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Life as a problem, life as a koan Barry Magid April 23rd 2022

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In an essay called the Concord Sonata, Guy Davenport comments on an enigmatic passage from Thoreau’s Walden, which I will read to you in just a moment. The title, the Concord Sonata, is taken from a composition by the American composer, Charles Ives. It was composed in 1920 and he prefaced the work with a group of essays, one of which was on Thoreau, and it begins: “Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute, but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear ‘The Symphony.’”

Here in a passage from Walden, Thoreau writes: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken [with] concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answer to. I met one or two who have heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.”

In his essay, Davenport asks, Where did Thoreau get this fable of the lost horse and hound and dove, and what did he mean by it? And he finds an answer in Thoreau’s previous book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which he was writing while he was in the cabin at Walden Pond. In that book, Thoreau quotes the Confuscian philosopher, Mencius: “If one loses a fowl or a dog, he knows well how to seek them again, [but if one loses the sentiments of the heart, he does not know how to seek them again]. The duties of practical philosophy consist only in seeking after those sentiments of the heart, which we have lost; that is all.”

Davenport goes on to look at the translations that were available to Thoreau in his day, and suggests that for sentiments of the heart, we would now translate as Inborn Nature, or perhaps True Nature. So what we have in this passage from Walden, is Thoreau commenting on losing touch with our True Nature, and what it means to try to find it again. In the passage Thoreau quotes from the Chinese philosopher, there is this recognition of the confusion of what it means to find something in this sense. We can’t look for it the way we’ve looked for a lost dog. We haven’t lost it in the same kind of way.

The paradox, of course, is that if what we’re looking for is our True Nature, it’s paradoxical in the first place to suggest that we’ve lost it. What would it mean to lose your True Nature? Have you somehow stopped being impermanent? Have you stopped being interconnected with all beings? You can’t lose the reality of that. But what can happen is that we lose sight of that reality. And when we lose sight of it, what does it mean to try to recover that perspective?

See, this points to what we were talking about last week, the distinction between a problem and a koan. If you lose your dog or your horse, that’s a problem, and there are all sorts of ways you can go about trying to solve it, and you know what it means to get it back. But if you feel like you’ve lost your true nature, that’s not a problem exactly. It’s a kind of paradox of separation, a gap has opened up and you feel it, but it doesn’t exist yet and you don’t know how to close it.

This kind of distinction just shows up over and over again in our koans and in the Great Vows that we chant. “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.” When people begin Zen practice and hear a vow like that, it seems impossible and endless, because they hear it as a problem. How can I save all beings? How can I save one being? What does saving beings mean? Does it bring them to enlightenment? Does it mean to relieve their suffering? How can I relieve the suffering of one being let alone all beings?

At the level of a problem, it’s completely impossible. But what is it from the level of a koan? There we look at our notion of saving: To save all beings is to restore them to their Buddha nature, which they already have, which they never lost, but what constitutes saving them? And yet we can get stuck for a very long time losing perspective on our lives.

I often use the model of the duck/rabbit drawing to illustrate that kind of radical shift in perspective. The duck and the rabbit are both there simultaneously. Neither is hidden. And at the same time, we can go forever not being able
to see one or the other. What’s involved in suddenly being able to see the one that’s been in front of us all along, but somehow we’re not able to see?

What’s involved in the transition from seeing all beings as suffering to seeing all beings as Buddhas? What does it mean to go from seeing your life as a problem to seeing your life as a koan?

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