Human beings have a tendency to ‘live in their heads’. This phrase covers several facts. First, men have a tendency to overtheorize. Some things are ruined by too much thinking on them, things which are essentially matters of experience. What is more, almost anything can be source of immediate experience, and so almost anything is vulnerable to ruination by too much theorizing. The second fact is this. Such theorizing usually presents itself phenomenologically as internal verbalization, and the internal verbalization often insinuates itself between ourselves and the thing experienced. This is how the thinking interrupts experience and how it leaves us with only our verbalizations. This leads to the third fact: when our theoretical internal verbalization is interposed between ourselves and external things, the object of our awareness becomes ourselves. It is we who are doing the theorizing, and to be aware of the theoretical verbalizing is to be aware of ourselves. This state of mind is undesirable, for it is a commonplace that our happiest moments come when we are not conscious of ourselves, and that most forms of consciousness of self are baneful. It is hard to say why this is so; perhaps the resources of a self are much more limited than the resources of the world, so only an object-directed consciousness can satisfy the human appetite for variety.
The disadvantageousness of this state leaves us with a problem: how can a man with a propensity for injecting his theorizing between himself and the world be coaxed out of doing this? I would suggest that this is the problem the Zen master is addressing, and the koan is his answer. One technique is out; ironically, the very technique I’ve been using. It does no good to mount an argument about the disadvantages of living in one’s head. This would be one more theory, one more verbal construction for the unenlightened to interpose between himself and the world. The activity has got to be halted, and what the Zen masters realized is that it can’t be halted by arguing, however subtly and cogently, that it has got to be halted.
The point of the koan, then, is to halt living in one’s head by presenting inescapably candidate objects for immediate experience. The objects are presented in contexts normally reserved for verbal theorizing, since the abrupt shift of context makes them perspicuous. Thus, when the student
is lost in a cloud of metaphysics surrounding the One, the master turns his attention to a robe. He turns the student’s attention: he doesn’t say “Your attention would be better spent on a robe, for by seeking fulfillment in speculation you are like a dog chasing its tail in the hope of nourishment.” This is an interesting argument, and the odds are the student would pursue it. The Master shows without saying the advantages of experience. He could in fact do this by adverting to a river or a fox; he could clout the student. Anything would do – that is what is insightful about Cheng’s principle of ontic substitutability.
It supports this view of koans that Professor Cheng himself sometimes hints at Zen’s emphasis on immediate experience without developing the implications of his hints. He says in a footnote that the principle of ‘contextual demonstration’, closely allied to ontic substitutability, could also be called the principle of experiential reconstruction “as it is intended to indicate the fact that after ontological reduction reality will be experienced in whatever way it happens to be experienced” (102). This latter, I have argued, is nearly the central point of the koan. How “reality will be experienced in whatever way it happens to be experienced” follows upon ontic reduction is something Cheng does not tell us. I suspect the cited passage reflects Cheng’s awareness that the ‘principle of experiential reconstruction’ has a much more central place in Zen Buddhism and the institution of the koan than he is in a position to allow, and he tries to make it follow from the principle he has construed as the point of the koan. But it will not follow, so far as I can see, and this suggests that Cheng has erred in his extraction of principles from the koan.
Comments on the Paradoxicality of Zen Koans
By Michael E. Levin
The Journal of Chinese Philosophy
V. 3 (1976)