Saturday, March 10, 2012

Daoist Koans

Scott Bradley

I think I have previously suggested the use of distinctively Daoist koans as a means to experiencing the Daoist world view. I'd like to offer up one here: "In Tao [Reality] there is neither high nor low."

Like all koans, the point of this simple statement is not to understand something, but to experience it. What this one points to is the utter lack of discrimination within the nature of Reality; all things are one and equal. This is a concept easy enough to intellectually discuss and affirm, but it is quite another thing to actually experience.

This is the case because we typically operate in an entirely different manner. Daoism finds a disjunction between the evolution of the dominating "discriminating mind" and the actual nature of Reality. Probably because of our individuation as self-aware beings, human beings divide the world into self and other. Once there are two, there are the myriad things, and the need to distinguish between them.

It is not that the "understanding consciousness", the Zhuangzian term for the discriminating mind, is 'wrong' — it is, after all, what Tao has wrought — but that humanity has typically chosen to dwell solely within this context, to the exclusion of a larger, more fundamental reality which is not susceptible to the encapsulation of words.

What is most fundamental to our reality cannot be grasped intellectually. The power of a koan is in its invitation to experience reality outside the box of mind.

The "understanding consciousness" is like sex; it's wonderful as part of the totality of the human experience, but can become oppressively consuming and narrowing when allowed to exclude other aspects of that totality. Daoism, in critiquing the dominance of the understanding consciousness, does not wish to denigrate it, but simply to show how that to be captive to it is to miss what is still more fundamental to our reality.

A koan is like a pebble in the mouth; one works it, turning it over and over, getting a sense of its presence. Or it is like worry-beads, or a rosary; it is a constant reminder of an alternative way of viewing the world.

What happens when one experientially realizes that there is neither high nor low? If I could tell you, I'd be a sage, but I am not. I am just an inkler; I have only inklings of these things. Yet, even an inkling can inform one's being-in-the-world. Still, here, as in all I write, I understand that I am not truly qualified to speak.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.


  1. While I don't find anything fundamentally wrong with the concepts here (In Tao there is neither high nor low"...which sounds a lot like "In Christ there is no east or west, there is no north or south"), I would want anyone who is unfamiliar with either Zen or Taoism, to know that koans do not really figure in traditional Taoist practice...they are Zen tools.

    In a way the entire Tao Te Ching might be regarded as a koan (or at least the Tao part), but I would never say contemplating a koan is a Taoist thing to do. I take a sort of purist approach to these practices and literature. And if Tao is equated with Reality, the Taoist canon has a great deal to offer about coming to an understanding of it, but we never call it a collection of koans.

    The "Daoist koan" offered is actually pretty simple if one also has comprehension of other key Taoist concepts (wuji, taiji,yin and yang, wuxing, bagua.)

  2. Ah! We! Will the mind that is not We hear when the Tao whispers?

  3. Whilst We do not discover something essentially incorrect using the ideas right here (Within Tao there's nor higher neither low"... that seems nearly the same as "In Christ there isn't any eastern or even western, there isn't any northern or even south"), I'd would like anybody who's not really acquainted with possibly Zen or even Taoism, to understand which koans don't truly determine within conventional Taoist exercise... they're Zen resources.

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