Thursday, April 12, 2012

Art and Koan: What does it Mean?

When I drive, it's very rare that I have the radio on. So, when I did happen to turn the radio on on my way to the office, I was captivated by this song:


I used one of my phone's music identifying apps to bookmark it for later. By the end of the day, I had spent the $1.29 in the iTunes store and had the song on a continuous loop as I did my two-mile after-work lap around the local lake.

I think back to high school and middle school, hearing the teacher ask, "What was the artist trying to convey?" or some variant, where "artist" might mean "poet," "author," "composer," "painter," or anything else. "What does it mean?" I remember the sometimes surprising variety in answers from the class, thinking "Interesting. I would not have thought that." On another occasion, though, I thought to ask, "Isn't the author still alive? Why do we not just ask?"

Today I still hear--and now ask--that question: "Why did the master answer that way?" We hold up a koan, a "public case," for examination and ask what it means to each of us... and I am still often surprised by the surprising variety of answers from the class.

The practice seems exotic, but at one level it's something that we've done all of our lives, both inside the classroom and outside: We observe, we interpret, and we respond--questioning and answering, a continuous process.  It's no big deal... except within koan practice.

But what is this koan practice?

I like these lyrics:
Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over
Part of me believing it was always something that I'd done
But I don't wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say
You said that you could let it go
And I wouldn't catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know
A Zen practitioner could sit for a lifetime with this song--or walk mile after mile around the lake with it on continuous loop--looking for the meaning beyond simple interpretation. What will you find there?

It's time to put the song down and get myself to the office! I'll check your answers later after a $2 contribution to my Viral Music Interpretation Fund--see the Donate button on the right ;-)

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