The Abbot’s Gift

I found Zen Koans to be a wonderful example both for an enticing, beautiful crafted educational narrative, and for ‚mental hacking‘ – searching for a solution to a (yet) unsolvable problem, which in turn leads to a higher state of perception.

A Zen monk, early in his training, is preparing to leave the monastery and switch locations, for that is common in the Zen practice. Before he leaves he goes to the abbot of the monastery to say goodbye. He does so, but the abbot says he has a gift for him. Now, it is part of the Japanese way to accept gifts and be appreciative; to do otherwise is rude and, therefore, wrong. The abbot takes a pair of tongs and picks up a red hot coal from the adjacent fire pit on which he has a tea kettle.
The young monk starts to contemplate what he should do, and after a few moments, runs out of the hall distressed, for he cannot figure out what he is supposed to do. He can take the coal and be burned, or he can refuse the gift of the abbot. Both, in his mind, are things he cannot do.

He meditates on the problem for the next week, and comes back to say goodbye. However, the same scene is played again, and the same frustration is found when he tries to figure out what the abbot wants him to do.

He meditates further on the subject and feels he has discovered how to respond to the abbot’s gift. He returns, for the third time, to say goodbye to the abbot, and as before the abbot picks up a red hot coal and presents it as a gift to the young monk. The young monk simply replies, „Thank you.“
The abbot breaks a grin, nods his head, and returns the coal to the fire pit. „You may go now“, he says.

(For more on Koans see Wikipedia: Koans)

As you may say, Koans don’t ask for answers but for a change of perception. And since it’s very difficult to ‚teach‘ a change of perception without disorientation and fear, what better way than to make it the gift of a compelling narrative or game. Its very close relationship to modern day Radical Constructivism, nearly a millenium before Giambattista Vico, makes Zen and it’s short ‚educational‘ narratives so fascinating.

Delve, for example, into this beautiful one about Hui-Neng, an important Zen-Buddhist in the seventh century:

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind.
One said to the other, „The flag is moving.“
The other replied, „The wind is moving.“
Huineng overheard this. He said, „Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.“