The first memory I have of a mystery has to do with traffic lights. I was in the car a fair amount, usually buckled up in the front seat (Gen-Xers didn’t need car seats apparently). Whenever we were stopped at an intersection, I stared at the light because, to my mind, it didn’t always act predictably. Sometimes the yellow light flashed, sometimes not. Why? Eventually I realized yellow appeared only when the lights changed from green to red. Although I didn’t have the words, this was when I first understood the concept of sequence.
We’re born without knowing the word “mystery,” and yet an infant’s world is mysterious, perhaps to a terrifying level. It takes a few days for babies to focus their eyes, and a few weeks to identify parts of their vision as objects, separate from colors and shapes. Before that, what were those parts to us? It’s a mystery.
It takes a few more months for babies to realize that, when people leave their field of vision, they don’t disappear. Until then, when we play peek-a-boo with them, they literally believe we are vanishing and reappearing. Such mystery!
As we grow, the nature of mystery changes. Adult mysteries tend to be pondered and solved through words and concepts. Those fundamental shifts in mysterious experiences are fewer and further between.
This is how I find joy in koans.
What is the sound of one hand clapping? What was your face before your parents were born? When confronted with koans like these, I experience this wall of nonsense. Being confronted with nonsense is the point. Just as babies dwell with their field of vision before they discern objects, we can dwell with nonsense before it makes some type of sense.
In a way, koans help us deal with the world’s nonsense. They also prepare us for our own demise, which is the last mysterious, nonsensical thing we’ll deal with as a human. A lack of answers no longer throws us off. Koans can help us remain present with mystery.