If the now ubiquitous practice of “mindfulness” is essentially a kind of corporatised variant of Buddhism-lite, you could see Japanese Zen as its full fat (and, less bland) antecedent. Practiced in Japan from the seventh century to the present day, and taught to succeeding generations via one-on-one mentorship, Zen is a form of practical spirituality with extended meditation, or zazen at its core.
Though it’s been present in some form or other in the West since the 19th century, and, since then, exerted a considerable influence on everything from Beat poetry to conceptual art – Messrs Jack Kerouac, John Cage and Allen Ginsberg were all fans – many of Zen’s teachings have been simplified, or obfuscated or lost in translation on their way across the Pacific. The journey from Zen to mindfulness is particularly good case study. Where mindfulness encourages self-awareness, Zen asks its practitioners to consider selfhood as part of the continuum of mundane reality. Where mindfulness focuses on compassion, Zen expects a stance of absolute relativity. And where mindfulness is presented as a quick fix, a cure, a solution, Japanese Zen requires that its novices to answer a compendium of un-answerable questions, or koans, before they can be considered to have achieved understanding.
Newly reissued this month by the ever-reliable New York Review Of Books, Mr Yoel Hoffmann’s The Sound Of The One Hand: 281 Zen Koans With Answers is a 1975 translation of an early 20th-century text that collects key koans traditionally used for Zen training in Japan. These koans were designed to be verbally transmitted from master to pupil, as part of an ongoing – and private – meditative practice (hence the fury of the Zen community when the title was originally published) and offer a fascinating insight into the philosophy of Zen, which relies on such practices, as opposed to a set of fixed scriptures or doctrines. Read now, against a backdrop of meditating CEOs, grinning wellness practitioners and digital media’s crushing onslaught of inspirational and self-actualising messages, these inscrutable riddles, carefully constructed to trap the student in misunderstanding, feel wonderfully rigorous, clear-sighted and illuminating.
Koans are posed in the form of questions with a contradiction, trap or mystery at their heart. “A flower in bloom – what does it mean?”; “Has a newborn baby the sixth sense?”. The most important of them all, of course, is the koan on the Sound of the One Hand, in which the master asks “In clapping two hands a sound is heard; what is the sound of one hand?”. This not only provides the title of the book, but opens it, being the first koan a Zen student will be called upon to answer in the course of their training. “The pupil is usually expected to ‘contemplate’ his first koan for a long time,” writes Mr Hoffmann in the accompanying notes. “It may take him up to three years to reach the answer. In the meantime, the master rejects all answers that do not correspond to the answer.”
“Where mindfulness focuses on compassion, Zen expects a stance of absolute relativity”
Of course, we won’t spoil the fun by revealing what that answer is – let it suffice to say that it, and the discourse that follows, requires the student to understand the concepts of existence and nothingness, and be able to see themselves as something that is both a singular creation and a continuous part of nature. Other koans in the book come with surprising, ingenious, and even humorous answers – because Zen encourages contradictions and allows for the unknowable, often the best response is an illogical, or irrelevant, or simplistic one. Other times, the student is encouraged towards the bathetic, to acknowledge the supremacy of the mundane, that is, the undeniable physical reality we live in, despite our metaphysical aspirations. (The answer to the koan “Where will you go after death” is “Excuse me, I have to go to the toilet”.) Ignorance or naivety is punished, and this goes both ways – when the master asks a trap question that is patently stupid, the student is expected to slap him.
The 281 Zen koans here, in three distinct sections, cover the different stages of a Zen student’s training, ranging from the relatively simple (How high is the sky?) to the obscure and poetic “What is the sword that can cut a hair blown against its blade?” All of the questions and answers are fully explained – as much as they can be – by Mr Hoffmann’s exhaustive endmatter, which comprises a good third of the book. The accumulated experience of reading them is tough, but rewarding, suggesting as it does a richer way of experiencing the world than, as is so so often encouraged by life coaches and their ilk, merely through the lens of our own selves, our goals, our needs. The question and answer format encourages the reader not only to arrive at their own conclusions, but also to think deeply. And that is never a bad thing.