During a chat with a friend of mine at a bar, I was talking about an experience I had with koans, to serve as a tangential explanation to a poem I liked. The poem was
Inside the koan clear mind
gashes the great darkness.
penned by a renegade Zen priest called Ikkyu. To back up my story to get there, I first had to explain what a koan was.
For those who don't know, a koan is a verbal device constructed by a Zen teacher for the purpose of opening up an awareness of a certain matter to a student. "What is the sound of one hand (clapping)" is probably the most famous one. Because what is grasped in a koan is a matter, and not an understanding, there's no way to shuffle words any further to incrementally bring a student any closer to a realization. One "gets" the matter being referred to, or doesn't.
My friend then mentions that he's heard of koans before, and that he came across a few in a book he was reading. He paraphrased this one, which I'll quote it verbatim from my source
Case 21 Unmon's "Kanshiketsu"
A monk asked Unmon, "What is Buddha?"
Unmon replied, "Kanshiketsu!" (A dry shit-stick.)
Now my friend thought this was hilarious. "What the fuck is a shit-stick?" he kept saying in between bouts of laughter. I didn't join in with him, as I still had my point about Ikkyu to get around to while he makes fun of a religion. In fact, we never did get back to Ikkyu.
But since then, koans and I have taken a turn. While at the time I thought I knew something about koans, in truth, I was a rank beginner. Later on I looked more seriously at this koan, and steeped in Buddhist philosophy at that point, I cited some result from "Emptiness Theory" as I like to call it, and was satisfied with that answer. Piffle.
I've learned to be a lot more discerning about koans, because there's nothing abstract about them at all. But even since knowing better, I never gave this koan much thought, until a joke I was making to myself this morning used the koan as a point, and then it neatly snapped open, almost as if everything was labelled inside.
Take for instance, the matter of a "turning word".
You may vaguely grasp the essence of a koan, but if your understanding pivots on just one specific thing, such as a particularly elucidating word, you know you've really gotten the point. Not all koans that I've felt resolve have involved one of these so-called "turning words", to the point where I was concerned that I didn't really understand what a turning word is.
But it's such a useful word to invent and use, because if I had to point to any one part of the koan where the interest revolves for me, like the end of pointed stick twisting in a dry log to create sparks for fire, it would be the exclamation point. At the very end. "A shit-stick!" - !
Unmon's voice is duly exasperated.
The way I want to explain my insight to my friend the next time I chat with him is by remixing the koan, and giving it back to him like this -
Monk: What is Jesus Christ?
Archbishop of Canterbury: A shit-stick!
Now you should be leaping and kicking towards the kind of thinking that gets you started; it's a straight road from that agitation to the point itself, if you continue to reflect on it. Mumon, the compiler of the collection of koans from which this one comes, remarks in a commentary to this koan,
"Unmon hurriedly took up shit-sticks to support the Way. The decline of Buddhism was thus foreshadowed."
Observing that no Archibishop of Canterbury could answer a monk like the above, someone who understands the koan could also remark that the decline of Christianity already happened.
People that would call themselves Christians (and other interested parties) - don't stop changing your life until you grasp the timeless reasonableness of an utterance like this. Truth in all its beauty and usefulness awaits you.