Year 815 AD: Sadnalegs, a Tibetan king who was first to officially pledge support for Buddhism in Tibet, dies. An inscribed pillar commemorating this initiative is erected near Lhasa. Dharma spreads.
Mind is a pattern-weaving, pattern-extracting monster of a thought-hive that roams the islands of human consciousness dividing reality into us and "Others."
Koan is an un-answerable quest-of-a-question used in Zen training to rescue one's mind, lost in chasing its own tail, and to help it return to the oceanic sense of nonduality.
What do you see?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A plot-line? But there is no line here! What you are seeing is a projection of your own mind. There is no connection between these unrelated dots whatsoever other than the connection made by your mind. Neither is there any connection between the verbal data points italicized in the paragraphs above (815, Dharma, initiative, monster, Others, lost, rescue, oceanic). But you sensed a possibility of connection and you chased it. That's what mind does: it follows (the conditioning). And now it brought you here. You read the post-title. You followed the bread crumbs of meaning-laden words. That's the dharma of it: hypotheses hold attention.
The word "dharma" has a nuanced cultural history and I am no expert on it. But the Sanskrit (Proto-Indo-European) origins of this word still shed light on all of the later meanings of this concept - like a set of ancient halogen head-lights that beams a path of clarity through the ages. The word "dharma" stems from the verb to hold, to support, to sustain. Dharma is a kind of crutch (of meaning). Any teaching, any story-line, any ideology plots reality data-points against some kind of vector and in so doing pivots the mind's eye towards some kind of time (be it past or future) or towards some kind of idea, distracting us from what presently and immediately is.
A koan crashes this mind-flight of fancy smack down to the plane of the here-and-now. It kicks you out of your theorizing and forces you to acknowledge the plain urgency of moment-to-moment survival. Whereas the show Lost is great tele-vision, a koan is here-vision. Note: the word tele-vision means seeing what's there (tele is Greek for "far off/there"). A koan shows you what's here.
When Lost started out I found myself forming hypotheses. But I soon got lost. I remember the moment exactly. It had to do with the opening of the hatch. The episode began -- for the first time -- inside the Dharma Initiative hatch, with what seemed like anachronistic music played on a vintage Tandberg reel-to-reel (I had one just like that once). I snapped off an interpretation: a flashback. Except that it wasn't. What seemed like a flashback was a throw-back set in real-time. As the hypothesis-pattern dissolved back into unconnected question points, I realized I was lost in a koan. I had no idea what this show was about and I had an immediate appreciation for this twist. From episode to episode, the show got better and better: it appeared to be a non-stop mind-effing hypotheses-orgy. Except that I wasn't fondling any. I just kept watching, noticing hypotheses arise and dissolve, with each episode of this tele-vision bringing me closer and closer to here-and-now of my own experience of not-knowing. The show writers, with sociopathic spontaneity of Zen masters, appeared to make no commitments to any plot line, mixing time-travel with morality-polarity reversals like a skilled card-shuffler. Like a bona fide koan, the show resisted interpretation.
But this shared zazen is coming to an end. Will there be an ending or a non-ending? Probably, an ending. Whereas the crowds of Rome yearned for bread and gore, today's Recession West yearns for certainty. My bet: the Gordian knot of Lost's not-knowing will be cut. But until then, let us appreciate the remaining friction between being and not-knowing. This show, like no other, in my opinion, has sustained our confusion with the effectiveness of a koan. Heck, it got us through the second season of W! This TV-koan has remained a potent projection screen for our pattern-weaving, pattern-extruding, information-gobbling thought-hives that we consider to be our selves. My mind, your mind is part of this great ensemble of meaning-making that we call culture on this island of a planet that we share!
In parting, I want to suggest a post-Lost koan to get lost in: who is this who is reading this? Surely, not your name, or the word "me" or the pronoun "I." Indeed, who is this who read these 815 meaningless words and managed to connect them into a pattern of meaning?! Who is this who is constantly connecting all these thought-dots into an idea of a self-line?
Take your time getting lost-and-found in this koan a-seasonally. Leave your mind-raft now-and-then - brave the self-emptying ocean of consciousness.
Follow Pavel Somov, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pavelgsomov