Koans are riddles of existence, enigmatic statements that probe the depths of Buddha nature. Posed by Chinese sages with a mischievous sense of humor, they challenge the meditator to get inside the phenomenon of emptiness, to realize it for oneself and embody it. Responses to koans are often acted out in the dramatic setting of dokusan, or personal interviews with one’s teacher.
When a koan is trotted out before a nonmeditating friend, it can lead to extraordinary contortions. For example, this little charmer:
Say something without moving your lips and tongue.
Simple. But as your clever friend strains their wits to solve the dilemma, mumbling out answers or scribbling in the dirt with a finger, it’s obvious the riddle is perfectly impenetrable without logging some serious time on the meditation cushion.
Koans teach about transformation too, but not the magical kind. At least in my own experience, they teach how life and death are the same matter. Indistinguishable. And that when we realize “self-nature, self-nature that is no nature,” we go beyond “mere doctrine.”
Yet they must be penetrated first. Seen into. Experienced from within, not tinkered with from without.
The ethnobotanist and Amazonian explorer Mark Plotkin recently challenged me to write a book on Jesus as shaman. When I broached the idea to my 11 year old daughter, she protested vigorously.
“Jesus is way bigger than that!” He’s a spirit and you can’t claim he’s just one thing or another.”
And she was right. There are hundreds of “Jesuses” in contemporary culture, and if you add the many versions of Jesus that existed in the past – from the Jesus of St Francis of Assisi to the Jesus of the Inquisition — it’s justifiable to declare, as my daughter Maitreya did, any version of Jesus as glaringly incomplete, if not downright absurd.
Or worse: A crock, a holdover of an era of mystery religions that cling to us like a vestigial growth.
From the perspective of what we now know about the historical Jesus, and it’s become quite a bit, Christianity is an aberration. When the Temple fabric was rent, it was the soul of Humanity that was torn and no serious mind, able to hold the tremendity of the grief and joy of our species, can deny it.
Jesus, the healer, the wonder worker, the prophet, the lover of the people of Israel, the Messiah whose heart was broken well before his body upon a cross, was very likely a significantly different figure even from the one depicted in the Gospels, written as they were decades after Jesus’ life and by then divorced from the Jewish community of Jesus — whose family continued worshipping in the Temple, the heart of Judaism.