Just the word sounds relaxing. We think of Zen gardens, and Zen meditation, and we say things like “she’s so Zen.”
But sometimes, Zen is a bit of a mindf#ck.
Have you ever tried to read some actual Zen teachings?
Try this one from a “Zen master”:
“Learning Zen is a phenomenon of gold and dung.
Before you understand it, it’s like gold; after you understand it, it’s like dung.”
WTF? I get the whole true understanding comes when we abandon logic and all that, but really?
Let’s try this one: “If you want to climb a mountain, begin at the top.”
These are examples of Zen koans, which are used in many Buddhist traditions. A koan cannot be “solved” using logic or reason, which is why they really annoy me.
Instead, the student must enter into the mystery of the riddle itself. After days or weeks or months of pondering the koan, enduring intense cognitive dissonance while unable to use mental faculties to resolve it, the student experiences a flash of insight; it is this altered state that is the ultimate purpose of the koan, not the “answer” itself.
For example, the popular koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” may seem to have a simple answer – it’s just one hand waving around in the wind! DUH! But the meditator enters into the riddle, transcending duality and intellect, and arrives at an “understanding” of the two hands existing as one.
Or something like that.
It’s probably not surprising that a practice dedicated to abandoning cognition and mental activity would perplex me. But as I’ve journeyed through parenthood for almost a decade now, I realize that I have encountered many similarly cute and confusing riddles that defy logic, like this one, for example:
“Newborns sleep between 16 and 20 hours a day.”
That one caused me a whole boatload of cognitive dissonance when my daughter was born!
Like Zen, parenting is a bit of a mindf#ck, too.
Perhaps this is what Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn mean when they say our children are our “live-in Zen masters.”
I think they’re right. Have you ever heard a four-year-old tell a joke?
Take my son, for example:“Mommy! Why did the chicken cross the road?” “I don’t know.” “Because… um…. [pauses to think of the punchline]… because he wanted to go to see his friend on the road … and… um… [realizes it’s supposed to be funny] … he … he wanted to poop on his friend!” [always go for the potty humor, kids.]
In many ways, Zen koans, our children’s jokes, and parenting itself are like Dada art — absurd, circular, and nonsensical, truly more about the experience than the content (which, for all three, is often about bathroom behavior). And like art, they can all lead to insight.
It makes you wonder: if the Buddha hadn’t left his wife and infant son to pursue enlightenment for six years in the forest by himself, and instead had remained to raise his son, would he actually have been enlightened faster? Surely his little boy had some absurd knock-knock jokes or puzzling “Why did the elephant cross the road?” responses that would have sent daddy Siddhartha into days of existential contemplation.
For example, my little one is no son of a Buddha, but he did come up with this one:“What happened to the turtle who crossed the road?” “I don’t know.” “A car came down the road and ran over him and killed him!”
You’ve got suffering and impermanence and non-self and [c]arma right there!
There’s a Zen for everything today — surfing, fishing, even coding. So of course we have Zen parenting, but let’s just put it out there that Zen Parenting is NOT constant peace and serenity. In fact, we could write our own koan:
Zen parenting is not Zen.
I suggest we establish that Zen parenting is about embracing absurdity. Parenting, like a perplexing koan, often calls for the abandonment of logic and the acceptance of paradox. It sometimes feels like a difficult homework problem that we’ll never solve.
And that’s okay.
Koans, in addition to being confounding riddles, are meant to be playful. They are a reminder to not take everything so seriously.
And that’s something parents could use, too.
To assist you on the journey towards parental enlightenment, I took the liberty of creating the Parents Revised Version (PRV) of traditional Zen koans.
Enter into the mystery, my fellow travelers…
You saw that one coming, didn’t you?
Yep, parenting sometimes feels like a mystery we will never completely grasp.
But how do we approach Mystery?
The word koan means “public case.” A koan is to be worked on by the student in consultation with a teacher. There is dialogue and support and community. Parents need the same thing.A monk asked: “What is the sound of one parent parenting?” A wise one replied: “Don’t do it. It takes a village, y’all.”
Now that one I get.
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