathetic,” the first says as he looks toward the glowing blue light. “No wonder a quarter of all insects have died.”
The second, looking at his friend, says, “Reminds me of another species I know.”
“Master, you asked me to set up these three thousand dominoes in a pattern that celebrates Gaia. I am nearly done.” The teacher, looking at his work, taps his cane against a domino knocking them all over. The student, speechless, says nothing.
The student spends several more days making a new pattern and as he is nearing completion, the teacher comes again and knocks over his dominoes.
A third time this cycle happens. And the student says:
“Are you not pleased with my designs, master?”
The teacher responds, “If the fall is inevitable, should we not accelerate it?”
A teacher and student are walking in the woods. They reach a field just as a red-tailed hawk swoops down and snatches up a mouse, carries it to a dead tree, and starts immediately to consume it. After silently watching for a moment, the student turns to his teacher and asks,
“Master, what is the purpose of a mouse? Of a hawk? Of all life?”
Without taking his eyes from the hawk, the teacher responds. “It is to serve Gaia. Or die.”
What is Gaia?
Let me end with this.
One theme of Zen kōans is someone asking “What is Buddha?” With answers that upon first read don’t make sense. Those kōans force the reader to reflect on how the answer, such as “Three pounds of flax,” could be right. (See Kōan 12 here).
Perhaps we need to do the same? So I ask: What is Gaia?
- What is Gaia? Garlic mustard along the roadside.
- What is Gaia? A seam of coal.
- What is Gaia? A crack in the pavement.
- What is Gaia? A sea of dead Ash trees.
- What is Gaia? A seedling upon a rotted stump upon a ruined wall.
And I ask:
- Is Gaia alive? Are we?
And naturally, I leave you with this question:
- What is the sound of Gaia breathing?
As with all kōans, there are no definitive answers but I leave them for you to discuss in the comments. Or write your own!