Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ohhh's or Aha's...which do you prefer?

In my last post I put up a koan that has been spinning in my head for over 20 years. Now, I am not much of a koan guy nor classically trained in them. In Soto Zen our central practice is Shikantaza...just sitting zen. However, this one koan, 'Why is a mouse when it spins?' tickles my brain for some reason, so I dwell on it from time to time.

Now, I have a certain understanding of this koan, which I am sure a Rinzai Zen Master would not accept, but what the #@%^, I really don't care. For myself this koan has helped me see 'sideways'. This is all I can say about that, without sounding totally like I just flew in from Venus.

One thing I have come to know about koans, is that there are two experiences you can have with them. One is the , "Oh, I See" experience. This is when the koan is sort of explained to you. Your intellect grabs onto it and says it understands, but this is limited understanding.

What is more important, at least from my limited and extremely delusional perspective, is the 'Aha' experience. This occurs when you can 'see' the koan in its wholeness and get the 'feeling' behind it. Your whole body feels it. You may have the same answer as the person who gets the 'Oh, I see' experience, but your understanding is authentic as it comes from a deeper place within you.

It's similar to solving a word in a crossword puzzle you have struggled with without using a dictionary or asking for help. It pops into your head and you go, 'aha!' When you use the dictionary you get the 'oh, I see' is a bit unsatisfying.

My karate teacher, Mr. Paul Dean, was good at just letting us practice without a lot of criticism or critique (until you got to certain levels). He allowed you to explore the art's techniques and katas, especially when exploring a kata's bunkai, or hidden self-defense techniques.

Exploring bunkai on your own and getting the 'aha' is much more inspiring and exciting than having someone just tell you what a certain move means. When you can find it coming deep from within yourself, that 'aha' helps you grow and expands your mind larger than you know. (Right ZenHG?...check out his On the Dojo Floor blog). It is the road to mastery of your art.

So, as you go through life, what do you want? Do you want the "Oh, I see" or the "Aha!"...with a big 'Yes!' running behind it? I know what's more fun. How about you?

Hands palm to palm,


  1. I thought the title was yours and was explaining the picture. I didn't know it was a famous Koan.

    So if I look at the koan alone the I get the idea that any mind in the state of asking "why" is like an active creature going here and there.

    But as even I have said and I don't know much about Koans at all, they are not for rational explanation but to shatter the rational mind.

    Maybe I should say "MMMM! Dead Mouse!"

  2. Why is a mouse when it spins? Well, because it is . . that's what its state of being is in that moment, it is spinning! Nothing more needs to be known! What is . . 'IS'.

    Sorry guys, that is my 'aha' concerning this koan!

    Bloody good post again Shinzen, very informative as always, thanks for the education in so many aspects of 'Zen'.

  3. You are right in that the koan is to shatter the rational mind's grip on 'consensus reality' is getting the experience of discovery that is important.

    And, yes, the 'why' is the mind running and spinning like a mouse...the rational mind caught in analysis paralysis. Breaking this paralysis, again for me, is the purpose of koans. Life gives us many natural ones.

    Thanks for venturing into dead mice. I see them too.

  4. Doug: I love your 'aha'. I can see where mine is still spinning!

  5. The difference between understanding and knowing.