Summer had arrived again by the time I reached this understanding. I was still reading at the intersection of Zen philosophy and art, and one day I came across an arresting comment by Buddhist poet Chase Twichell: ‘I find the internal pressure exerted by emotion and by a koan to be similar in surprising and unpredictable ways’ (Twichell & Whitney 2003, para 5).
Satori finally bloomed: the tinker toys were koans. Not the artefacts I had produced, but the act of working through them in a meditative state. By permitting my mind to wander and relax I had indeed allowed awareness to steal in from the periphery. T1
T1:This “peripheral” thinking has become a key strategy in my creative and critical practice, allowing me to become unstuck by altering the angle of my focus on a particular problem. The Australian artist and academic Graeme Sullivan discusses the research that supports this approach: ‘Recent studies in cognitive neuroscience offer tantalising evidence that ‘insight’ is a consequence of precisely the opposite approach to the thinking advocated by the clinical model of inquiry that promotes progressive focusing, the elimination of confounding variables and distractions and exercising control … The implication is that creative options and new associations occur in situations where there is intense concentration, but within an open landscape of free-range possibility rather than a closed geography of well-trodden pathways’ (2009, p. 48).
Several weeks later I encountered the concept of genjōkōan, which had even larger implications for the project. A teaching of the 13th century Japanese Zen master Dōgen, genjōkōan is in fact two lessons folded into one. Most frequently translated as ‘actualizing the fundamental point’ (Leighton 2004, p. 43), genjōkōan maintains first that the path to enlightenment is the experience of enlightenment, and second that ‘to study the buddha way is to study the self’ (ibid.). Zen roshi Norman Fischer describes genjōkōan as ‘the koan that manifests in this moment’ (2014, para. 2); an ongoing meditative practice of recognising universal meaning in the individual circumstances of our lives.
I had recently been reading The Way of Zen by Alan Watts (1957), and this interpretation of genjōkōan reminded me of Watts’ assertion that an expert in the I Ching ‘can “see” a hexagram in anything — in the chance arrangement of a bowl of flowers, in objects scattered upon a table, in the natural markings on a pebble’ (ibid. p. 42). Genjōkōan also seemed to be present in an observation made by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron: that in living mindfully ‘you begin to realize that you’re always standing in the middle of a sacred circle, and that’s your whole life … Whatever comes into the space is there to teach you’ (2010 p. 45).
Taken together, these ideas reinforced my framework of a process-oriented methodology. For the first aspect of genjōkōan is a Zen Buddhist expression of performativity; the second aspect, an expression of reflexivity. While I did not see these correlations quite so clearly at the time, I did intuit the correspondence. Genjōkōan spoke to my own evolving constellation of ideas about the self and its capacity to make meaning in relation with the world, and fortified my nascent understanding that personal experience could be a vehicle for more universal insights.