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A Knack


Parables

& Jesus talking about parables—

 “but to those outside everything appears as something to be compared with something else;” (from yesterday’s reading)

21 He said to them, “A lamp isn’t brought in to be put under a bowl or under the bed, is it? Wouldn’t you put it on a lampstand? 22 Indeed, nothing is hidden, except to be disclosed; and nothing is covered up, except to come out into the open. 23 Those who have ears to hear with, let them hear!” 24 He also said to them, “Pay attention to what you are hearing! The measure with which you measure out will be used to measure to you — and more besides! 25 For anyone who has something will be given more; but from anyone who has nothing, even what he does have will be taken away.” (from today’s reading; Mark 4:21-34)

I think that throughout, Jesus is still talking about parables. The passage for today continues from yesterday’s, with the same emphasis: ‘why parables?’ (I am beginning to resist the convention of taking bite-sized pieces of Scripture and assigning them to different days, especially when this causes a reasoned and sequential argument to be broken in the middle.)

What I suspect Jesus is saying is that, in order to understand what he’s getting at, it is absolutely necessary for us to engage in the practice of trying to figure out the parables.

Observe: Chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel starts out with the essential question: “How will you be able to understand any parable?” and continues with the explanation in verse 22: Indeed, nothing is hidden, except to be disclosed; and nothing is covered up, except to come out into the open. 23 Those who have ears to hear with, let them hear!” The discourse continues with, “Pay attention to what you are hearing! The measure with which you measure out will be used to measure to you — and more besides! 25 For anyone who has something will be given more; but from anyone who has nothing, even what he does have will be taken away.” This is an exposition in plain language of the usefulness of working with paradoxes. It is quite clear to me that Jesus is talking about how we think about things.  

I think it could be put this way— “How you measure things will form the context of your reality, and of course you will see everything in relation to your ideas about how to quantify stuff. If you have an idea about something, that idea will generate more ideas. If you don’t have any ideas, then even your notion that ideas are necessary will disappear.”

That brings me to the Zen koan. “Koan” means “public case.” The whole point of a koan is to be found in the fully engaged practice of trying to figure it out. Any Zen teacher will tell you that there is no one answer to any Koan. So, what does the teacher look at when deciding if a student has “passed” a koan? The teacher is not the one who knows if a koan has been passed, no indeedy! No, the teacher is just the one who can discern whether someone has understood the discipline of ‘figuring things out,’ on their own account. I repeat, “on their own account.”  

I suspect that what Zen teachers observe in students are simply the outward markers of that autonomy, that self-generated activity of figuring things out. Not just the ability to figure things out, but the skill of figuring things out. The reason I believe this to be true, is that it is exactly the same as what I learned to look for in my Karate students. Not just looking to see ‘the wheels turning,’ but to see ‘who’s in the driver’s seat’. I could see by their posture, carriage, and expression when they “got the hang of it,” but that wasn’t enough. What I really would look for, and be pleased when I saw it, was their understanding of the means by which they ‘got the hang of it’. I want to introduce the word “knack” here. Some synonyms for “knack” are “aptness,” “adroitness,” “skill,” “instinct,” and “ability.” “Knack” is a good word because it combines “getting the hang of it” with “the skill that leads to getting the hang of it.” So, the thing we are after could be expressed like this:

“A knack for figuring things out.”

I think that Jesus’s parables and Zen koan are aimed at exactly the same thing:

In Christianity, the parable is the substance upon which we practice our knack for figuring things out, and in Zen, it’s the koan.

If we take a look at the sense of the entire passage in the Bible, then we get a reasoned sequence as follows:

—First, Jesus drives it home that it has always been this way by quoting Isaiah, who says, plain as day, that the condition of ‘seeing without noticing and hearing without getting the point’ will last until everything is a desolate wasteland. (“Always listening, never understanding;” Mark 4:12 & Isaiah 6:9-10)

In Zen, that very same condition is described in almost the same terms. Delusion will last until we feel as if we are trying to swallow a red-hot iron ball. Can’t swallow it, can’t spit it out.

—Second, he makes it clear that his message isn’t something that can be explained. (“Don’t you understand this parable? How will you be able to understand any parable? Mark 4:12)

In Zen, “Know without knowing” is an oxymoron that tries to make the point that our ideas about understanding, or the lack of it, are just notions that screw everything up. Neither ‘knowing’ or ‘not-knowing’ have anything at all to do with ‘enlightenment’.

—Third, he describes the nature of duality: that opposites can only be understood in the context of each other. Then, he twice repeats the injunction to “Use your ears to listen with! Pay attention!” (“Indeed, nothing is hidden, except to be disclosed; and nothing is covered up, except to come out into the open.  Those who have ears to hear with, let them hear!  He also said to them, “Pay attention to what you are hearing!” Mark 4:22-24)

—Fourth, he points out that we all have absolute confidence that if we plant a seed in the ground and water it, it’ll grow. We don’t bother our heads about how, we just go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning and let it do its thing. Nevertheless, we know when the tomatoes are ripe, and then we make a sandwich. He’s saying the realm of heaven (or enlightenment) is like that. We just know when it’s time for a tomato sandwich. (Mark 4:26-29)





Turning on the light and then unscrewing the bulb—

wait, did I hear you right?



Am I supposed to make sense of this?



Hoping sandwiches will grow on this tomato vine—

you think next year they might?



Could it be time to take a nap?

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