Do people still know about Zen koans? Those ineffable riddles that a Zen Master gives to a student to solve? (Perhaps the most famous is “Show me the sound of one-hand clapping.”) The maddening thing is that you can’t solve a koan by logic or by poetry or by a casual gesture. It is designed to drive you to the edge of your known world of ego and self and require you to leap into the totality of your greater being. In your daily interviews with the Master, you will fail again and again until the Master recognizes your breakthrough.
One of my favorite classic koans:
“You have a hot iron ball in your throat that you can neither swallow nor spit out. What do you do?”
Ah, there’s an unsolvable riddle for our time. The circus of the Republican National Convention is in town. The lions are loosed from their cage and the men with the whip are trying to turn our fear into votes. The clowns are running around screaming “Fire!” and it’s not very funny. The freaks have moved from the sideshow to center stage. No tickets necessary—just flick on the TV. This is hard stuff to swallow.
But neither can we casually spit it out, turn off the TV and go on with our lives as if nothing is at stake. A recent Facebook post shows the parallels with Hitler’s rise to power and it’s real and we know where that led. It’s not the time to casually suggest “I’m just not into politics” or hold some high moral ground and say, “Hilary is no different from Trump and since Bernie didn’t win, I’m not voting.”
So the hot iron ball burns in our throat. The fear and negativity start to seep into our soul. The hopelessness and helplessness start to eat away and corrode our sense of positivity and possibility. The anger and the outrage start to feel numb from the next news report. Our capacity to care and feel and act starts to calcify. It’s not a happy state. What to do?
In a recent essay titled “Political Poison and Collective Trauma,” Michael Meade notes:
“When faced with great obstacles and tragic loss the human soul either grows greater and seeks unity, or becomes smaller and ferments divisions. There are moments in an individual life, in the life of a country, and in the life of religions that become existential crises that challenge us to find that which is most deeply human and unifying in life. For, it is the totality of a person, of a country or a group that must awaken and the deepest ideals of humanity that must be recalled and be served. We are not simply in a political battle or a clash of civilizations; rather we are in a struggle for the heart of humanity and for the soul of the world.”
Though not the simple answer a Zen master would approve, it is in us growing larger that the pain of that hot iron ball can be endured and made smaller. Whatever we are already doing to serve unity and raise human thought and feeling, let us do it more and more often and with greater intensity and passion. Our hands can sign petitions, write essays, reach out to friends and strangers, play piano or drums or guitar. Our voices can ask questions and speak out and talk with our frightened relatives on the other side of the country, and sing, sing, sing. Our hearts can close the doors when they need a moment of peace and protection and find and create safe spaces to open again and wider.
Well, silly of me to give answers, the whole point of the koan is for each to find his or her own answer (no book of “Solutions to Zen Koans”), stop looking to leaders with easy non-answers, stop waiting for someone else to solve it. That hot iron ball is burning all of us and remember, if you think you can spit it out, it will come back hotter. If you swallow it, it will burn you out and hollow you out and you will be a mere ghost of a human being. What will you do?
Like I said, a collective Zen koan for our time. Good luck!