François de La Rochefoucauld was a 17th century aristocrat and wit who wrote, among other things, a series of “Maxims.” His observations always struck me as being tinged with an arrogance I didn’t much care for. But that distaste didn’t stop me from recognizing what I considered to be true within his down-the-snoot offerings.
And the maxim that sticks in my mind like a barbed koan was this: “The intelligence of the mass is inversely proportionate to its number.” Put a lot of people together and the tendency to produce a mediocre compromise rises. Something inside me hates to think this is true, but the evidence is pretty compelling. The flip side of the coin, of course, is that a clear and uncompromising vision can easily — very easily — evolve into an arrogance that leaves corpses in its wake.
It is so easy to address this issue with a dulcet intellectual tones. “Yes,” some voice says as if it knew its ass from its elbow, “we are all human.” But it is quite another thing to address the issue within the heart, the place where uncompromising visions of all sorts are born. Who has not been purely ‘convinced’ in one way or another — in seeking one goal or another, one love or another, one happiness or another? And how easy it is to seek out like-minded people to bolster the conviction. But in seeking out and relying on those others, what happens to the conviction? Does it remain strong and clear or does it tend to blur along the edges … nibbled bit by bit until what was once a bright blaze becomes a dim candle, casting a comfortable but mediocre light?
I have no answer for this koan, but I think it is worth stating, worth investigating. Everyone has uncompromising dreams … and everyone makes compromises. But finding a peace between these two pillars of fire … well, perhaps it is worth the price of admission. Do you forgive the compromises and rest easy and comforted in a like-minded support system? Do you damn-the-torpedoes-and-full-speed ahead? Both positions are strong and contradictory and….
Well, without resorting to bullshit, where is the peace?
Adam Genkaku Fisher
A kōan (pronounced /ˈkoʊ.ɑːn/; Chinese: 公案; pinyin: gōng’àn; Korean: gong’an; Vietnamese: công án) is a fundamental part of the history and lore of Zen Buddhism. It consists of a story, dialogue, question, or statement, the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking but may be accessible through intuition. One widely known kōan is “Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?” (oral tradition attributed to Hakuin Ekaku, 1686–1769, considered a reviver of the kōan tradition in Japan). The word koan, the name by which the practice is known to the West, comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters (公案).