A Thought Regarding Koans

Over the past two years, I have been slowly and haphazardly developing a meditation practice, predominantly in the Zen tradition. The details of what I do have changed over time; currently I am working on a form of koan training. Rough details are:

The koan I am using, adapted from a translation by Katuski Sekida, records a conversation between the monk Seizei and the Zen master Sōzan:

Seizei: Seizei is utterly destitute. Will you give him support?

Sōzan: Seizei!

Seizei: Yes, sir!

Sōzan: You have finished three cups of the finest wine in China, and still you say you have not yet moistened your lips!

As it intersects with my breathing, this breaks down to:

Long breath: sei-zei-is-ut-ter-ly-des
Short breaths: ti-tute | will-you | give-him | sup-port
Long breath: sei-zei-yes-sir-you-have-fin
Short breaths: ished-three | cups-of | the-fin | est-wine
Long breath: in-Chi-na-and-still-you-say
Short breaths: you-have | not-yet | moi-stened | your-lips

In the middle of meditating this morning, my mind suddenly placed before itself a half-remembered quote from Emil Cioran, which I have since looked up and wholly remembered:

…language is advantageous only to the vulgar and the poet; if we profit by falling asleep over words or by fighting them, we run, on the other hand, some risk in sounding them out in order to discover their deception. The man who does so, who attends to them, who analyzes them, reaches the point of extenuating them, of transforming them into shadows. He will be punished for this, since he will share their fate. Take any word, repeat it a number of times, examine it: it will vanish, and in consequence something will vanish in you. Take more, and continue the operation. By degrees you will reach the culminating point of your sterility, the antipodes of a verbal demiurgy. (The Temptation to Exist, tr. Howard, p. 190)

It occurred to me that something like this is precisely what is going on in this sort of koan meditation, but with a wider range of techniques than the mere repetition Cioran recommends. That repetition is there, of course, but also: the breaking down of words into syllables, some of which are meaningful (wine) and some not (tute); the grouping of syllables in basically arbitrary and meaningless ways (ished-three); the complete destruction of any natural rhythm to the language, replaced instead with the imposed rhythm of breathing. All of these work to divest the words of any meaning, to empty them.

Among the functions of meditation is to cultivate a perceptual experience of emptiness. I am beginning to see how koan training does so.