Koans, Paradox and Prayer
Do you know what a “koan” is? Here’s what the dictionary has to say…
“Koan (noun): A paradoxical anecdote or riddle that has no apparent rational solution or meaning. These anecdotes can though, be understood by the intuitive mind.”
When practicing Zen, students are given koans to ponder. They’re meant to absorb themselves in the seeming paradox of a koan via meditation and everyday life, until such time that an “alternative truth” emerges. Koans are meant to help make clear, that at times the rational mind impedes the process of understanding.
One well known koan is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Since “koans” and “paradoxes” are so related, let’s also have a look at “paradox” in the dictionary.
“Paradox (noun): A statement or proposition, that despite seemingly sound reasoning, leads to a conclusion that appears senseless or self-contradictory.”
For instance: “The slower you go, the sooner you’ll reach your destination.”
Now, let’s stretch a bit and see how the terms koan and paradox, relate to prayer.
“Prayer (noun): The act of communicating with a deity (especially as a request for help, or in adoration, contrition, or thanksgiving.)”
So far so good??
Are you wondering why I’m talking about koans, paradox and prayer in the same conversation? Here’s a story that will hopefully make the direction of my thinking clear:
Mother Teresa was a Catholic nun who gave her life to helping the sick and poor of the world. She was interviewed countless times, and once she was questioned about how she prayed.
The interviewer asked, “Mother Teresa, when you pray, what do you say to God?”
Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.”
Believing he had understood what she just said, the interviewer next asked, “Ah, then what is it God says to you when you pray?”
Mother Teresa replied, “He also doesn’t talk. He also simply listens.”
There was a long silence, with the interviewer seeming a bit confused and not knowing what to ask next.
Finally Mother Teresa broke the silence by saying, “Sorry, but if you can’t understand the meaning of what I’ve just said, I won’t be able to explain it any better.” To me, this story is a Christian koan!
In fact I think you can extract two koans from the wisdom of the Mother Teresa story.
The first koan is: “How can you offer up a prayer to your concept of a “higher power” without talking?”
The second koan is: “What does one attend to when praying, given that God doesn’t speak?”
Most every morning and evening, I take some time to communicate with my concept of “God.” I ask for help for myself and others, give thanks for my life, and acknowledge my many shortcomings and my inability to understand the true meaning of my life. In doing so I concede the inadequacy of my logical reasoning and attempt to temporarily render useless my cognitive mode of processing information, so that an “alternative reality” can emerge.
You see, for me, life is very much like a Zen koan. An absorbing paradox that has no apparent solution. In times of brief clarity I recognize that much of the time I don’t understand what is meant to happen and why, and I realize that my logical reasoning does not help me feel at peace with myself and in the world. When I pray I give my Zen koan over to God, realizing my cognitive mind on its own is not enough to fully understand and appreciate life.
From time to time,
And not directed by me
There are moments of utter stillness,
When nothing is said,
And yet everything is communicated and understood.
The blessings of life are given and received.
And all is just as it should be.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Ah, if only I did nothing more often!