Eastern mysticism has developed several different ways of dealing with the paradoxical aspects of reality. Whereas they are bypassed in Hinduism through the use of mythical language, Buddhism and Taoism tend to emphasize the paradoxes rather than conceal them. The main Taoist scripture, Lao Tzu’s Tao The Te Ching, is written in an extremely puzzling, seemingly illogical style. It is full of intriguing contradictions and its compact, powerful, and extremely poetic language is meant to arrest the reader’s mind and throw it off its familiar tracks of logical reasoning.
Chinese and Japanese Buddhists have adopted this Taoist technique of communicating the mystical experience by simply exposing its paradoxical character. When the Zen master Daito saw the Emperor Godaigo, who was a student of Zen, the master said:
We were parted many thousands of kalpas ago, yet we have not been separated even for a moment. We are facing each other all day long, yet we have never met.
Zen Buddhists have a particular knack for making a virtue out of the inconsistencies arising from verbal communication, and with the koan system they have developed a unique way of transmitting their teachings completely non-verbally. Koans are carefully devised nonsensical riddles which are meant to make the student of Zen realize the limitations of logic and reasoning in the most dramatic way. The irrational wording and paradoxical content of these riddles makes it impossible to solve them by thinking. They are designed precisely to stop the thought process and thus to make the student ready for the non-verbal experience of reality. The contemporary Zen master Yasutani introduced a Western student to one of the most famous koans with the following words:
One of the best koans, because the simplest, is Mu. This is its background: A monk came to Joshu, a renowned Zen master in China hundreds of years ago, and asked: ‘Has a dog Buddha-nature or not? Joshu retorted, ‘Mu!’ Literally, the expression means ‘no’ or ‘not’, but the significance of Joshu’s answer does not lie in this. Mu is the expression of the living, functioning, dynamic Buddha-nature. What you must do is discover the spirit or essence of this Mu, not through intellectual analysis but by search into your innermost being. Then you must demonstrate before me, concretely and vividly, that you understand Mu as living truth, without recourse to conceptions, theories, or abstract explanations. Remember, you can’t understand Mu through ordinary cognition, you must grasp it directly with your whole being.
To a beginner, the Zen master will normally present either this Mu-koan or one of the following two:
‘What was your original face—the one you had before your parents gave birth to you?
‘You can make the sound of two hands clapping. Now what is the sound of one hand?
All these koans have more or less unique solutions which a competent master recognizes immediately. Once the solution is found, the koan ceases to be paradoxical and becomes a profoundly meaningful statement made from the state of consciousness which it has helped to awaken.
In the Rinzai school, the student has to solve a long series of koans, each of them dealing with a particular aspect of Zen. This is the only way this school transmits its teachings. It does not use any positive statements, but leaves it entirely to the student to grasp the truth through the koans.
Here we find a striking parallel to the paradoxical situations which confronted physicists at the beginning of atomic physics. As in Zen, the truth was hidden in paradoxes that could not be solved by logical reasoning, but had to be understood in the terms of a new awareness; the awareness of the atomic reality. The teacher here was, of course, nature, who, like the Zen masters, does not provide any statements. She just provides the riddles.
The solving of a koan demands a supreme effort of concentration and involvement from the student. In books about Zen we read that the koan grips the student’s heart and mind and creates a true mental impasse, a state of sustained tension in which the whole world becomes an enormous mass of doubt and questioning.
Source: The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra