Friday Imaginary Review: Willa Glueck (ed) “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Koan”

Willa Glueck (ed) Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Koan (Stepstopper Press 2021) pp179 £10

Glueck, an indefatigable editor, has here assembled a collection a little different to the usual. She has recruited thirteen impressively famous writers and given them all the same task: take a particular Zen koan, and write it in your own way, ‘make it your own,’ she says in her editor’s introduction, ‘in whatever way seems to you good, or interesting, or creative, or perhaps even make it — but only if you find yourself inspired in this way — Zen.’ Here’s the koan she has selected:

The Moon Cannot be Stolen
Ryokan, a Zen Master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.
Ryokan returned and caught him. ‘You may have come a long way to visit me,’ he told the prowler, ‘and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.’
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. ‘Poor fellow,’ he mused, ‘I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.’

We might say that it misses the point of a koan like this to interpret or intellectualise it. The point is to live it, to inhabit it spiritually, to meditate it. But it’s a fable that says to me, the important things are not material. The urge to steal is a foolish focus on ephemeral materiality; it is the immaterial things that matter. A man might murder a great painter and steal her canvasses, but he would never be able to steal her talent that produced the great art. It also says something about forgiveness, or disattachment to materialities, and something about beauty.

Each of the thirteen authors takes this short fable in a different direction. Well, two of the directions are not so different to one another: Fielding Goodney simply reprints the original koan without alteration, and Paul Loyonel reproduces the koan thirteen times changing one word — but always a seemingly trivial, unimportant word — each time. The remaining eleven are more adventurous; or perhaps, a Zen master might say, less so. Christopher Meadowbrook expands the story: the thief returns to his village, where he sells Ryokan’s clothes, buys wine and gets drunk underneath the moon. Lying there, happy and replete, sings a song to the moon’s beauty. Meanwhile Ryokan starts shivering, and then, as he slips into hypothermia, he has a horrific hallucination in which the moon pushes her pockmarked and stinking face into his hut and mocks him for his idiocy. In Nub Forkner’s tale the interaction Ryokan and the thief happens to be overheard by a messenger from the Emperor, who relays the story to his master. The Emperor summons both thief and Zen master to the Chrysanthemum Palace where, in his capacity as universal ruler, he signs a proclamation decreeing the thief Lord of the Moon. ‘Are you content, now, Ryokan?’ he asks. ‘Has your generosity exhausted itself with respect to this worthless man?’ ‘There is only one more thing I would give him,’ Ryokan replies. ‘Your throne.’ The Emperor has Ryokan beheaded for this, and straps the weeping thief to a gigantic firework ‘to transport him to his new domain’, as he puts it. Oded Eisberg’s version transfers the story wholly into science fiction: a virtual reality is programmed that has a greater granularity than real life — processing powers so prodigious that each 3D pixel of this virtual environment processes an aspect of the whole smaller than the planck length in our cosmos. Two individuals programme the environment of the koan, and act it out; but instead of slinking away, the thief argues with the sage on the value, or otherwise, of the moon — ‘it is a mere simulacrum, though one more detailed than the real moon’. ‘And do you say the real moon is not a simulacrum?’



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