Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mormon Koans

Along with meditation, among the methods that Zen uses to enlighten the student is the koan. We can roughly define a koan as a short story or anecdote meant to demonstrate the deficiency of logical thinking, so that the student learns to learn in more meaningful ways. Here are some examples:

The Turtle in the Garden
A monk saw a turtle in the garden of Daizui's monastery and asked the teacher, "All beings cover their bones with flesh and skin. Why does this being cover its flesh and skin with bones?" Master Daizui took off one of his sandals and covered the turtle with it.

A Philosopher Asks Buddha
A philosopher asked Buddha: `Without words, without the wordless, will you you tell me truth?
'The Buddha kept silence.
The philosopher bowed and thanked the Buddha, saying: `With your loving kindness I have cleared away my delusions and entered the true path.'
After the philosopher had gone, Ananda asked the Buddha what he had attained.
The Buddha replied, `A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip.'

Quite intentionally, these koans make absolutely no logical sense, and any attempt to understand them through conventional thought will fail. Despite this, they still have a hint of profundity behind them that you can't express in words. Thus, in order to have any hope at understanding a koan, one must abandon the thinking processes that we use in everyday life, and learn to perceive some other way. This new method of apprehension is precisely a direct insight into the nature of reality, which can only be experienced, and not conveyed.

Now, I was reading the Book of Mormon the other day, and I came across a passage that I found troubling. Probably very familiar to you, it is as follows:

"For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility." -2 Nephi 2:11

Many people might find this passage profound or even mystical. I, however, don't. To me, this scripture tells me that the world will always be bifurcated, whether between good and evil, God and Man or Self and Other. Thus, it blatantly opposes (no pun intended) the ideal of unity that I so aspire to. But this is not merely my problem. This scripture also presents an issue of inconsistency, as other scriptures blatantly contradict it. Here's an example:

"Unto whom I have committed the keys of my kingdom, and a dispensation of the gospel for the last times; and for the fulness of times, in the which I will gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth" -D&C 27:13

This passage, along with countless others that speak of oneness with God and each other, presents a conundrum: if there is opposition in all things, and if that opposition is desirable, why is our ultimate goal to become one? In other words, how do you reconcile unity and conflict? There are several possible answers, but I have found that they always favor one side at the expense of the other, leaving you no better off than you were before. In my opinion, this problem defies solution because no one can solve it by using their intellect alone. By way of explanation, it is a koan. And by this I don't just mean that it's incomprehensible; it (or any other spiritual problem) also causes the insightful reader to realize that their intellect isn't up to the job of understanding God's mysteries. In other words, by trying and failing to understand the problem intellectually, you realize that the only way to figure it out is by faith, for it is faith that both the koan and the spiritual problem engender in us. By experiencing both, we stop adhering to the intellectual obstacles that stand between us and the divine, and in both we transcend them to receive a direct experience.

As a final thought, there are many more koans to be found within Mormonism. The church's position on Proposition 8 could be considered one of them, as could (my favorite) the contradiction between God's body and his infinity. But, remember this: their ultimate purpose is not to confound, it is to enlighten. It is by going through this trial of faith that we emerge better men and women, able to see things a little more like God sees them.

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