“Sickness and medicine correspond.
The whole world is medicine.
What am I?”
~ The Blue Cliff Record, case 87
Koans are stories, and stories often have themes. So sometimes, in koan practice, we naturally look to align a theme with a problem we might have. For example, to be overly simplistic, if your tomato and root crops are down this year, as are mine, you might invoke Chao Chou’s Big Turnips (“Teacher, I hear you have personally seen Nan Ch’uan, is that true?” The teacher replied, “San Mateo produces big turnips.”)
I call these cat koans for cat problems, and it is not wrong to match a certain-themed koan with a similar story in our lives. But that experience can be limiting, because we are still looking for meaning, when in fact, koans are wholly without meaning. It is only because koans have no meaning that they have to the power liberate us, and by liberating us, they free the whole world. That is why, for me, I sometimes prefer dog koans for cat problems.
My sister-in-law, Eve, recently participated in a jury-selected art show in San Francisco. For some years, she has been a busy landscape architect, all the while working on a series of paintings of wild horses and of native California trees. Last summer, she returned to art school, and found her print work ~ flame and smoke-stained paper relief molds taken from downed Great Basin bristle cone pine ~ in a show on how local artists respond to the complexities of the climate change crisis.
Recently, in school, Eve was talking with a fellow student about her son, my nephew Nate, who was born prematurely at 26 weeks, weighing only 20 ounces, and who has struggled physically his whole life. Now 20 years old, and long beset by unidentified intestinal tract problems ~ after decades, his Stanford doctors still can’t seem to help him much ~ Nate mostly spends his days at home playing video games. Perplexed, the fellow art student, a mother herself, could not understand why Eve was not making art about her special-needs son. After an intense group session, Eve was able to express that the sadness and presence of death in her art is, in fact, all about her son; her friend had helped her gain a deeper understanding of her art and intentions.
Cat koans and dog stories, they all correspond, and help answer the question, “What am I?’