A Definition: 公案 (gong-an): 公 (gong1) is written as an open mouth that shares speech in a public setting and in this context is used to mean ‘public’. 案 (an4) refers to the presentation of a legal document or record, upon a long table, in this context it carries the meaning of ‘record’. Therefore, 公案 (gong-an) refers to a ‘public record’, or recorded dialogue between master and student within the Ch’an tradition.
The Gong-an: The Zoo Of Dogs. Origin: Contemporary construct. Purpose: Free the mind out of habitually occurring tendencies and reactions.
What follows is an intellectual exploration of the gong-an as a device for psychological change. The gong-an, as a transformative technique, is designed to move through the intellect as ‘it is’, and as a result, re-align its functioning. The gong-an experience allows for the intellect to become aware of its own structure and presence. In so doing, the gong-an becomes redundant as soon as it succeeds in its intended function. The gong-an is both meaningful and meaningless. This represents the integrative or hidden third aspect, which might be described as meaningful-lessness. The gong-an is not a construct and should not be viewed as such. It has no meaning of its own. Historically, its intelligence transcending function has tended to obscure how it works. It is not that the intellect ceases to exist after the re-aligning experience, but rather that intellection in the sense of philosophical assessment is viewed as missing the point – as indeed it is. However, this should not be used as an excuse for not submitting the gong-an method to intellectual scrutiny. It is certainly not the reality that an intellectual transcending method (and event) can be limited to the pontifications of a non-transcended intellect, but rather that the gong-an can be assessed and understood in a contemporary philosophical manner. This is not religion – the Ch’an method has no reliance upon a deity. The intellect to, in its purest form, does not seek a power outside of itself, to be efficient and effective. The following method of analysis is post-modern in essence, and explores the rather fluid meaning of knowledge. As a result the narrative is free of dogma, although the word ‘dog’ does appear in the gong-an that this author has designed for this research paper.
There seems to be a distinction between things as they seem to be, on the subjective level, and the reality of how things actually are, on the objective level. Meaning has the tendency to ‘slide’ between realities, so that not even the interpretive distinctions of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ have any real or concretised basis, from which a reliable interpretation of experience or events, can be realistically evolved. It is not so much that there is no definite ‘knowing’, but rather that this ‘knowing’ exists beyond the means to express it. The expression of knowing is inevitably a continuous process of compromise between the mode of expression on the one hand, and the psychologically developed idea on the other. Of course, both idea and mode of expression are vying to firmly establish their existence – as if both exist ‘externally’ – from the human agency of production. What might be called a continuous effort in one direction, is ultimately doomed to failure, as the type of ‘hyper-knowledge’; and the legitimacy such a knowledge bestows, is based upon a core irrationality – that of knowledge existing ‘free’ of its organic root. This inconsistency lies at the heart of all accumulation of knowledge, and is the essence of the human condition that strives to rise out of the state of ignorance, and into the state of enlightenment. Certainty, by its very nature, must collapse into its philosophical opposite, and remain free of a central determinism – it is free of this, because such a state does not exist in human knowledge. Yes – it appears, on virtually every level of supposed higher knowing, that knowledge that is considered right and just, (from a certain viewpoint, the knowledge of civilisation), is both hidden, and yet permanent. It is hidden in depths of developing history, eternally abiding, in an inert form, and awaiting discovery by an enquiring mind. It is a seducing image, powerful in its secret temptation. What is hidden, discovered, and then found (or judged) to be, in some way ‘superior’ to contemporary knowledge, is extolled as a truth that is more than a truth, greater than that which has been previously known, and obviously a phenomena external to the mind that a) senses it, and b) benefits from its present.
This disjointed bundle of facts, figures, directions, measurements and conclusions, as a body of knowledge, is used to define a line between that which is most definitely and demonstrabaly ‘known’, and that vague area deemed (and doomed) as the ‘unknown’. Divisions, dichotomies, diversions and categories all feed of off this basic dualism. Solace is gained from the consensual agreement that the ‘known’, is indeed firmly ‘known’ and the ‘unknown’, not known at all, because the latter is not required in the process of superior knowing. The unknown does not just comprise of things as of yet, the not realised, but also serve as a dumping ground for things once known, but no longer required to be known, due to being superseded by a ‘newer’ new knowledge that shines with the attribute of being ‘of the moment’, as if it has no history and is always in the state of becoming present. A certain excitement accompanies both its presence and its purpose. Human society develops through the ruptures in time and space its presence causes, like branches or lineages moving in myriad directions, some resulting in beneficial conclusions, others in experimental ‘dead ends’. This is the knowledge of the privileged. It is a cosy existence that presupposes that superior socio-economic circumstances are the product of superior knowing, and that this ‘superior knowing’ precedes economic development. This view is, of course, the inverse of the reality of the situation. Economic privilege creates social development. It is the development of the economic base that dictates the level of social development. Superior knowledge does not precede a good life, full of certainty and privilege, but is rather the by-product of a system (and a class), that utilises the wealth of economic development, to build education systems based upon the premise that knowledge has a greater value, the less it is shared throughout society as a whole. As a consequence, there are the ‘knower’s’, (the privileged classes), and there are the ‘non-knower’s’, comprised of everyone else. The non-knower, is of course, deemed as a failure due to their lack of knowing, which in reality translates as their lack of economic wealth, access to which, would automatically guarantee entry into the higher, educational system. The asymmetrical schematic relating to knowledge replicates itself from the environment to the mind and from the mind to the environment. Knowledge that is perceived to have exploitable value (in one form or another), is viewed as special, and this adds to the aura of unassailable mystery that appears to surround its possessor(s). This is the kind of knowledge that religious institutions have exploited in the past, exercising a mystic force that presented knowledge as if it originated outside the mind’s of those who conceived or perceived it.
This kind of knowledge feeds off of the uncertainties of the masses – it is a confidence trick and a masquerade – exhibiting the educated exploiting the uneducated. Mystery is not the error, but rather a privileged knowledge that presents itself, (through human agency), as a spiritual revelation, a knowing that is beyond knowing, and yet is ‘known’, but only by a chosen few defined by, and through the use of dogma. Dogma is the semantic adhesive that holds the illusion together in the face of contradictory evidence. Religion is not the error, after-all, it is simply another manifestation of the use of a privileged knowledge over masses. On the contrary, it is the complete and total misuse of a method designed to bind an individual or group to a path of psychological and physical discipline that is the ‘error’ – so much so that the ‘error’ is often mistaken for the activity, and there is good reason for this. Spiritual knowledge is really no such thing. It is essentially a process of making sense about that which is empty. Emptiness is breathtaking to encounter as it denies the usual (human) habit of construct building in the mind that forms the basis of a dualistic world view. How can this be? How can a way of ‘knowing’ escape the dictates of exploitative psychology? It does so because there is nothing solid (perceptually) to build upon. Usually, in such a circumstance, the inconvenient, odd or problematic is removed from consideration by being judged redundant, old or out of date. However, as convenient as this fluid definition of reality might be, there is always the acknowledgement that for ‘something’ to exist, there has to be the accompanying concession that there is a possibility that it previously did not exist, or might not exist at some, unspecified future date. Indeed, although risking a slide into the realm of the illogical, emptiness can exist due to the possibility of the absence of things. Everything appears ‘here’ before the senses, and it appears impossible to sense ‘no-thing’. A sense must sense something to demonstrate its ascribed function. Whatever the experience of emptiness might be, as it attracts the epithet ‘empty’, it has to be a radical departure away from that which is usually experienced, and that might be termed the ‘everyday’. Whatever the spiritual experience might, or might not be, human existence on the material level demonstrates that each human life has a definite beginning at conception, and a conclusive ending at the moment of physical death. This example – as if it where not enough – demonstrates that at least biological materialism – with its observable beginning and ending of physical processes, ensures that the notion of emptiness, (as in physically ‘not-being’), endures for as long as matter survives in the way that it does, conducive to the development of life.
Spiritual knowledge is not necessarily religious knowledge. It is true that if a path known to bring about an educational transformation is adhered to correctly, (that is, if an individual or group are ‘bound’ to such a path), then a transformation in the acquisition and understanding of knowledge is achieved. The original meaning of religion is to ‘bind’, and it is obvious that many secular, educational establishments evolved out of the religious
institution. The requirement to ‘bind’ to a path is the same for the committed Marxist, as it is for the committed Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim. It then becomes a matter of assessing how the individual ‘binds’, and what particular motivation lies beyond the binding process. The misuse of religion as a political institution is, of course, a perversion of the ‘binding’ process. The act of binding itself, (to the particular subject at hand), remains a process of direct connectedness. Although economics define the process of binding in as much as the quality of the instruction and location of the institution, once the learning situation is established, the binding process should remain free, (as far as possible), from any other concern, so that the maximum transference of knowledge is attained in the intended time span of study. In reality, this process might be interpreted as the acquisition of knowledge in the shortest, reasonable amount of time needed, to master the subject at hand. Of course, even at the greatest perceived level of equality and civility, the binding process is not without its exploitative aspects, indeed, the entire process is dependent upon the reality that a teacher ‘knows’, and a student does ‘not’ know, ensuring an asymmetric situation that sees a privileged knowledge flow in one economically defined direction only.
In this model teachers do not teach for free, and students have to pay to access this privileged world. By contrast, true spiritual knowledge is often of a nature that does not attract an exploitable value in its rawest sense. A meditator, who owns nothing and lives in a constant state of self-absorption in a forest environment, remains by and large on the fringes of economic exploitation. His product of knowledge of the ‘empty’, as it manifests in an organic environment, is of little value to those who have no interest in it, or desire to possess it. In a sense, this kind of spiritual endeavour moves in the opposite direction to the usual flow of economic, exploitative forces. Institutional religious monoliths, on the other hand, peddle second hand spirituality that has no direct experience in the minds of the so-called believers. These social constructs participate fully in the exploitative process, and present a spiritual knowledge that its members no longer possess – as the economic incentive to exploit and acquire, prevents such practices as silent meditation in a forest, because such a practice is unprofitable and not popular amongst the masses. A dry, purely theoretical knowledge replaces the direct experience of spiritual attainment. It is a sleight of hand that creates, (for a price), the illusion of spiritual attainment, as if such an experience, (which amounts to the awareness of emptiness, as counter-knowledge), can be imparted from a socio-political construct, to an individual, effectively removing the requirement for self-study and effort usually involved in such an experience. Religious institutions, as political entities, distort spiritual experience into the ecclesiastical equivalent of a parking meter – you get what you pay for – and not what you earn, through self-development and correct effort in the right direction. There is no inner development involved in the religious institute. Spirituality become a poor and faded copy of its former self, when filtered through such a process.
True spirituality either sits outside of the exploitative, economic process, or it is demeaned and distorted beyond all recognition, by the same process – it can not be both. A religious institution spends virtually all of its time maintaining a form of knowledge that, like all knowledge, would otherwise fall into the state of uncertainty – scientific and educational establishments perform exactly the same function – that is the illusion of the continuation and relevancy of knowledge. This process of artificial life extension is both necessary in a broad sense, (as the collapse of accumulated knowledge would have dire effects for society as it exists), and yet at the same time is completely redundant. Institutes, establishments and individuals control the natural atrophy of knowledge (as a bundle of disparate facts logically stored [or otherwise linked] together), so that what exists today, has a greater possibility of existing tomorrow, in much the same way. This process involves the maintaining of the notion of predictability, so that a cultural cohesiveness is psychologically perpetuated in the minds of the masses, and social constructs maintained. The irony is that knowledge does change. Science defends a theory with a total disregard to criticism – until that theory is obviously proven to be incorrect. In such a circumstance the scientific establishment literally stops defending what has become the old theory, as if it did not exist in the past, and does not exist in the present. It has lost value, and with its loss of value, it has lost its privileged status as something that should be known, defended and cherished. This abandonment is as peculiar as it is sudden. At no time is the scientific establishment held to account for defending a theory that is now viewed as wrong. By removing the structures of artificial support, knowledge falls into its natural state of redundancy, and becomes ‘empty’ of meaning. Although judged ‘out of date’, knowledge itself, as a collection of words and phrases associated with corresponding psychological constructs, does not judge itself as redundant – because as an individual concept, it appears never to have existed in any meaningful sense, other than through that certain sense of orthodoxy temporarily ascribed to it by the establishment.
As meaning is fluid, its temporary nature creates an illusion of solidity – it is this solidity that allows for the counter-concept of non-existence to become logically acceptable and apparently real. It is not that ‘existence’, or ‘non-existence’ as valid, descriptive states, do not exist in themselves, but rather the existent (or non-existent) label only have a realistic and useful meaning within a particular context – these states are not real in themselves, but exist depending upon the auspices of many other, accumulative phenomenal considerations. Trends, circumstances, momentary associations, natural occurrences and random events all contribute a certain specific ‘something’ to the descriptive label. As trends and circumstances are themselves equally fluid in construct (non-construct) manifestation, no absolute certainty is possible, because as soon as the illusion of permanence is apparently achieved, the ever-changing constituent elements transition, transform and move away from the definitional and momentary ‘point’ termed existent. It is not certain that constituent elements exist – or do not exist – in any meaningful way, their function is that they appear to exist, and this appearance is momentarily useful. The moment is mistaken as permanent, and all else flows from this basis. Any label becomes a problem as soon as it is conceived and constituted into a focus that appears to be more than it is. It is useful and redundant, simultaneously. The mistaken state of permanency leads logically to the necessary and apparent negation of this falsehood, but what amounts to this negation, is also subject to the insight that all is contingent, and as such, phenomena is unable to be adequately described, as any process toward a definite and precise meaning can only be one-sided in nature, and move ever further away from the state of fluidity it is seeking to explain. Meaning becomes a ripple in time and space, which includes the notions of time and space, as no formulation of apparent constancy can withstand for long, the movement toward desolation. Contrived meaning breaks down. Meaning breaks out of its definitional boundaries, which can only be arbitrary from the moment of conception, that is, when meaning is forced, through contractions of the mind (intellect), to constitute itself out of its non-definable essence.
Meaning therefore, can not be in an emerged (fully present state), or in a non-emergent (empty) state, as such. The emergent and non-emergent states depend upon one another for their existence, and neither is able to convey the true nature of the reality that either state claims to represent. Both emergent and non-emergent states are incomplete, partial and lack a rooted correctness, if such a reality exists. This points to the true nature of phenomena being an as of yet undefined third aspect, that is simultaneously free of emergent and non-emergent categorisation, and yet fully inclusive of both concepts. A process that may be termed a certain kind of logic, builds its conceptual traps as it goes about its business of structure building in the mind, allowing for each necessary structure to be short-lived, and yet in its short life-span, allowing the argument toward understanding to progress from one stage to the next, feeding of off each structure as its emerges, and then dissolve into non-emergence, using the force of desolation to move positively forward toward the next, temporary concept. Desolation and construction compliment one another and there is no wasted energy that is usually his third state can not be ‘full’, and it can not be ‘empty’, and yet ‘fullness’, and ‘emptiness’ can both be used to describe it from a particular perspective. Partial explanations are, of course, only partially correct. Language conveys what it can, and can be used in such away, so that the immediacy of redundancy can be taken into consideration. Language, by its very definition, is its own trap. It is a useful and incredibly complex contrivance that allows for science, biology and philosophy to be manifest upon and within the human realm. It creates the presence of meaning, which although long-lived, nevertheless, can not last. Each word emerges from the mind essence, and is the nature of thought itself. Language and thought is the same thing, free of distinction, and categorical contrivance. The mind draws meaning from matter, and matter provides the raw data the mind draws from. The third defining aspect must involve both mind and matter, and that through reconciliation, this duality must reconcile into a complete order of sorts. Sense must be made of the abstract, and the abstract must become normative.
The zoo of dogs is a very important case in point, as it brings the usual cognitive processes to a shuddering halt. Much can be made of this simple statement – it contains at least one Greek word, it names at least one animal, and suggests a collection of animals in one place – but some thing appears not to be quite right. The sliding scale of meaning is suggesting that this statement is not logically centralised to agreed standards. Why should this be so? Any one reading this statement – The Zoo of Dogs – can tell straight away that there is meaning, but that this meaning is conveying meaning outside of the rules of one particular set of strictures that serve to define meaning. It has no apparent meaning, and yet in essence has the potential to contain every possible meaning – meaning expands with no increase in size. A collection of ‘dogs’ is a pack, seldom, if ever is a group of dogs referred to as a ‘zoo’, and yet a zoo is a collection of animals, and the term ‘zoo’ can also refer to a single animal. What do dogs know of zoos? The answer, if that what it is, is probably as about as much as zoos know of dogs – a non-conception, a non-emergence, a non-moving away from the neutral position. The sentence The Zoo of Dogs does not easily allow for a truth emergence from the apparent obscurity of the mind essence, it catches the intellect in the act of presumptuous knowledge building and opinion making – the intellect falls-over its own habit, as it lacks the appropriate structures to see the building process to its conclusion.
The Zoo of Dogs contains the highest meaning of demonstration, but little, if any, emergent usefulness. Its usefulness lies in its immediate and stark redundancy – its lack of useful meaning is breath-taking, and reveals the mechanism of the emergent mind, as it falters to a grinding halt. The Zoo of Dogs can not emerge, it is prevented from emerging by its lack of apparent functionality in the so-called real world it seeks or strives to control through the boundaries it sets. It is stuck half way. It can proceed any further than its initial, startling appearance. Its awe inspiring simplicity unleashed a power far beyond its lack of functionality – as functionality would doom The Zoo of Dogs to the mundane or the banal, and it would not present in away that reveals, but instead in a manner that defines by obscuring. There is no zoo, and there are no dogs. The jumble of letters is a fraud, they are not letters. Each meaning has the potential (and necessity) to collapse into the next, and this process hides the process itself, creating a perception in reverse. Collapsing meaning is reassuring, familiar – like a member of the family – and allows for a certain sense of well being, as if redundancy and contingency are two pillars of a universal constant. The fact is that the pillars have no where to rest their bases – they stand in mid-air, if indeed, they stand at all. Meaning can only have shape and form (i.e. ‘relevancy’), if there is a definite demarcation that defines non-meaning. There is never a The Zoo of Dogs – the concepts refuse to sit together, and yet there is a certain symmetry of presentation that mimics order, and projects meaning into the mind of the observer.
This meaning is not projected, of course, but only appears so. The entire notion is created in the mind only, and even the letters that comprise The Zoo of Dogs do not exist independently in the environment. The letters can be randomly re-arranged to take on, and form any word, or list of words without limit. Convention limits creativity, and limits of creativity exist in the boundaries set for expression. Modes of expression have a limit to the extent of the mechanics of expression involved. The medium of expression, be it painting on a canvas, writing on a page, putting images upon film, etc, (placing dogs in a zoo), all run into the limits of apparent creativity – the size of the canvas (its edges), the duration of the pen, (ink content, nib, etc), and length and quality of film, (images can only be captured in a certain, limited manner), all contrive to limit the very expression they seem to encourage. All these methods, including letters, words and sentences, are entwined with psychic substance, and are limited not so much in mind capacity – which appears unlimited – but rather by the physical tools the mind has created through its own particular genius. Meaning can only appear to have meaning, if meaning itself is transparent and essentially non-existent as a permanent entity. Meaning has meaning – because meaning has no meaning. There is no truth that is not part of its own ‘anti-truth’. Meaning emerges from its own negation, and exists integrated with its own demise. Truths that appear to exist for long periods of time are merely illusions that are consciously recreated moment by moment in the minds of those who would believe them to be true.
This extraordinary situation is thoroughly normal, (it has to be), if meaning is to have any existence at all. The meaning extracted from letters on a page, is an agreed presentation, based upon a consensus of understanding, that is, an agreed, conspiracy of meaning, which in reality amounts to an intolerance of elasticity, and prevention of natural atrophy. Value is affixed to the notion of ‘stability’, and its anti-value ascribed to its opposite – ‘fluidity’. This illogicality underlies the very notion of communication as devised by the human mind, which provokes a kaleidoscope and avalanche of cordial expression. Beauty is existent – of this, there is no doubt – but it exists as part of a totality. The tyranny of human intelligence limits beauty to one-sided cliché, and in so doing, prevents the immensity of the knowing of the universe to shine through. Although, of course, even limited notions of beauty contain beauty. How much more could be achieved, if a natural totality of beauty were clearly, and completely perceived? Knowledge is, by convention, psychologically and physically limited. Knowing this, allows for the freeing of meaning, so that an all embracing unity is revealed. This unity is present from the beginning and is not a contrived development. Breaking free of the limited narrative of meaning, allows for this complete state to re-emerge in its complete and pristine state. Apparent illogicality – The Zoo of Dogs – allows for the dark curtains of convention to be opened and for the light of reality to shine through. The need for convention ensures a certain type of meaning, but in so doing, prevents a totality of knowing from manifesting.
The gong-an contains all this, and more. In a blinding flash, the mind is made aware of itself and all narratives hitherto active are frozen into a state of apparent void, a state which is then expanded out of oblivion (relative voidness) and into an all embracing, reflective perception that manifests all phenomena with an awareness of its shared essence and disparate expression. Meaning takes on the commitment state of existing and non-existing with no contradiction. A onesided appreciation of reality is freed into an apparent multiplicity of fluid meanings and their opposites with no dichotomy.
Although this experience is beyond words and sentences, and although the mundane intellect can not necessarily be transcended through the ordinary use of language and concepts, nevertheless, such an experience and consequence, can, with the right kind of words, be shown to have definitely occurred and therefore exist as a reality, rather than be described as a vague happening, which is otherwise obscured by the imprecise language concepts of mysticism. The gong-an method should not be mistaken for a rigid system of ritual, otherwise mistaken as Buddhist practice. The gong-an method may well take the form of a dialogue between master and student, but it can take any form – even seated meditation – whereby the intellect is shook out of its apathy of habit and re-aligned into a transcendent state – which becomes normalised for those who experience it. Language can be used to describe the ingenious gong-an device, but in so doing, the concepts it employs – despite being full of expressive meaning and poignant vigour – nevertheless fall immediately into a state of redundancy. This aspect of reality contains the freedom that the human mind desperately seeks through its numerous activities and devices designed to gain knowledge of one sort or another. Redundancy of meaning is the doorway to a more complete knowledge of the mind, its function and an understanding of the totality of knowledge. As Hamlet says, the rest is silence…