Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Koans and the search for enlightenment

I have known a number of practising Buddists. Young people drawn to this Eastern philosophy, I hesitate to call what they were seeking religion, were especially common in Berkeley in the late '60s.

One goal they all shared was a search for enlightenment. One thing I never heard anyone talk at length about was reincarnation.

Last night, at a friend's home, we somehow got into a discussion of religion. My friend said he would never consider Buddhism as he could not get past the belief in reincarnation. I told him how I had had some interest in Buddhism but never got passed the koans. Koans are short, sometimes confusing, stories told by Masters to encourage thinking, to awaken new ways of approaching the problems of life. They are a powerful tool used by Masters to instruct students in the value of creative thinking, of intuitive reasoning, and to move them towards enlightenment.

For me, all this brought to mind the following koan:

A certain monk lived for one thing and one thing only: enlightenment. He worked day and night, endlessly, to reach the fully awakened state. But, his frequent, intense bouts of meditation instead of bringing him closer to his goal appeared to be playing havoc with both his mind and his body. Suffering mentally and physically he sought the guidance of the Master.

The Master taught the monk the theory of reincarnation. He patiently explained that this present life would be followed by many more. If he lived a life sotted by spirtuality, this would be carried over into the next. The Master advised him to ease up, to step back and find the natural order of life. When he was not overstressed by arduous mediation, when he was not trying to drive himself  forcefully forward, he would find enlightenment. Only by looking away could he hope to see.

The monk followed his Master's instructions and rapidly made great spiritual progress. He let go of his obsessive push for enlightenment and stopped focusing on the future and instead dwelt on the moment and enjoying the present. His mental and physical health improved greatly and the monk was very happy with his progress. He was so happy that he shared his Master's teachings with his friend Toto, a man, although also interested in enlightenment, had a much different temperament than the monk. The friend set off to visit the Master.

At the meeting Toto confessed he meditated irregularly, indulged in pleasures of the body and left his mind unchallenged. Toto talked of his friend the monk and how an understanding of reincarnation had turned his present life completely around. Toto said that he understood it was the Master's guidance that had led to the monk's improved state in both mind and body.
The Master frowned, telling Toto flatly, "There is no reincarnation. It is a lie. The greatest sin you can commit is losing focus and squandering the opportunity for enlightenment offered by this life."

The Master came down hard on Toto for his laziness and for his view that reincarnation offered all a second chance. "There is no reincarnation; You are simply lazy; You are wasting a precious life."

Jolted by the Master's words, Toto reacted immediately. He straightened himself up, abandoned his vices, gave up all his indulgent ways. His spiritual progress reached new heights with regular and intense meditation.


  1. Why does the Master want be caught in a contradiction? He knows that the first monk, who he told to reduce his obsession with enlightenment because he would be punished for it in another life, and the second monk, who he told to stop wasting the one life had, were friends. They would realize the "Master" was playing fast and loose with religious doctrine.

    He gave good advice in both cases. But why did he willingly expose himself to ridicule because of his inconsistency? He must have had a good response to this criticism. What do you think it might be?

  2. This comment touches on a matter at the heart of Zen Buddhism - the problem of contradictions. Goggle "zen buddhism contradictions consistency and inconsistency."

    This comment deserves a full blog post.