Thursday, May 29, 2008

Snyder on the Koan

Just read a short interview with Gary Snyder over at the Poetry Foundation site. Thought this bit was interesting --

How would you say the state of mind of working on a koan resembles that of working on a poem? Or does it?

I’ve had a hard time bringing myself to talk about this question, which is sort of “What is the nature of the koan?”

As I think about it, I realize what a tricky task the koan has. It must challenge the student and draw her into it, but not give away enough to make her think she understands it. Koans are not poetry as a rule, and do not aspire to being poetry, but are some type of simple teaching story that is a little bit like a riddle.

If bright people could read koans and then simply “get it,” they wouldn’t be koans.

The intention of a koan is to make people who are bright in an ordinary way, or ordinary people who are bright in an odd way, work harder and go further into themselves. The language presents an opportunity to perceive a metaphor that calls one not to “thought” but to work. Work is performance. Performance is embodiment, and not subject to ordinary rational analysis—it must spring forth freely and spontaneously, as does life for most working people, who are always dealing with the immediate. That’s one kind of koan. So in a way we’re not talking about “language,” we’re talking about the theater of life.


Esther Montgomery said...


I wandered over from Blotanical.

Unfortunately I don't know enough to understand your post - but I thought I would say 'hello' all the same!

Esther Montgomery

Chet Gresham said...

Esther: Thanks for visiting. I think not understanding may be the point! or something.

Morningangel said...

I'm reading this in the morning after too many beers last night, and it's a gruesome experience.

I'm guilty of answering a koan once with a snappy reply. In my defense, though, my answer was a haiku by Basho, and maybe he knew the answer ahead of time. You think?

I noticed you added a link to my blog. Cool beans. tyty