Ko’an: Chicken or Egg?
In Zen Buddhism we are sometimes presented with an odd proposition called a ko’an. Its literal translation is ‘public plan’, but that tells us little of what it is. The dictionary describes it as a “riddle used in Zen to teach inadequacy of logical reasoning”. In Buddhism they often talk of satori, the moment of sudden enlightenment. Yet there are other forms of knowledge. Samsara is the cycle of birth, death and rebirth; and samsara knowledge is that knowledge which we attain through that very process of moving through the cycles, in other words what is not learned through formalised education.
The ko’an serves not only to highlight the limitations of using reasoning and rationality as the only source of knowledge, but also simply to get us into the habit of thinking for its own sake. We all know the famous question, “If there is no one in the forest to hear it, does a tree make a sound when it falls?” The task is not to find an answer; the task is merely to feel comfortable with the process of thinking. A solution is nice, but it is not the focus. Similarly we have heard, “We know what is the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Again, we are asked simply to think for its own sake.
The 1960s British singer Donovan (Leitch) released a song, whose lyrics started “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” The Buddhist encourages us first to see something as it appears – a mountain. It is what we recognise, but is it what it really is? To understand this thing called a ‘mountain’, we must strip away the appearance. For some this means to look at the thing which replaces it, called the ‘non-mountain’. For others it is to see the mountain as only a temporal space-filler (yes, even mountains are temporary), whose nature can not be deemed to be certain. For yet others the mountain can not be seen as anything more than a collection of components, of dirt and rocks and soil and trees and even angles and temperatures. It is no different than an electrician seeing a television not as a single item, but as a collection of all that makes it up. The third part of the Donovan lyric goes “then there is”. By seeing and then not seeing, by identifying, deconstructing and then reconstructing, we come to a fuller understanding of the thing itself. Suddenly ‘the mountain’ (or the television) exists! In European psychoanalysis we come to the Gestalt, the ‘form’ which is greater than the sum total of its parts. The mountain exists not only because of all that it is, but also because of all that it is not.
In our English culture we had our own little ko’an in the form of the question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” We do not see this as a ko’an, because by now this question has slipped into the realm of a cultural adage, as a statement of meaning rather than as a Zen question. That meaning is, of course: ‘In some cyclical propositions we can not determine the origin of the cycle.’ Indeed, it has even reached the level of social ridicule as we repeat the absurdity: What laid the egg? A chicken! But where did the chicken come from? An egg! And so on! However, by rejecting its use as an adage, we can not only return it to the function of a ko’an, we can indeed find an answer to this age-old question! And I have done precisely that!
If we subscribe to the notion of evolution, as all rationally minded people do (even granted that evolution has a few ‘rough spots’), we are aware that all animal life evolved from something beforehand. With humans we had Neanderthals and Australopithecus and the like. With the horse we found the mesohippus, the pleiohippus and the eohippus. They all had some earlier version. Thus it also was with the humble chicken: it has not remained the same since the dawn of life! Now, I do not know what the predecessor of gallus domesticus was called, so let us for the sake of this thesis call it protogallus.
The way that any species evolves is that a particular genetic combination will produce a genetic variation which makes the offspring identifiably different from either or both of the parents. At one very precise point one segment of the species stops and another one starts. But because it is a genetic variation, it must occur in the fusion of the two parental contributions. And where does that fusion take place? It takes place in ovo, in the egg! The egg came first!
To the cyclically absurd question, ‘What laid the egg,’ we are now able to say, “Well, it was something, but it was certainly not a chicken. It was protogallus, the predecessor.”
The ko’an is not simply a time-waster. To keep the mind alive and vibrant, it is sometimes necessary to think outside of the box. Indeed, the field of quantum science owes its existence to people who found linear mental activity to be debilitating. We have the opportunity to turn almost anything into a mental exercise. In the famous British television series The Prisoner, the hero crashed the computer which ran everything by asking the basic question, “Why?” And yet the answer can be found: it is “Because!” But to find that, we just need to think a little bit differently. You might take a simple, almost naive question like, ‘Do my shoes fit,’ and turn that into a ko’an. We focus on the existence of the shoes, on the meaning of ‘to fit’, on the nature of possession inherent in the word ‘my’, on the relationship between objects and expectations.
If we believe that the spirit has no bounds, time has come for us to hold the same belief about the mind. Ancient Buddhism finds a new place in a modern world… as if it ever left it!