A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 3)

My summer reading:  Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.

The primary problem which Existentialism has tried to highlight is how little we Westerners understand ourselves, our human nature, and the forces by which our human nature has been formed.

As Barrett points out, those forces divide neatly into two historically influential opposing camps: Hebraism focuses on what’s wrong and Hellenism focuses on what’s right. As Barrett reminds us, it’s all well and good to focus, as did the ancient Greeks, on attaining perfection but there is always something that gets in the way and that something, which we’ve inherited from the ancient Hebrews, is sin.

How does this affect us today?

According to Barrett, this ancient opposition equates to the mind/body split which lies at the very heart of our (Western) core. The ancient Greeks couldn’t deal with the body and the mortality it implies. So they remained solely in their heads to remain in touch with eternity, through, for example, Platonic Forms (i.e. ideas of things that actually exist). By contrast, the ancient Hebrews couldn’t get out of their bodies, no matter how hard they tried. Hence right from the start they were forced to face their mortality which, after that incident with the snake in the Garden of Eden, had became a hard and fast reality.

Where is the balance?

This, Barrett reminds us, brings us to the famous myth of the soul in the Phaedrus: the driver of the chariot, or reason, holds the reins of both the white horses (symbolizing human spirit) and the black horses (symbolizing man’s bodily appetites and desires). The message is clear. If man is to achieve salvation, he must seize control through reason.

Note that this dualistic opposition between black and white is a Western construct. Witness the difference between the Chinese treatment of black and white, Ying and Yang.

According to Barrett, the effect of this left Western society in the position where ‘humanity, the universal, is more real than any individual man’. Existentialists like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have tried to reverse this unfortunate construction but have been hindered, no doubt, by the still lingering effects of original sin.

Sadly, this effects some more than others as Virginia Woolf was quick to point out by referencing ‘Milton’s bogey’ in her famous essay, A Room of One’s Own. In Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, Eve gets double blame for original sin by first allowing herself to be seduced by the snake and then seducing Adam. As the result, at least in the Western world, women have long been considered the intellectual inferior of men. It was this classic injustice that spurred Simone de Beauvoir to pen her own existentialist classic, The Second Sex.

(to be continued)

A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 2)

My summer reading:  Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.


Beginning

Art reflects life and life during the early 20th century rise of Existentialism was fragmented and disjointed, at least it appeared thus based on Western man’s perception of the world, which in turn was based on ancient Greek notions of linearity. This is clearly laid out by Aristotle in his famous work, Poetics: drama (and by extension, life) must have a definable beginning, middle, and end – in that order.

For Western man, disruption of linearity leads inextricably to angst and anxiety. This is precisely what Existentialists like Heidegger (1889-1976) were trying to address.

For Heidegger, ‘time is no longer a reckonable sequence’ but instead ‘an inexhaustible inescapable presence’. In other words, real time, unlike time displayed on clocks and calendars, is primitive, primordial, spooky; real time, as understood by Heidegger, is all that man has and will ever have. Scandalously, sadly, said real time is also shorn from otherwise comforting pre-Reformation notions of eternity.

For Existentialists like Heidegger, real time is the reflection of a reality fraught with angst and anxiety, anxiety and angst that is the natural reaction to disruption within the ‘dense medium’ through which Western man drags himself every single day, the every day medium which is his existence, or Being.

As such, it’s little wonder, Barrett instructs, that early 20th century writers like Woolf, Eliot, and Forster, on the rebound from World War I, the first truly global conflict killing nearly 40 million, experimented with disjointed ideas of linear progression and calendar or clock time.


Middle

EM Forster

For example in Howards End, Forster juxtaposed physical manifestations of the old and new; the idyllic countryside (‘untroubled meadows’) is viewed by Mrs Munt from the train on her journey to her house, Howard’s End. She sees it as ‘awakening after a nap of a hundred years’ to such ‘life’ as is conferred by the ‘stench of motor-cars’. But if Mrs Munt was ‘equally indifferent’ to ‘history’ – ‘tragedy’ – the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, Forster was not.

He uses that stinky motor-car as a symbol for death and destruction – Charles (with his fit-for purpose ‘gloves and spectacles’) who virtually becomes his car (his father admonishes – your ‘one idea is to get into a motor’) kills Mr Bast, and the paddock is sacrificed for a garage to house the motor, and the motor-car ‘flattens’ a cat.

But no matter how often characters urge each other to ‘bridge’ the gap (between what is never made precisely clear), for the most part they seem to fail except perhaps through the marriage of Margaret (old order) and Henry Wilcox (new order) – neither of whom (interestingly) drives a ‘motor’!

TS Eliot

But whilst Forster seeks connections, TS Eliot seems to glorify disconnectedness, especially in regards to metaphysical reality; in his poem The Wasteland, there are numerous references to a troubled Christianity. For example, in the section entitled A Game of Chess, a reference to the ‘sylvan scene’ (an allusion to the 4th book of Paradise Lost by John Milton where Satan came in the view of Eden) serves as an appropriate forecast for the immediately following allusion to Philomela who was violently raped by her sister’s husband, Tiresias (who may be equated with Satan). The message would appear to be that all hell is breaking loose in creation.

As each different section of The Wasteland shifts to the next without transition (or sometimes without even obvious links), we get a sense of how frustrated and lost that society must have felt. But unlike Howards End, The Wasteland seems to suggest connections cannot ever be made. In What the Thunder Said, we learn from the poem’s speaker that he will be unable to ‘set my lands in order” because ‘London bridge is falling down’ – and that the ‘fragments’ have been ‘shored against my ruins’.

Virginia Woolf

Whilst both Forster and Eliot draw attention to the problems inherent in making connections in a fragmented reality, Virginia Woolf seems to suggest everything will sort itself out in the natural course of time. For example, in her autobiographical writings, Moments of Being, she states that she personally takes ‘great delight’ in pulling together her own ‘severed parts’ by dredging through memories (perceptions of time) – much in the same way that many of her fictional characters appear to do.

In Mrs Dalloway, the ebb and tide of Clarissa’s day are a jumble of events, places, and people bound together solely by (often disparate and fragmented) memories spanning more than thirty years. Quite how reflections on the ‘most exquisite moment of her whole life’ when she had been kissed by Sally Seton are connected with her own ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, and suspicions’ (conjured up by Lady Bruton having not asked her to lunch) is left to the reader’s (vivid) imagination. But the way they are presented as a given – we sense that Woolf was never in doubt that they were connected.

In Orlando, the only continuity between the hero turned heroine after a four-hundred year romp through history is his/her memories and face. Indeed, memory or personal perceptions of reality, are again here the binding thread – ‘running her needle in and out – up and down – hither and thither’ in a way that clock ‘time’ (which makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom with amazing punctuality’) can never do.


End

At the end of the day, all this fuss, literary and otherwise, regarding the disruption of logical linearity is merely a question of perception. There’s a reason, Barrett says, that unlike Western society, Oriental cultures did not give rise to Existentialism. Such cultures do not share the Western preoccupation with linear ordering and so have no need to examine or explain its breakdown.

In other words, the ordered, precise and linear world of Western society is nothing more than a mental construct reinforced by centuries of culture.

Change that construct, and you’re well on the road to resolving ‘angst’ or that deep seated, irrefutable, insatiable anxiety from which 20th century writers like Eliot, Forster, and Woolf and Existentialist philosophers like Heidegger, were suffering.

Might the 20th century efforts of these men and women shed light on the 21st century anxiety and angst which in the aftermath of Covid-19, we are now suffering?


(to be continued)

A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 1)

My summer reading:  Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.

From the beginning, Barrett reminds us that contrary to popular belief, the groundwork for Existentialism was not laid in the cafes and bars of 20th century Paris but much earlier, with the 16th century Protestant Reformation. With the iconoclasm that accompanied that movement, the psychic underpinnings of man’s here-to-fore meaningful cradle to grave lives was cast adrift. This left man face-to-face with ‘nothingness’, a stark and shocking reality that in the 19th century, both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche made perfectly clear.

Both 20th century secularism and capitalism hastened our demise. By the mid-1950’s, when Barrett was writing, a new car or TV set delivered American men and women more meaning in their lives than ever could God. Onward forges capitalism until we find ourselves devoid of anything tangible to which we can hold except faceless corporations, sprawling factories, and of course, the next pay check.

By this time, it becomes obvious there is nothing left of the pious medievalist, much less classical Greek man. According to Barrett, modern man remains a mere fragment – a bare skeleton, of that long-ago man that as we are told in Genesis, was created by God in His own image. American president Donald Trump with recent his photo-op with the Bible, aptly sums this up for most, it’s not a pretty picture.

This is because with that picture, it becomes abundantly clear that we are an abstraction, at best, of what once we were. What’s worse, because of the inevitability of evolution, we cannot turn the tide. Now the gateway home to paradise, the Garden of Eden, is well and truly closed and locked. It is with this stark realization that we now all enjoy what the Existentialists have coined ‘angst’ or a deep seated, irrefutable, insatiable anxiety.

(to be continued)

What is Truth – Take 2?!

This is the second of a series of three mini-essays written for a course exploring various philosophical theories of ‘truth’:

For William James, turn-of-the-last-century adherent of Pragmatism, ‘truth’ was a working hypothesis; if something ‘works’ to enable us to move forward in our search for ‘truth’, then accept it as ‘true’ (for now). By contrast, if you wait until absolutely certain you have found ‘truth’ before calling it such, you will be forever disappointed. James believed that although ‘truth’ is capable of being known, we can never be certain whether or not we have reached it.

Besides, with constant advancement in science and technology, ‘truth’ changes over time. We are always aiming at a moving target.

Although James failed to specify where our target of ‘truth’ might reside and what might be its ultimate purpose, he obviously thought it worthwhile of pursuit. Not all would agree. For example, by the mid-20th century, Deflationists had concluded that there’s nothing special about truth so why bother with it? Despite such developments, James need never to have worried. The continuing 21st century popularity of The Varieties of Religious Experience, James’s epistemological study of the spiritual experience of men and women, suggests his brand of ‘truth’ remains in high demand.

In my view, those wishing to find ‘truth’, at least in an epistemological sense, should consider James’s approach. Pragmatism opens more doors than other theories of truth and keeps them open too. For example, correspondence theorists require ‘truth’ to be shoe-horned into a rigid set of factual constraints, leaving us bereft when the ‘facts’ in play are neither black nor white, but instead clothed in shades of grey.  Equally, Coherence theorists narrow the field by requiring potential new ‘truths’ to either fit comfortably within an existing body of knowledge/understanding or be discarded.

Despite many upsides, Jamesian Pragmatism has downsides.

Although James was pluralistic (i.e. multiple versions of ‘truth’ exist), he was not a relativist, at least not in the sense that one man’s version of the truth is necessarily as good as the next (i.e. ‘anything goes’). Sometimes, however, in practical terms this distinction falls flat.

Consider Donald Trump and his claim regarding numbers attending his 2017 inauguration. Correspondence theorists would not consider this as ‘true’ because it fails to correspond to observable facts. Yet undoubtedly Trump’s ‘truth’ was useful to him, perhaps furthering one of his favourite pursuits, self-aggrandisement. James may also have considered Trump’s claim as useful and thus ‘true’ at least to the extent it furthers our understanding of human nature.

Accepting this ‘truth’ even as a working hypothesis appears dangerous. The challenges of a post-fact, post-truth White House are highlighted daily.

It is disturbing that some have suggested that the late philosopher, Richard Rorty, who actively aligned himself with Jamesian Pragmatism, actually prophesied the coming of ‘truth’ à la Trump.

Other downsides include: if no cares enough about a potential ‘truth’ to attempt to prove it, then it can never be considered as ‘useful’ or not. Equally, the approach may be so scientifically oriented as make it impractical when dealing with certain types of ‘truth’ such as moral imperatives or aesthetic values.  

What is Truth?

This is the first of a series of three mini-essays written for a course exploring various philosophical theories of ‘truth’:

The correspondence theory holds that a truth bearer such as a sentence, is ‘true’ if it can be shown to correspond to some verifiable ‘fact’ (i.e. concrete, empirical evidence) regarding some (often physical) reality.

Undeniably, the correspondence theory has its uses. For example, a statement like it is raining can usually be proven or disproven in regards to correspondence to empirical evidence with a quick look outdoors. It is useful because it conveys useful information (i.e. in this case, whether or not to take an umbrella). However when the perfecting the correspondence of a statement to external evidence is not possible (such as when ‘facts’ in question are neither clear nor able to be adequately observed), the correspondence theory struggles. You may say that it’s raining and that might well be ‘true’, but I am unable to verify your statement because it is too dark outside for me to see, then I’m still left not knowing whether or not to take that umbrella.

Likewise, this theory struggles with statements such as ‘cilantro is delicious’ which at best it is verifiable only in respect to the beliefs of the individual speaker.

What is delicious to one person is not delicious to another. If in doubt consider my own position on the deliciousness of cilantro (thumbs up) in comparison to that of my husband (thumbs down). Worse, neither of us are able to point to any verifiable ‘facts’ or ‘evidence’ to decide our dispute. In the end, all that we have conveyed is opinion and preference, the universal truthfulness of which cannot be proven although it is undeniably useful to know the tastes of my husband when making dinner.

When seeking ‘truth’ regarding statements like the deliciousness of cilantro, the correspondence theory fails. In and of itself, this would not be a problem if everyone were willing and able to acknowledge this and introduce other theories of ‘truth’ where necessary. However history has demonstrated that the promise of an ultimate ‘truth’ can be so alluring, not the least because it provides a (moral) compass by which we can take decisions (perhaps without taking personal responsibility), that many, including adherents of the correspondence theory, cannot resist the temptation to cling to this black and white approach.

When we succumb to this temptation we are left with – at best –  a half-baked view of ‘truth’. For example, if I say that plants communicate danger to each other, most people cannot verify the truth (or falsity) of my statement. Even scientists cannot do so with absolute certainty. Scientists may be able to demonstrate (with some certainty) that grass releases certain chemicals in response to being cut. But whether that chemical release is meant to signal danger (however defined) must remain a hypothesis until scientists can communicate directly with plants with some level of mutual understanding. In the meantime, all we are left with is a working hypothesis that may prove useful in the future regarding our search for ‘truth’.

Correspondence theorists would generally not agree that usefulness should be an important consideration in the pursuit of ‘truth’. I argue that on this point they are also wrong. William James and other adherents of Pragmatism would likely agree with me. Loosely, Pragmatism suggests that which we hold as ‘true’ should lead to some successful action, such as being prepared for the weather or the ability to make a dinner that my entire family will enjoy. Unfortunately a detailed discussion of Pragmatism must await another day.

Growth & Expansion

What are you inviting to expand and grow in your life that many not serve you as well as you might initially have thought?

It’s tempting for forget – or perhaps even to ignore – that which we invited into our lives with the New Moon in Pisces (at the beginning of this week) is continuing to take hold and grow. Indeed, we will not even begin to see the first shoots of this ‘seedling’ that we’ve planted (consciously or not) until early next week with the 1st quarter Moon.

In the meantime it’s worth remembering that New Moon in Pisces was ‘hosted’ by Jupiter, the planetary ruler of Pisces. It’s also worth remembering that Jupiter is currently in the zodiac sign of Capricorn where it is considered to be debilitated, or in ‘fall’.

In practical terms this means is that which is growing and expanding in your life this lunar cycle may not ultimately be to your benefit. Indeed, it could be worse than that. Think along the lines of the growth/expansion of a tumor – or even the coronavirus – that may ultimately kill you.

To understand what this might mean, consider that (among other things) Jupiter represents the core ‘truths’ in which we believe wholeheartedly. Whenever we set an intention, it is those core ‘truths’ that drive that intention. Yet often enough our intentions – not to mention the core ‘truths’ that drive them – are not given the due consideration that they deserve.


For example, I’ve been running with a ‘truth’ that money is power, neither of which one can ever have too much of, right? Little wonder that my stated intention this lunar cycle was to get more of both!

At one level, my core ‘truth’ is realistic, at least in the sense that it certainly does seem that money makes the world turn. At another level, however, this ‘truth’ has long been making a mess in my personal life as well as my most intimate relationships. I’ve known this for awhile but I can assure you that I’ve done my best to ignore it.

Luckily, (luck is another aspect of Jupiter), I had the opportunity to do a family constellation yesterday with an excellent guide. As the result, I discovered that thistruth’ that I’ve been holding onto about money and power come along with some seriously damaging negative energy. Also I discovered that ‘truth’ (and the negative energy) comes not from me in the here and now but instead from bad stuff that happened in my ancestral line many generations ago.

The ‘healing’ of my ancestral line that came about as the result of the constellation yesterday feels great. Thanks to my excellent guide!! However, it still remains for me to replace that old, outworn, and damaging ‘truth’ about money and power with a new ‘truth’ – something that serves me better.

The name of the game is shame?

I don’t know about you, but I often worry about whether by taking poor decisions, I might be making myself bad karma. Mind you, I’m not even certain what karma is, much less how it might work but I’ve always been told that ‘what goes around does come around’ and for the most part, that seems to be true.

Yet, is comeuppance guaranteed? I mean, considering all that’s happening in the world of politics at the moment, I really do have to wonder. Might it be that some folks are so blessed that they can do whatever they want without consequence? 

Regardless, I opt for sensible guidelines and given that Saturn and Pluto are together dancing their jig in Capricorn, I’ll take my lead from them and so ‘shame’ will be the name of my ethical game.


Rather than thinking of shame as a punishment, as we are often wont to do, I figure shame keeps us from doing things that the person that we want to be ought not to do. In this context, shame is not a painful conclusion but a joyous opportunity.


For Buddhists, shame is the frontline defence against inappropriate actions. Such action not only produces negative karma (locking you into the painful cycle of rebirth) but also leads to difficult rebirths.

Even non-Buddhists find inappropriate actions to be trouble.  Folks tend to get annoyed when one steals, murders, and cheats.  Likewise, they shy away from those who frequently lose their temper and fail to honour their commitments.  Indeed, during the course of a single day, you are confronted with a whole host of activities that someone considers inappropriate. If you wished to comply with all of them, you might as well just stay home.


In reality, we cannot always abide by an external set of rules when deciding what we should or should not do.


Yet assuming that you do want to be ethical, then what standard might you use? I suggest using your own ‘sense of shame’.

Have some fun…

Astrologically, responsibility equates with Saturn.  With Saturn, we undertake our duties and obligations seriously and achieve.

When things go wrong however, we’re more reluctant to take responsibility. The downside of Saturn is fault and blame.

Nietzsche has suggested that fault and blame are the bitter fruits of ‘responsibility’. In our society, responsibility is not understood in terms of our ‘ability to respond’ but instead in terms of the spirit of revenge.

On the Genealogy of Morals (3:15)

In existentialist terms, the spirit of revenge is a powerful narcotic that numbs the inevitable pain and misery of existence. When we respect misfortune as an inevitable part of living, we can utilise our innate ability to respond to life  (Nietzsche).


 ‘Shit happens’.  It happens despite the ‘best laid plans of mice and men’.

But whilst embraced by the spirit of revenge, no man can respect true misfortune.  He can have no understanding of the context in which misfortune manifests.  Focused on channelling his passions into vengefulness and spite, such a man can never respect, let alone love,  anybody or anything including himself.

Only a foolish man believes that each misfortune which befalls him, was intentionally directed at him. Yet many of us do just that.

Hands up! Just this morning when I was hurrying to get ready, something fell on my foot and left a huge bruise and I blamed my husband who wasn’t even home. 

A more productive approach might be to take ourselves less seriously.   This could be achieved through the more positive aspects of irresponsibility – i.e. having some old-fashioned, light-hearted fun.  Not only does  light-heartedness promote health, but it also helps us to accept the basic realities about life.

The natural antidote of Saturn is Jupiter.  

When your Jupiter  functions properly,  you’re optimistic, take chances and experience good luck.  Too much Jupiter however leads to extravagance and frivolity,  hence the bad associations with irresponsibility.

In my book, balance is the key to health and happiness.  It would seem Nietzsche might agree.  According to him (in a theme developed by Kundera in his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being,) the heaviest burden (responsibility) is also boundless freedom (irresponsibility).

In this regard, taking responsibility for our own lives allows us to accept it for what it is: a game of chance in which sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.

Blaming yourself or another achieves nothing but more pain.

The Daemon of Carl Jung

In Plato’s Republic(The Myth of Ur), souls cue up to choose their next life and are assigned a daemon – an overseer for that life. In classic astrology, daemon could be determined using one’s natal chart and as the result, it was incumbent upon the individual to establish contact with (or invoke) his or her daemon. In many respects, this was exactly what Jung was doing whilst writing and illustrating the Red Book, which he considered to the ‘prima materia’ for his life’s work.

Daemon can be understood as fate – but not fate in the sense that it comes from outside us. Instead, daemon is our personal unconscious pushing through the creative impulse to encourage us to accomplish that which we are meant to do. Naturally, you may choose to reject or ignore Daemon (or your fate) but there is a price to be paid. Equally, following Daemon (either eagerly or begrudgingly) does not guarantee you an easy ride.

Carl Jung had Aquarius rising. This means that Saturn, the ruler of Aquarius was his daemon, or at least it was in his eyes although not all astrologers (classical or modern) might agree.

When it comes to daemon, it isn’t so much that Saturn the planet was running the show but instead the symbolism surrounding Saturn. According to the 3rd century Neo-Platonist, Iamblichus, symbols are the footprints of the gods, wondrous tokens sent down from above. In this sense, a symbol can never be a man-made design. Symbols pre-exist and hence carry energy that exerts power over us not unlike Jung’s archetypes.

Jung

Jung believed it was vital that he understand his daemon – no, more than that – he was determined to establish a personal relationship with his daemon and it is highly likely this was accomplished through magical ritual.

To that end, the Red Book, Jung communicates with several different Saturnian figures (Elijah, The Old Scholar, The Anchorite, The Librarian, and the Professor) that culminate with Philemon (whose name, Jung always wrote in Greek, most probably for magical reasons).

Several key points are of significant interest regarding these Saturnian figures and as ought to be expected in many respects they are all deeply paradoxical.

  • The Saturnian figures in Red Book are all associated with rocks and stones – imperishable – belonging to and of the earth – present in the beginning of time on earth and presumably present at the end. It is not surprising that this stone/rock motif comes up often in Jung’s writings. He had been fascinated with them since youth.
  • Jung’s Saturnian images are all old men – SENEX – they are also thinkers –seekers of wisdom (as opposed to knowledge). Philosophers. They are magicians, too. This is in keeping with the writings of Marsilio Ficino, a 15thcentury Italian scholar who appears to have heavily influenced Jung’s work.
  • All Jung’s Saturnian images are recluses and sad. These are in keeping with traditional associations with Saturn.
  • Several of Jung’s Saturnian images are associated with religion and more specifically, religious experience. Not all of them are complimentary or supportive of religion. Indeed, Philemon is always shown as lame and this might well be suggesting a connection with the devil. Philemon, after all, did always have a serpent hanging around.
  • Philemon was also connected with Mercury, the hermetic figure and the philosopher stone. Hermes Trismegistus, who controlled both the sun and the moon was semi-divine and he is, in essential ways, very much like Philemon (who was also a magician – possessing his own grimoire). This highlights the importance of the ancient art of alchemy. Saturn is lead, the metal of transformation and redemption.

In The Astrological World of Jung’s Liber Novus, Dr Liz Greene suggests that because Philemon drew together Saturnian ideas and images from a number of ancient disciplines and cosmologies, he allowed Jung to build a workable bridge between the pagan and Christian aspects of his own world view.

Those  of us who are interested in similarly understanding the complexity of our own daemon, or chosen ‘fate’, might be well-advised to perform similar invocations and explorations. Dr Greene reminds us that during that difficult period in Jung’s life, his work with Philemon and predecessors gave Jung a connecting thread of meaning that helped him to understand his situation. Likewise, we may also turn to our daemons for help when things get tough.

Never forget, however, that working with daemons is not for the faint of heart. Jung’s daughter reported that things ‘went bump in the dark’ in the house when Jung was working with Philemon – things that we might well call supernatural.

Zen riddles that I like…

Kõ-an – a paradox anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logic and provoke a more direct perception of reality called enlightenment.

Kõ-ans have always exercised an intellectual fascination over those who have come in contact with them. Some have found Kõ-ans profound and intellectually challenging while others have dismissed them as meaningless and absurd. But especially for those living in societies built on Enlightenment principles, the anti-rationalism of Kõ-ans has been a large part of their appeal.  Unknown.png

Although Reason is useful to conceptualize and categorize, it can also trap us in a limited and arbitrary view of the world. Once Reason gets tangled up with our socially conditioned biases, then rather like blinkers on a horse it can do no more than channel us down a predetermined path.

The practical purpose of Kõ-ans is not to rid us of our intellectual capacity but instead to allow it to function in a dispassionate way. This involves breaking down the everyday tyranny of our conditioned intellect by demonstrating the contradictions and absurdities to which it would otherwise necessarily lead.

Unknown.jpegUnlike puzzles and riddles, Kõ-ans do not have pat answers. Indeed, many Kõ-ans are not even in the form of a question. When used properly, Kõ-ans set trains of thought in motion and then derail them. With the continuity of our internal dialogue broken, we are no longer able to maintain our (false) sense of reality.

A properly constructed Kõ-an should contain many layers of personal meaning. It is most certainly not a case of ‘one size fits all’. According to Buddhist teaching, Truth can only be experienced by those who seek Truth for its own sake.  It can never be denied to those who are worthy as equally it can never be imparted to those who are not.