Monday, February 14, 2011

Riddles, koans, and queries

Riddles are language games that force us to think in new ways and are extremely popular with children, as well as with adults (though we may be loath to admit it). Who can forget such endlessly repeated riddles as "What's black and white and read all over?" with all its variant answers: newspaper, embarrassed zebra, etc.

Riddles have been popular since ancient times.  One of the oldest riddles was told to Oedipus by the Sphinx:

"What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening."

(This answer to this and other riddles will be at the end of this piece.)

One of my favorite riddles was told to me many years ago by a teenager:

"Those that make me do not use me, those that buy me do not want me, those that use me do not know it. What am I?"

Riddles often tease us with metaphysical questions, such as this seemingly unanswerable theological and social conundrum:

"I am greater than God, and more evil than the devil. The poor have me, and the rich lack me. Who am I?"

Other riddles are mini-poems, such as "I am a box of keys that unlocks your soul. What am I?"

Many of Emily Dickinson's poems resemble riddles, so much so that the Emily Dickinson Museum has created a riddle page for kids on its website:  "It sifts from leaden sieves" reads like an extended riddle that stretches the limits of language:

It sifts from Leaden Sieves --
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road --

It makes an Even Face
Of Mountain, and of Plain --
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again --

It reaches to the Fence --
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces --
It deals Celestial Vail

To Stump, and Stack -- and Stem --
A Summer's empty Room --
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them--

It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen --
Then stills its Artisans -- like Ghosts --
Denying they have been --

Hm mm, what could this strange creature be?

A riddle can also be used like a koan, a Zen story that forces us to think outside our rationalistic box. Like riddles and poems, Zen stories explore the boundaries of language and the mind:

A philosopher asked Buddha: `Without words, without the wordless, will you you tell me truth?'

The Buddha kept silence.

The philosopher bowed and thanked the Buddha, saying: `With your loving kindness I have cleared away my delusions and entered the true path.'

After the philosopher had gone, Ananda asked the Buddha what he had attained.

The Buddha replied, `A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip.'

Here the message of enlightenment is conveyed not through words, but through silence and body language and metaphor--the "shadow of the whip."

Riddles are questions that open up our minds to new possibilities. In this respect, they are like the Quaker practice of using "queries" or open-ended questions to stimulate us to reflect more deeply. One of my favorite Quaker queries is:

"Do you practice the art of listening, even beyond words?"

Just before meeting for worship this Sunday, I felt led to compose this poem, which is based on a riddle: "When you say my name, I disappear. Who am I?"

Again, the answer to this and other riddles are listed below.

Who Am I?”
A Quaker riddle/koan/query

If you say my name,
I disappear.
I am the one
who can’t be named.

I am the one who comes
before the still small voice,
before the Word,
before the Om.
Before the beginning,
and after the end,
I am.

Without me you can’t hear
a symphony, a lover’s sigh,
or your heart’s desire.

The good speak of me often,
while the wisest ones say nothing.

To know who I am,
and who you are,
just listen, truly listen.

Answers: Man, Coffin, Nothing, Piano,  Snow (Emily Dickininson's poem), Silence.

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