The meaning is the use: kooan and mondoo as linguistic tools of the Zen masters
By Henry Rosemont, Jr.

Philosophy East & West
Vol. 20 (October 1970)
pp. 109-119

Copyright 1970 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA


 

 

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A number of the more important beliefs which comprise Zen Buddhism may be characterized as antiintellectual, antilogical, and antilinguistic. [1] These beliefs are not unworthy of detailed consideration, but they have the unenviable quality of being incapable of clear promulgation because they are incompatible with beliefs which must be presupposed by everyone employing language for communicative purposes. In uttering or writing sentences in the declarative mood we must obviously assume that we are able to make statements that are true; it is therefore disconcerting when we come across statements in the literature of Zen like "Truth is inexpressible in words," [2] which is a denial of that assumption. If the statement is true, not only is it itself false, but so is every other statement; we must wonder why a person holding such a view would bother to commit it or any other view to paper. A similar conceptual confusion is generated when we appeal to the principles of logic and language while endeavoring to establish the conclusion that logic and language are fundamentally unsound. [3] Anyone holding beliefs of this kind cannot simultaneously believe that their exposition and advocacy can serve any useful function; and conversely, anyone wishing to serve the functions of expositor and advocate of those beliefs cannot consistently subscribe to them. As F. P. Ramsey once noted, "What we can't say, we can't say; and we can't whistle it either." [4]

    The narrational and logical difficulties accompanying the antiintellectual beliefs of Zen present another dilemma when we attempt to evaluate the work of the Zen masters. Their conduct is either irrational or it is not. If it is irrational, Zen Buddhism would seem to have little or nothing to recommend it as an intellectual field of study or as a way of life. If, on the other hand, their conduct is not irrational -- if it might display a very high order of intelligence -- it would appear that the masters were and are acting in a manner that was


1. All of the major writers on the subject agree on this point. See, for example, A. Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Mentor Books, 1960), pp. 135 ff.; R. Linssen, Living Zen (New York: Grove Press, 1960), pp. 79 ff.; P. Wienpahl, The Matter of Zen (New York: New York University Press, 1964), pp. 114-115; E. Conze, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development (New York: Philosophical Library, n.d.), pp. 202-203; J. Takakusu, The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1949), p. 152; Fung Yu-lan, History of Chinese Philosophy, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), 2, 394-396; A. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History (New York: Atheneum, 1965), p. 78; E. Zurcher, Buddhism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), p. 61; P. Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. xvi.

2. D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, 1st ser. (London: Rider & Co., 1958), pp. 262-263.

3. These issues are dealt with in greater detail in H. Rosemont, Jr., "Logic, Language and Zen" (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1967), especially chaps. 3 and 4.

4. The Foundations of Mathematics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), p. 238.

 

 

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and is inconsistent with some of their most basic beliefs. In either case the masters do not appear to be deserving of approbation, philosophical or otherwise.

    This dilemma is most strikingly evidenced in the work of D. T. Suzuki, who regularly argues that intellectualization is harmful and must be abandoned for it "leads us nowhere but to an endless maze of entangling thistles." [5] He further states that the intellect "kills" and "murders" life, is "suicidal for" life, and is the "most deadly enemy of Zen." [6] Rationality is not only "futile" for achieving enlightenment, it positively "binders" our progress toward that goal. [7] With such statements in mind, the reader of his works is ill-prepared for the approbation Suzuki gives the Zen masters when he says of them that "They are not carrying on all those seeming absurdities, or, as some might say, those silly trivialities, just to suit their capricious moods. They have a certain firm basis of truth obtained from a deep personal experience. There is in all their seeming crazy performances a systematic demonstration of the most vital truth." [8] Or in a similar vein: "Evidently Zen commits absurdities and irrationalities all the time; but this only apparently. No wonder it fails to escape the natural consequences -- misunderstandings, wrong interpretations, and ridicules which are often malicious." [9]

    From these statements of Suzuki it is clear that he has chosen to rest on the latter horn of the dilemma, for he is claiming that the masters were not committing absurdities, were highly rational, and that there was and is a very effective "method to their madness." His choice, however, ignores rather than overcomes the difficulty; indeed, it places him squarely on the horns of another dilemma, even more serious. On the first horn, if it is true that the intellect can "lead us nowhere but to an endless maze of entangling thistles," the highly rational behavior of the masters cannot possibly conduce to any ends approved by Zen Buddhists; on the other horn, any approval of the highly rational behavior of the masters eo ipso vitiates the claim that the intellect can lead us nowhere but to an endless maze of entangling thistles. From these dilemmas Suzuki has no escape, his own disclaimers and protests to the contrary notwithstanding.

    In order to overcome these difficulties and understand and appreciate better the peculiar genius of the Zen masters, it is necessary to distinguish the philosophical and metaphilosophical beliefs of Zen Buddhism on the one hand


5. D. T. Suzuki, Essentials of Zen Buddhism, ed. B. Phillips (London: Rider & Co., 1963), p. 48.

6. Essentials of Zen Buddhism, p. 388; ibid., p. 332; "Zen Buddhism," Monumenta Nipponica 1, no. 1 (1938), 52; Essays in Zen Buddhism, 2d ser. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1952), p. 82.

7. Essays in Zen Buddhism, 2d ser. p. 115; ibid., p. 83.

8. D. T. Suzuki, Introduction to Zen Buddhism (New York: Grove Press, 1964), p. 54.

9. Ibid., p. 55.

 

 

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from the methodological and pedagogic principles of the Zen masters on the other. That is to say, we must separate those beliefs of the masters about what the world is like from their beliefs about how best to inculcate the same or a similar world view in their students. On the basis of the former beliefs the masters governed their personal lives; on the basis of the latter they instructed and interacted with their students. This distinction is crucial for an understanding of Zen, for it points up a fundamental divergence between Zen Buddhism and almost all of Western philosophy.

    The large number of metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and other philosophical books written by Western thinkers from the time of Plato to the present attest to the fact that, with some reservations, Western philosophers have believed language to be an adequate medium for the communication of their philosophical beliefs about the world. [10] However, if it is a basic belief of Zen Buddhism that language hinders our apprehension of the world as it really is, it would follow that the linguistic methodology so regularly utilized by Western philosophers for comparing, contrasting, rejecting, and inculcating philosophical beliefs could not be employed by the Zen masters, for their consequent actions would be seen to belie their beliefs. It would thus be incumbent upon the masters to devise a different method for working with their students. The methods they developed are neither eccentric nor arcane, but they are unusual in that they have no direct Western counterpart. It was by the use of the kooan and mondoo that the Zen masters were able to avoid the logical and linguistic pitfalls attendant on their views, pitfalls into which many of their latter-day spokesmen have unfortunately too regularly fallen. Before turning to an examination of these Zen exercises, however, it is necessary to outline at least briefly the manifold instructional difficulties confronting the masters.

    In the first place, as noted above, every speaker and writer has basic commitments to the rules of logic and language; hence anyone wishing to be a narrator, expositor, advocate, or critic must reject all of those views whose statements have cognitive significance solely in virtue of the logical and linguistic rules they are an attempt to demean and/or deny, for all such views are clearly false. The Zen master, then, must avoid the queerness which arises from the fact that if the statements of some of his views were literally true, he would not have been able to make them. It is possible to expand cognitively a person's frame of reference a great deal by having him consider patterns of thought -- new concepts -- with which he is unfamiliar. It is not possible for him to abandon cognitively that frame of reference on the strength of arguments which must presuppose it; all such attempts are doomed to failure.


10. Plato himself may be an exception, perhaps accounting for his use of the dialogue form. See especially the Cratylus, Phaedrus, and Letter VII.

 

 

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    Similarly, it is another belief of Zen Buddhism that it is because we make too many artificial distinctions that we are unable to come to terms with life and with our environment. [11] But if the distinctions which the masters would thus be at pains to abolish stem from language in any significant way, it is impossible to employ that language in a directly cognitive manner to accomplish the purpose. All such attempts would reduce to "Do not make the distinction which I have just had to make in order to tell you not to make it" -- which is self-stultifying. If I make a distinction, I make a distinction. I successfully communicate that distinction when my audience understands, and therefore makes, the distinction themselves.

    The situation worsens when we consider that even if, per impossible, the Zen master could communicate his views to his pupil in a straightforward manner, he would still defeat his aim because the communication would obviously give the pupil new concepts to entertain, some new ideas to fit into his old frames of reference. But what is desired is that the pupil take on a whole new perspective; such a task, however, the master feels can only be accomplished if the entire logical and linguistic framework of the old is somehow radically altered:

Zen's approach to Reality, when broadly stated, is to reverse all trends, ancient as well as modern, which have been going through the history of human thinking, and pull them backward to their source, or starting point. It is not a Copernican revolution, but a far more radical turning. Zen wants to see everything overturned to its very foundation, and to have it make a new start on that overturned foundation... It is like Dante's Divine Comedy; we have to abandon all our hopes, wishes, ambitions, whatever they are, when we are about to enter the gate of hell. For in the world of Zen we are all to be naked, thoroughly shorn of all the trappings we have put on ourselves since the very beginning of creation. [12]

If this statement is accurately made in the name of Zen, the master could not rest content with merely replacing a larger set of concepts with a smaller set within the students' old frames of reference.

    There is yet another complication. As a number of recent psychological studies have suggested [13] -- and the Zen masters might have believed -- it is often the case that merely telling people the source of their difficulty, however cogently, nevertheless has little or no effect on alleviating the difficulty. An unhappy man can be told, for instance, that the dandelion doesn't have to be


11. See, for example, Essays in Zen Buddhism, 1st ser., pp. 196ff., wherein Suzuki quotes Seng-ts'an, the Third Zen Patriarch, on this point.

12. Essentials of Zen Buddhism, p. 57.

13. H. Fingarette, The Self and Transformation (New York: Harper & Row, 1965). The word "telling" in the text is hopefully neutral in regard to the "hidden reality" thesis of psychotherapeutic interpretation as opposed to the "meaning-reorganization" thesis. Cf. also D. T. Suzuki, E. Fromm, and R. De Martino, Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (New York: Grove Press, 1960), p. 110.

 

 

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seen as a weed, that other people enjoy dandelions, that his trouble is due to the fact that his father was a gardening enthusiast and hated dandelions, or whatever. But unless additional therapy is undergone, it must not be assumed that the unhappy man's botanical horizons will thereby be expanded. Or again: what percentage of people who are deeply concerned teleologically about what happened before the beginning of the universe, or what meaning there is to life, are set at ease by being told that they have made a logical mistake, that their questions aren't meaningful? In the nonlinguistic, personal sense, these are perhaps the most "meaningful" questions many people ask. Purely logical analysis, even if correct, will in all probability not eliminate the problem for them. As Wittgenstein noted in a very similar context, such people will not be satisfied. [14] The Zen master, then, is indeed in a trap; it does not seem possible for him to convey to his students a perspective in which flower-weed distinctions are not drawn when looking at dandelions.

    The master does have, however, at least one important factor in his favor which must not be overlooked: a significant number of his views do not require argumentation, for the novice, by the mere fact of being a novice, shows that he accepts them. It must be kept in mind that the man who sees the dandelion as a flower is in all probability happily at home tending his patch, or bottling dandelion wine. It is the person who sees the flower as a weed who knocks at the gate of a Zen monastery seeking admittance. To him, the First Noble Truth, that life is suffering (and not meaningfully so), is already self-evident; hence persuasion in such matters, philosophical or otherwise, is unnecessary. It is thus the unhappy man who becomes a novice and seeks instruction -- enlightenment -- at the feet of the master. [15]

    So we have a student seeking instruction, but a master who seems powerless to instruct, a teacher whose views have placed him in a linguistic trap. And the keys of cognitively significant statements, by means of which other philosophers would attempt to effect an escape, have been purposely thrown out of reach by the master.

    But what language has given (i.e., such pain-producing questions and other concepts), perhaps language can take away, and it is now that we turn to a consideration of the kooan and mondoo, which occupy a prominent position in Zen. Suzuki's emphasis on these exercises has not gone unchallenged by other writers, [16] but there can be no doubt that they play an important role in the pedagogical techniques of the Zen masters.


14. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. McGuinness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), 6.53.

15. The same may be said for the clientele of the psychotherapist. Cf. Fingarette, The Self and Transformation, p. 27.

16. Cf. Wienpahl's discussion in The Matter of Zen, p. 148. The argument revolves around the relative importance of praj~naa as opposed to dhyaana: wisdom vs. meditation. In emphasizing praj~naa, Suzuki relies heavily on the tradition of Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. Agreeing with Suzuki is Watts in The Way of Zen, p. 113. Siding with Wienpahl is Kapleau in The Three Pillars of Zen, pp. 21-24 and 45.

 

 

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    Mondoo (wen-ta in Chinese) literally means "question-answer." It is a very brief dialogue, most usually between a master and a pupil, with the latter acting as prime interrogator. Here is a sample mondoo between the master Shobi and the monk Kyoozan:

SHOBI: What is your given name?
KYOOZAN: Ye-jaku.
SHOBI: What is "ye"? What is "jaku"?
KYOOZAN: Right before you.
SHOBI: Still there is a before-and-after.
KYOOZAN: Let us put aside the question of before-and-after. O master, what do you see?
SHOBI: Have a cup of tea. [17]

    Kooan (kung-an in Chinese) means "public document." It differs from the mondoo in that the latter are primarily used for purposes of illustration, and only occasionally for meditation, whereas the kooan are standard problems which have been established by tradition to judge a student's understanding of Zen. A kooan is a brief statement made by an old master, or some answer of his given to a questioner; the Zen novice must meditate on the particular kooan given him by his master, until such time as he presents a satisfactory "explanation" of it. One of the most famous kooan is:

A monk asked Tung-shan, "Who is the Buddha?"
"Three pounds of flax." [18]

    These mondoo and kooan have caused no small amount of difficulty to the reader of English-language commentaries, for Suzuki, as example, regularly implies in his writings that in some strange sense these sentences express a metaphysical, epistemological, or aesthetic principle of Zen, although perhaps transcendentally. The implication can be clearly seen in his comment following this kooan:

Shuzan Shonen once held up his shippe [a stick about one and a half feet long, made of split bamboo bound with rattan] to an assembly of his disciples and declared: "Call this a shippe and you assert; call it not a shippe and you negate. Now, do not assert nor negate, and what would you call it? Speak, speak!"

    One of the disciples came out of the ranks, took the shippe away from the master, and breaking it in two, exclaimed: "What is this?"

    To those who are used to dealing with abstractions and high subjects, this may appear to be quite a trivial matter, for what have they, deep learned philosophers, to do with an insignificant piece of bamboo? How does it concern those scholars who are absorbed in deep meditation, whether it is called a bamboo stick or not, whether it is broken, or thrown on the floor ? But to


17. Quoted in D. T, Suzuki, Studies in Zen (London: Rider & Co., 1955), p. 171.

18. Quoted in Essays in Zen Buddhism, 2d ser., p. 84.

 

 

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the followers of Zen this declaration by Shuzan is pregnant with meaning. Let us really realize the state of his mind in which he proposed this question, and we have attained our first entrance into the realm of Zen. There were many Zen masters who followed Shuzan's example, and, holding forth their shippe, demanded of their pupils a satisfactory answer. [19]

And similarly, he says of the mondoo: "We now can fully realize that a most unexpectedly consequential thought is concealed under a most trifling matter-of-fact kind of statement. Zen mondoo cannot be set aside as of no meaning. We are indeed to weigh every word or gesture that comes from a Zen master." [20]

    From the foregoing it is easy to conclude that whenever a Zen master utters a sentence in the interrogative or declarative moods he is either (a) attempting, however unusually, to make a factual statement or ask a factual question; or (b) using language metaphorically to create a mood or feeling, as in a poem.

    Such a conclusion is incorrect. The notions of truth and falsity do not apply to these sentences; they are not intended to convey or request factual information. And it is easily seen that most of them have no great literary appeal, nor are they intended to have any. It is certainly true that the Zen masters often use language to convey and request information, for they could not go about their affairs without doing so; they also often employ language to convey feelings and moods, which is evident from the fact that many masters were accomplished poets. But in the mondoo and kooan the Zen masters use language to yet another purpose; factual and literary uses do not exhaust the possibilities.

    Even in English it is not uncommon to use sentences for other than informative or literary ends. A sentence which is familiar to many students of twentieth-century philosophy -- Russell's "Scott was the author of Waverly" -- is just such an example. [21] Russell was not at any pains to convey facts about English literary history when he used this sentence, and it is extremely doubtful that its style contributed in any way to his becoming a Nobel laureate. He used the sentence as an illustration, as an example of a philosophical point he was trying to make. It is likely that anyone who concerned himself with the truth of the sentence (or its literary value) was almost certain to miss the points Russell was attempting to make in the several articles containing that illustration. Similarly, one might in the nursery begin to say "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe..." with the intent of lulling one's children to sleep. The sentences would be primarily used to quiet


19. Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p. 66.

20. Studies in Zen, p. 170.

21. B. Russell, Logic and Knowledge, ed. R. Marsh (London: Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1956), pp. 39 ff.

 

 

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and relax the children) not to acquaint them with the rudiments of poetry, nor, obviously, to give them any data about the extent and severity of a housing shortage in medieval Europe.

    Such examples are instances of what J. L. Austin calls "perlocutionary" speech acts, in distinction from "illocutionary" speech acts. [22] The latter are acts a speaker performs in saying something (giving information, issuing an order, a warning, etc.), and are perhaps the most common functions served in linguistic communication. On the other hand, perlocutionary speech acts are the acts a speaker performs, or desires to perform, by saying something (such as consoling or annoying another person). The important difference between them is that these latter acts involve the listener with the speaker in a crucial relation not found in illocutionary speech acts, for perlocutionary acts can be unsuccessful in a way in which illocutionary acts cannot. Thus, as Austin points out, [23] we have expressions like "I argue that," or "I warn you that," which, when completed, are illocutionary speech acts, successfully performed and the intent fulfilled when they are uttered under the appropriate circumstances. We cannot say, however, "I convince you that," or "I alarm you that," because our consequent speech act might not bring about conviction or alarm on the part of our listener. We may often speak with the intention of convincing, consoling, alarming, or annoying someone, but such perlocutionary speech acts require a specific kind of response from our listener before they may be called successful. In the example of the old woman in the shoe, my intent would not be fulfilled until the children fell asleep. This distinction is important in the study of Zen, for in the mondoo and kooan exercises the listener and his responses, as will be seen, are of greater significance than the content of the utterances of the speaker.

    Perlocutionary speech acts have a further important feature: the particular words uttered in performing them do not, except by social convention, necessarily relate directly to the intent of the speaker. When preparing to go out for an evening, for example, I might say to my wife, "There is a loose thread on your dress." My illocutionary intent would obviously be to convey information about the appearance of her dress to my wife, which is fulfilled when I have made the statement. And the words I uttered, or near equivalents,


22. J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, ed. J. O. Urmson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 101 ff.

23. Ibid., p. 103. There are, of course, many other distinctions to be drawn both within and between the categories of illocutionary and perlocutionary speech acts, and there is no evidence to show that Austin took the speech activities of Zen masters into account while engaged in his analyses. That he might, however, have endorsed the present conclusions is suggested in the following passage: "It is characteristic of perlocutionary acts that the response achieved, or the sequel, can be achieved additionally or entirely by non-locutionary means: thus intimidation may be achieved by waving a stick or pointing a gun" (ibid., pp. 117-118).

 

 

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were the only words I could have chosen under the circumstances to convey that information. But I might also say to her, "Your dress complements the color of your hair very well," with the perlocutionary intention of pleasing her or taking her mind off the fact that the babysitter was twenty minutes late. In this second case, the particular words uttered by me were not crucial to my intent, for I might have substituted a remark about her coat, complexion, shoes, or what have you. Indeed, if my only intent was to distract her attention from the lateness of the hour, I could have made a remark about almost any topic whatsoever.

    Language, then, can have many uses other than conveying information, and perlocutionary speech acts are often made with intentions only indirectly related to the content of the utterances. In the mondoo and kooan the Zen master is not performing illocutionary but perlocutionary speech acts; he has a specific intent, a specific response which he is desirous of eliciting from his students, and the content of his utterances has little relevance to that response. This intent does not have an ordinary Western equivalent, for the master uses such sentences literally to shock his students out of their conceptual schema.

    It is a defining characteristic of these mondoo and kooan sentences that they make an immense and incorrect category leap. We can say of the Buddha, for example, that he was tall, short, fat, wise, and so on; we cannot say of him that he was three pounds of flax, a carpet, two tons of brass, etc. These latter predicates do not apply to people; so to apply them is to make a category mistake. By attempting to render these sentences intelligible or in any way to interpret them cognitively, the meditating Zen student is led slowly up the ladder of abstraction, which at the optimum culminates in a blurring (and perhaps a vanishing) of the several concepts being entertained. This blurring (or vanishing) is a decided psychological and undoubtedly physiological event in the life of the student. In point of fact, it has a pronounced effect on his subsequent attitudes and responses to his environment, as the whole of Zen literature attests; it changes his way of looking at the world to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the intensity of the experience. And it is to bring about this unusual event, satori or kenshoo, that the Zen master uses these bizarre sentences in such an unusual manner. [24]

    Any discussion of the enlightenment experience (s) falls beyond the scope of this paper. The subject needs a much more systematic analysis than it has hitherto been given, but for now we continue our considerations of the Zen masters and their kooan and mondoo exercises. It must be remembered that


24. The achievement of experiences of this kind while working with abstract problems is not unknown in the West; Arthur Koestler, for instance, underwent a mystical experience in prison while attempting to recall the details of Euclid's proof that there is no greatest prime. See his Invisible Writing (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), pp. 351-353.

 

 

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the master holds the view that all of his student's intellectual efforts are more or less a hindrance to the achievement of his goal. He therefore directs his energies toward having his student stop intellectualizing. Being at least as much a practicing psychotherapist as a philosopher, the master is not so much concerned to argue that distinctions are harmful and hence should be abandoned as he is to have the student abandon his distinctions. This is the sole reason for using this particular type of declarative and interrogative sentence. The Zen master's intent in performing these perlocutionary speech acts is to bring about a specific enlightenment "response" in his students. Questions like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" or "What was your face like before you were born?" have no cognitive answer whatsoever, so a fortiori they have no answer that might express some principle of Zen Buddhism, transcendent or otherwise. The ostensible content of such questions and assertions has no relevance at all to the function they are intended to serve. The answer "four hundred and sixty-two pounds of silk" could have been substituted for "three pounds of flax" in the above kooan without frustrating or altering the master's purpose. [25] Mondoo and kooan sentences have no truth value, nor, except incidentally, do they have any literary value; they can have, for the Zen apprentices, great shock value.

    How, then, does the student "answer" mondoo and kooan? It must be noted that these exercises almost always take place during dokusan, on a one-to-one tutorial basis. It does not seem to be an accident that the literature does not record Zen novices "answering" such questions by raising their hands in the lecture hall. Rather, it must be to the former behavior of the particular student that the master turns when deciding whether or not the student has "passed" his kooan. The master knows all of his students individually; a smile, the slightly different way in which the student might bow before him, the tone of his voice -- all of these and countless other subtle alterations of behavior can be noted by the master, and must form the basis of his judgment of the student's progress.

    At this point it might be objected that the present account of the mondoo and kooan exercises gains credence only by casting aspersions on the intellectual abilities and integrity of both the Zen master and his student. If such questions and assertions as are found in the mondoo and kooan exercises are not factually meaningful in any way, isn't the student being hoodwinked by being asked to contemplate them? Isn't the master aware of the meaninglessness of such questions?
To this objection two replies may be given:

    (1) The kooan and mondoo exercises are effective; they work. The Zen master is employing .a method which he knows by experience enables his


25. This statement is not intended to suggest that one speech act of the master might not be more appropriate under particular circumstances than another; the point here is that all such speech acts will have the same truth value: none.

 

 

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students to alter their philosophical perspective, especially as that perspective concerns language. If a rationale were to be provided for it, the Zen master's reasoning would probably be that questions like "What happened before the beginning of everything?" or "What is the meaning of life?" touch the student too deeply for him to meditate on them at any length without the danger of his becoming psychotic before the desired psychological event occurs. (As we have previously noted, the Zen novice is already something less than an inveterate optimist.) Questions like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" are, on the other hand, more impersonal and hence more suitable for the task at hand. The whole of the traditional Zen literature on the mondoo and kooan suggests that the masters acted on the principle that if a student does not fully understand how he can be misled by his training and language, if he persists in thinking that all syntactically correct interrogative sentences must have cognitively significant answers, then the student should attempt to answer a few that do not.

    (2) Remember that the novice comes to the monastery with a way of looking at the world which does not allow him to come to terms with it as well as he might. Yet the Zen master stands before him. As a teacher, the Chinese and Japanese cultural traditions accord him immensely more honor and respect than his Western counterparts; furthermore, wisdom, serenity, a full participation in and enjoyment of life -- all of these and other characteristics are manifested in the every action of the master, offering immediate and sustaining proof to the student that his case is not hopeless. Along not dissimilar lines, in seeing philosophy primarily as a therapy of sorts, the late Wittgenstein said: "What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle." [26] And, the Zen masters would add, there is more than one way out.

    This use of language, then, is to shock the student out of his intellectual inheritance, to produce a determinate psychological and physiological event for which the student's monastery environment and training have prepared him. The Zen master occasionally uses a poem, or a blow with a stick at the appropriate time, to bring about a similar result. But to the extent that he uses language in this perlocutionary way in the mondoo and kooan he has, so to speak, fashioned a new linguistic but noncognitive and nonliterary key with which to unlock the door of the trap his antilogical and antilinguistic views had created for him. There is indeed a method to his madness.


26. Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1953), #309.