Koans have to deal with what I would like to call ‘intellectual hallucinations’ which is an unfounded notion or impression of what a koan means. In addition, koans are purposely meant to drive the intellect crazy; bringing the Zen student to what I like to call their wits’ end, hopefully to have kensho (seeing one's true nature). What the intellect does is somewhat like a dog gnawing on a dry bone. The dog’s fine sense of smell detects a trace of marrow but there is nothing in that dry bone that can sustain life. Still, the dog keeps gnawing and gnawing on the bone. Likewise, the intellect will not give up with its hallucinations about what koans mean.
Zen students should not be like the dog with its dry bone but they often are. It’s their intellectual hallucinations about the koan which keep them, persistently, gnawing on a koan—just a few more gnaws and I will figure out what this koan means. They think they are so close yet they are so very far away. If they had kensho before they started working on koans they would laugh at how koans were structured. Each koan turns out to be a very clear expression of kensho.
But when the Zen student has to go from their ignorance to kensho via the koan, the clear expression of kensho remains buried deep within the koan. What the student is left with is their intellect. Of course, intellectual hallucinations are very important to us—it’s pretty much all we know. We just naturally apply them to Zen thinking the intellectual approach will work.
In our everyday lives, we have certain emotions or opinions that we cherish and cannot let go of, so we intellectually hallucinate that they are rational and necessary when they are not. We vote for a black president hallucinating that melanin is a good indicator of intelligence. We intellectually hallucinate that having a home of 2,679 square feet (today’s average size home) will make for a happy family of four (in the 1950s a home for ordinary American families was around 750 square feet).
How modern Zennist go about solving a koan is a good indicator of how crazy modern Zennists are! Perish the thought that to answer a koan requires intuition—not the intellect. In my latest blogs, I have tried to touch on the importance of intuition because that is what Zen really means. The practice of Zen is not sitting but intuition. To answer a koan means to answer it intuitively thus having kensho. Intuition and intellect are almost diametrically opposed to each other. In fact, the intellect blocks intuition. Only intuition can enter into the mystical realm of pure Mind.