An unexpected book arrived in the mail the other day. A gift from my friend’s at Wisdom Publications. Zen Master Raven: The Teachings of a Wise Old Bird. by Zen Master human form, Robert Aitken.
Here the koans are told by and to animals of the forest: raven, porcupine, owl, woodpecker, badger, black bear, and more. Master Raven is irreverent, mischievous, and obtuse much like traditional Zen masters.
In the new forward by Nelson Foster, we learn that Aitken had some initial trouble getting this published. One might be able to appreciate why. Zen can be recondite and this collection, animals notwithstanding, is no exception. But if you can get past the entries that are inscrutable, there is much to mine here.
Here is a playful entry entitled “The Spirit of Practice”
Relaxing with the others after zazen one evening, Owl asked, “What is the spirit of practice?” Raven said, “Inquiry.” Owl cocked his heart and asked, “What do I inquire about?” Raven said, “Good start.”
Some of entries like “Brown Bear’s Purpose” remind me of Jane Hirschfield’s poem, “Why Bodhidharma Went to Howard Johnsons’
“Where is your home,” the interviewer asked him. Here. ”No, no,” the interviewer said, thinking it a problem of translation, ”when you are where you actually live.” Now it was his turn to think, perhaps the translation?
Of course, Zen itself is a contradiction–at once iconoclastic and iconic. The original practices were a reaction against orthodoxy and intellectualization and that remains the spirit of Zen although sometimes hard to achieve through the cultural lenses it has come to us by. Raven seems to be committed to freedom rather than confinement and that sometimes takes the form of what appears to be non-sense.
The more inscrutable passages function have the same effect as damaged electronics in the movies. We see sparks, smoke, and shorting-out. The koan does this to the mind–discombobulates it, confuses it, so it lets go of conceptualization.
These koans can be read much like poetry and can be a meditation in themselves.
Too Busy: Owl said, “I notice that some students go from teach to teacher. What do you think of this? Raven said, “Busy.” “After all,” Owl said, “practice is a matter of settling in.” Raven said, “Still too busy.” Owl said nothing.
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