Satisfying Hunger with Koan: A Critical Review of Foulk’s Scholarly Perspective

How can we satisfy hunger?

Beyond the basics of just enough food, clothing and shelter, we still crave. More.

However, it looks like we’re heading into a protracted period where economic growth will no longer fuel the illusion that we can satisfy our craving through more and more stuff.

According to a piece in today’s NYTimes, “Older, Suburban and Struggling, ‘Near Poor’ Startle the Census,” there’s a new measure of poverty (a family of four with an income in the high $20,000s, depending on your region) that includes those on the brink of poverty, “…all told, that places 100 million people — one in three Americans — either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it.”

Even if the Occupy movement is stunningly successful and we enter an era of economic justice with the wealthy paying their fair share and with military budgets cut significantly (both items I heartily support and are essential, imv, if we’re to pull back from the verge of economic collapse), it may not be enough to erase our crippling debt burdens and make it possible for governments to follow through on promised support for the old and sick – that’s most of us sometime, of course, and maybe soon if we’re not there already.

Political and economic solutions are not sufficient to satisfy hunger. What is sufficient?

Imv, only through spiritual practice can we live lives that stare this issue in the face and even resolve it.

Yes, resolution is possible. That’s the good news of the Buddha’s third truth, you know. Good news that’s only news unless it’s taken in and digested. So the fourth truth is to practice resolution through all the activities of daily life.

One practice of resolution in the Zen tradition is koan. Recently I posted a link to a number of presentations at this month’s Dogen conference in Florida (click here), including one by Griff Foulk, “Dogen’s Use of Koans.”

Because a correct understanding (and practice) of resolution, satisfying hunger, is central to what Zen has to offer, I’m going to address some of Professor Foulk’s points here in a critical way. I posted the talk, after all, and although I don’t only post what I agree with, in this case I disagree enough to express the issues. This is especially for you if you’re beginning to work with koan or considering such a thing. It’d be a disservice to you to appear to support some of Foulk’s views.

To be nice and fair, there’s quite a bit in Foulk’s talk that I agree with. He makes a clear case for old Dogen not mushing up enlightenment and nonenlightenment. He emphasizes the importance of understanding the context of koan language and references in a really entertaining manner. He dispenses with the party line in some parts of Soto Zen that assert that Dogen didn’t use koans. Foulk rebukes those who call koans riddles or assert that they are nonsensical, free-association word play. These are all helpful points.

There isn’t as much that I disagree with, although I think it’s the more important stuff. Some of my disagreements are about Dogen interpretation which isn’t spot-on to my focus here (probably not so important either) so I’ll say no more about that. For now.

Here’s what is important that I disagree with: Foulk asserts (about 10:20 into the talk) that “…the meaning of any koan can be explained in logical philosophical language.”

Much of that has to do with understanding Mahayana Buddhism and the cultural context of the koan. Foulk claims that understanding a koan requires appreciating the hidden metaphors and he suggests that through this process we might get what koans have to offer.

Although it may be that a philosophical understanding helps begin to work with a koan,  a philosophical approach is not sufficient for realizing a koan. Koans are not metaphors. They are not resolved through using language in a representational manner. If they were, then Zen has little to offer and we’d have been wiped off the face of the earth long ago.

Foulk’s interpretation of Zhaozhou’s Mu and Yunmen’s Dried Shit Stick are incredibly far from the mark and simply do not satisfy hunger. The professor would get immediately dispatched from any dokusan room in the land and I suggest that he restrain himself from such scholarly speculation disguised as the truth of koan.

Foulk’s comments are like before dinner conversation by someone who has never eaten. Even the comments on koans by the old masters like Dogen, Wumen, and Hakuin are like after dinner conversation. The meal is taking up the koan in sitting, standing, walking and lying down. Only then can hunger be satisfied.

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