A child asks, “Why is the sky blue?” and I realize I have no idea. In the space of experiencing “No idea” wonder opens: at sky, at blue, at blue sky, at the horizon, what lies on this side of it and beyond. Koans are devised to take us from our ordinary mind to this “Don’t-Know Mind,” and the joy of being a mystery within a mystery.
Western practitioners of Buddhism usually turn to traditional Asian sources for their koans. Cultures closer to home can also help to free us from clinging to what is known. One such source is The Book of Questions (El libro de las preguntas) that the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda completed only months before his death. (The Book of Questions, Copper Canyon Press, 1991.)
The book contains seventy-four short poems made up of couplets that pose 316 questions. Like koans, they release us from the seduction of reasoned solutions. Our rational minds cannot penetrate the surface of these questions, but if we surrender to the imagery, we can move below to an unseen place.
Lemons and pomegranates, doves and condors refer to something beyond themselves, and Neruda looks at them with a heart/mind poised on the exquisite coincidence of Form and Empty. Balanced here, he distills his imagination into questions that invite us to see not only infinity in a grain of sand, but also the grain of sand in infinity.
Tell me, is the rose naked
or is that her only dress?
Is peace the peace of the dove?
Does the leopard wage war?
Is the sun the same as yesterday’s
or is this fire different from that fire?
How do the oranges divide up
sunlight in the orange tree?
Where is the center of the sea?
Why do waves never go there?
How many weeks are in a day
and how many years in a month?
Whom can I ask what I came
to make happen in this world?
Why do I move without wanting to,
why am I not able to sit still?
How long does a rhinoceros last
after he’s moved to compassion?
What did the tree learn from the earth
to be able to talk with the sky?
Who was she who made love to you
in your dream, while you slept?
And does the father who lives in your dreams
die again when you awaken?
From what does the hummingbird hang
its dazzling symmetry?
Why do the waves ask me
the same questions I ask them?
Who can convince the sea
to be reasonable?
Do we learn kindness
or the mask of kindness?
If all rivers are sweet
where does the sea get its salt?
Many of Neruda’s questions have the maddening unanswerability of a child’s questions: “Where does shadow withdraw to?” “And why should leaves be green?”
Why are a child’s questions maddening? I think because they reveal to us that we don’t know, and we like to pretend that we do. A child’s questions remind us of the time when we looked on the world with wonder, and the wonder made up for the insolubility of our questions. Neruda says, “What we know is so little, / and what we presume so much.”
After reading Neruda’s questions, it occurred to me that children might provide another source of koans from within our own culture. So I interviewed Iris, the five year old daughter of a friend. It was an odd interview, since the answers I sought were questions. Here are a few:
How did there get to be seeds?
How did there get to be dirt?
Why do leaves fall?
Why does it grow cold?
How did glass become breakable?
Why do worms bite into apples?
Why do waves come in from the ocean?
Why haven’t they found a way to help people with AIDS?
Why did grand-daddy die?
How did sunlight get made?
How did darkness get made?
How do tears come when you’re sad?
On another visit, I sat up with this child during the difficult period of trying to fall asleep. Questions about existence and God had her stirred up that night. Each question offered less and less satisfaction. Her anxiety peaked, and she folded her arms across her chest to think in silence. Then she said, “Who made the world? How did there get to be a first person? That’s a really hard question. But not the hardest.” More silence. “Now I have it! How did there get to be the first thing? See, now I have the question.” And promptly she fell asleep, not with a final answer, but with a final riddle. Her question took her one step closer to the very ground of being, where no answers are possible, and the mind must accept its own incapacity to know. The mind that accepts this not-knowing is at peace.