Koan (koh-ahn) is a Japanese term for riddle, an unsolvable enigma. Koans are foundational to Zen Buddhist practice. Adherents meditate on the koan — the most well-known being, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” The rational mind can’t solve the riddle; it is necessary to move to a deeper place of perceiving, not so much to solve it, but to ponder it differently. I remember an American Zen master describing koans as a “truth happening places”, which meant that if we ponder koans long enough we will arrive at a truth – not so much about the koan itself, but about life and meaning.
There are many koans in the Christian Gospels: If you want to save your life, you must lose it; the last shall be first and first shall be last. But the ultimate koan is what the western Christian world celebrated yesterday: Easter, the event of Jesus coming back from the dead. It defies rational explanation. It can’t be proven. And yet the Resurrection is the ground zero moment of the Christian faith.
And the questions emerge, the skepticism surfaces and the doubts persist: did Jesus come back to life in bodily form, with ten fingers and ten toes, and with a normal blood pressure? How did that happen? How could it happen?
I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I will acknowledge that there are many Christians who insist on providing them. But that is not where the Easter koan takes me. Over the years I continue to ponder the remarkable and mysterious Easter story. And instead of trying to figure out how it happened, I wonder: what is the koan’s effect? For me, as I sit with the Easter stories, what I find is that the Resurrection opened people’s eyes to see in a completely new and different way. It enabled Mary, the disciples and the two followers on the road to Emmaus to see — to see new life in Jesus, to see new life in each other, and to see the possibility of new life in the darkest of places.
Now Thomas wasn’t going to be satisfied by just being able to see; he needed to feel; he needed tactile proof. And he got it. And still questions arise: when Thomas stuck his hand in Jesus’ side, did he really feel Jesus’ intestines? Did he actually put his hand through the hole in Jesus’ hand that were left by thick spikes?
I don’t know. But I can say that being able to feel – be it emotionally or physically, heightened Thomas’ ability to see, as it does for me. To see with both imagination and compassion – which involves both seeing and feeling; two ingredients that our egos are nervous about, because they are not easily controlled. The egos want our vision to be focused elsewhere – on what we can know empirically and definitively.
Easter is both an inscrutable koan and an enormous gift. And more than ever, we need to receive the gift of a new way of seeing life – and particularly new life, because the forces and voices in the world are
ramping up their campaign to focus our vision on the world’s darkness. The pictures coming out of Ukraine churn the stomach and pierce the heart. But as the invasion approaches its second month, a protective coating is beginning to emerge. We want to either shade or close our eyes. The pictures are freighted with more pain and degradation than the heart can normally stomach. And so the ego kicks in – with anger, yes, but also with a need to establish some emotional distance from the horror. The ego seeks stability; it is averse to risk and tries to avoid pain. And it will attempt to direct us to think, say — and see, – that all of this evil is happening way over there, which means that it is not happening here (at least not on the same scale). And which also means that we become tempted to look at the Ukrainian pictures as if they are from yet another gruesome TV show.
Which, of course, is what Putin is hoping for. That we will become accustomed to all the atrocity. Not that we would accept it, but that we will be inured to it. And spend our energy trying to protect ourselves by closing our eyes to what is happening beyond our carefully crafted circles, thus giving Putin more opportunity to continue his perfidy. There certainly is historical precedent for this sort of response.
The koan of Easter opens the eyes. To new life, yes, but also keeps our eyes open to the world’s pain and degradation, which is a koan in and of itself. Embracing the Easter koan can help us to keep looking at the world’s darkness, so that our hearts can continue to feel the world’s pain. And can serve as an impetus for us to respond with prayers, compassion, donations, action, advocacy and hope.