The instant you speak about a thing,
you miss the mark.
- Wu-men

t’s probably not lost on you the irony of the fact that I’m about to speak about a thing that speaks about one’s inability to speak about things. :) But such is the nature of zen koans as inherently inexplicable and evasive kernels of wisdom; so much so that academic or philosophical attempts at interpretation typically fall flat on their face (which is probably why I love them so much). Nevertheless, the struggle to understand koans is part of what the zen journey is all about. So in full view of the fact that I’m about to faceplant I offer up the following meditation in the hopes that it might bring me one step closer to unraveling this beautifully gordian koan.

It all starts with words. Words define things, they give shape, create, illuminate; but we often forget that words are functionally just as destructive as they are creative (read: “as a creating force” as opposed to “creativity”). If in the back of your mind you’re referencing ying and yang you wouldn't be far off in understanding what I'm getting at as the moment I associate a word with something I both create meaning and destroy it at the same time. In ascribing the label “chair” to a piece of furniture designed for sitting I not only create meaning, but I also destroy it by ruling out the possibility of that object becoming anything other than a chair. In becoming “chair” it can now never be something “non-chair” and how we think of and use the word “chair” is forever tied to this definition.

This is part of what this koan is about. Zen koans, by their nature tend not only to speak to the heart of a matter but they also seek to explore and expound upon the totality of a thing (or its nothingness). This is one of those "totality" koans in that it exposes, superficially at least, the fact that the moment I use words to speak about a thing I'm inherently ruling out just as much or more of the whole by the very nature of the words themselves.


Zen masters consider it a virtue and critical to the practice of zen to maintain an open mind. Only the openness you and I imagine is a far cry from what they have in mind. Here's the thing: I couldn't even tell you what they have in mind because the moment I attempted to I’d be missing out on the other half of the story. Wu-men's koan, and indeed all of zen practice is about totality and void, the ying and the yang and the moment I attempt to speak about a thing I am, by my logic and words ruling out considerations founded in the opposites of those things.

How does this boil down as a Christian and martial artist?

Humility and tension. Humility in submitting not only to the teachings of Jesus and sensei, but also in recognizing that none of us are experts (there’s koans about that too!) and tension in that life is about holding things in suspension between one or more extremes. As a Christian we hold in tension the fact we are both positionaly sanctified and in process. As a martial artist I hold in tension the need to unleash devastating physical force with the mandate to preserve life.

But that’s about as far as I’m willing to take it… for now. Many zen koans take years to process and I've only just started looking at this one after two years of meditating on candle light.

~ Sven