Thursday, April 01, 2004


by William Severini Kowinski

"A riddle in the form of a paradox," says the American Heritage dictionary, "used in Zen Buddhism as an aid to meditation and a means of gaining intuitive knowledge."

Except for the Zen Buddhism part, this definition of the koan could also be a description of many bumper sticker slogans. The best are funny and pointed, and play with language or some established idea in a paradoxical way. And if you look at them as aids to meditation of a sort, as what might be called "traffic koans," they can also free up the associations and insights of intuitive knowledge.

Many state some sort of a position, and identify the owner of the vehicle as an advocate of ecology, peace, war or making love in Virginia. But the best of them, like the best cartoons, contain those peculiar gaps where laughter and innumerable layers of possible meaning reside.

In some ways, these traffic koans are the new proverbs, adages and folk sayings for an oral culture that doesn't have time to do much talking. Instead of trading wisdom and witticisms on the front porch or in town on market day, we post our remarks on the backs of our cars.

What the best traffic koans tell us is very simple: life is complex. Though our binary, for-or-against, dualistic culture distorts reality by trying to always simplify it into either/or propositions, that's more for the convenience of computerized opinion polling or to create conflict for talk radio and televised shouting matches to hype. We know in our hearty laughter it's not true. Even if we can't always see our way to compromise, we suddenly must make room for complexity.

Apart from oversimplified nostrums that pass for positions, our public discourse is clotted with the compulsively convoluted. Full of abstraction and passive voice, the jargoning drone numbs our brains long before we can extract any meaning. Brevity is the soul of the traffic koan, the poetry of the parked car as well as the bumper- to- bumper road.

As examples I offer the following traffic koans and my meditations on them. I heard or read some before I saw them turned into stickers, but some I actually saw for the first time pasted on a back bumper. I find that they are not only admirably succinct and generate many complex thoughts and feelings, but they state their case about as well as it can be stated

Wherever you go, there you are.

I saw this as a bumper sticker some time between the first time I heard it---spoken by the immortal Buckaroo Banzai (played by Peter Weller) in the cult film, "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai..."---and when it turned up as the title of a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, on mindfulness meditation.

One way to interpret it is, "you can travel far and wide, but when you get to where you're going, the person who is there will still be you." This speaks to travel as the search for novelty, and the fact that any diversion is tempered by your perceptions, habits, likes and dislikes. It suggests one reason that vacations are often more fun to anticipate than experience. You always take your own set of unconscious responses, especially the emotional effects of weighty experiences. We even call it "baggage."

But the baggage isn't only expressed in the suitcases full of clothes you don't need and won't wear, and not even in your hard luck stories or obvious defenses. It's in how you treat the hotel desk clerk, or your anger when the restaurant isn't where your guidebook says it is, and your disappointment when the sunsets aren't perfect. You may think all of that is the fault of the exterior world, but this traffic koan suggests otherwise.

This interpretation applies to any kind of attempted escape. You can "escape to the islands" but you can't escape yourself. You are your inevitable baggage. It doesn't mean you shouldn't go anywhere else, or that you can't enjoy a trip or a vacation. And obviously a change of scene can relax and stimulate us in ways that our ordinary environment usually doesn't. But it's folly to expect we can escape from ourselves. If we did, who would be where we go?

It is in a sense about empathy and the interchangeability of fate. That's the context in the movie when Buckaroo stops the song he and his band are playing to caution a crowd making fun of a tearful woman: "Hey, don't be mean," he says. "We don't have to be mean. Remember, no matter where you go, there you are."

In a slightly different way, "wherever you go, there you are" is also about the paradox of presence. "Wherever you go" can mean traveling far, or near--- or nowhere. That somewhere is where you are---it is the ground of your existence.

There's a play on words in "there you are." As an expression it means, you got it, you understand it, that's the answer. Someone uses it usually when we say something true without realizing it's the truth we're looking for. That's what this koan says about wherever we are. That's the truth of our life, even if we don't realize it.

It's got a definite Zen flavor of "be in the moment-Be Here Now." But it also says to me, this is the place. Why not make this place better? Because that's where you are.

The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.

This is a very familiar traffic koan, adorning the bumper stickers of the ecologically minded from sea to shining sea. Sometimes attributed to Chief Seattle, it is more likely the work of a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1970s, who wrote a speech to be spoken by an actor playing Chief Seattle. But that mixed provenance turns out to be part of its power.

The paradox of this koan is in different notions of what "belong to" means. The first sentence denies the common idea of our western civilization, that the earth is made up of objects (one of which is land, another is water) that someone can own. "Belong to" means ownership, which means we can do whatever we want with it.

Why doesn't the earth belong to us? Who else could it belong to?
By answering this question, the second statement alters the meaning of "belongs." It isn't saying that we as human beings are possessions, owned and operated by the planet---at least, not literally. We belong to the earth in several profound senses that are all activated in this statement, and how it reverses the terms of the previous one.

We belong to the earth in the sense that we are part of the earth's family or community; the earth is where we belong. We are of the earth, we are dependent on the earth and its life. We belong to the earth, then, in the sense that we are beholden to it, and all it provides us.

We belong to the earth also as its children. Our very substance, as well as the blueprint of our being, emanates from this biosphere in accordance with its local laws.

Taken simply as a statement, this is an eloquent summary of our responsibility to the planet, and the change---the reversal--- in attitude our civilization must make if we and the planet are to survive the cumulative effects of our exploitations.

Taken as a koan, however, and it is a profound statement of the consciousness that is available to replace this now outmoded sense of the earth as our dominion. That this traffic koan was probably composed by a white man trying to express the wisdom of an American Indian culture, is itself a metaphor for the origins of this consciousness.

Much of the time, such a combination is a disaster of well-meaning exploitation or oversimplification and misunderstanding. But in this case it does sum up a conclusion derived from both thousands of years of Native knowledge based on close observation of the natural world and interaction with it, and also from the latest research of western science, especially the biological sciences.

The "web of life" is another phrase from this speech for Chief Seattle, as well as the title of a book by Fritjof Capra expressing in scientific terms the world view represented in this koan. In many ways, at least some of what is called the New Paradigm, and much of what might be called the Native Paradigm, are remarkably similar. Their similarities lead both New and Native paradigms to the conclusion expressed here: according to the most complex information contemporary science has developed, and on the basis of an ancient worldview based on a way of knowledge and a way of life that is largely foreign to western science, it is crucially true that we must treat the earth and humankind as mutually dependent, and our proper attitude is humility.

The rat race is over. The rats won.

In many ways this is my favorite, partly because I saw it as a bumper sticker on a car parked in my neighborhood when I lived in Pittsburgh, and I haven't seen it anywhere again. But I love it also because of the paradox at the heart of it, and the truth that paradox speaks.

"The rat race" is a common expression for our lives in the modern world, as they resemble the lives of laboratory rats running mazes in order to find the cheese, the means to live. There is no other purpose to this race, and the rats are being manipulated for the benefit of scientists testing hypotheses about behavior. There is a sense that the race is competitive and we are rats racing against each other for the same cheese, but basically the idea is that it is a rigorous, demeaning and meaningless activity, and we are forced to do it if we want to live.

In this metaphor, we are the rats. So we might even be happy to hear "the rat race is over," assuming that it's not because we're dead or all the cheese is gone.

But "the rats won" doesn't mean that we've emerged victorious, or overthrown the oppressors. We know instantly that the referent has changed. We are not the rats who won. The term now refers to another common use of the term, as in "you dirty rat." It means "a despicable, sneaky person," especially one who betrays others.

In this context, the winning rats could be the corporate thieves, the stock market manipulators, the connivers and exploiters and manipulators (who tell their workers the company stock that represents their retirement is sound, while they are busy selling theirs) or just the people who reap the lion's share of the benefits of all that otherwise meaningless work.

As a traffic koan, this one is exceptionally rich, and gets richer all the time. Since traffic koans are contemporary and often topical-though sometimes eternally so-new information can add more grist for our meditative mill. For example, a behavioral scientist at UC Davis now questions the results of many animal behavior experiments, because it turns out that the experiments themselves can drive lab rats crazy.

Then there's the possibility that at least some of us have so come to accept the rat race as our necessary reality that a popular motivational book uses it as an implied metaphor. "Who Moved My Cheese?" by Spencer Johnson is a fable designed to teach a lesson about accepting change. The "cheese" is "what you want in life," and "The Maze" is "where you look for what you want-the organization you work in, or the family or community you live in." The book comes with testimonials and admiring blurbs from corporate CEOs and other motivational authors.

Once the rat race was considered at least ruefully. Implied in the metaphor was the idea that running rats through a maze was torture for the rats, but demeaning and insulting to human beings as well as painful. But now it appears that at least some people simply accept the rat race as a metaphorical description of their lives. They accept that we are all the rats, and the best we can do is to be smarter about our relationship to the maze and the cheese. So the rat race may not be over, but it appears that the rats who manipulate it have won.

But this traffic koan is not hopeless. From the first appearances of this metaphor of the rat race in everyday language, it signaled that those of us running it knew very well we were being manipulated, and that knowing this may change the game. The second sentence of this koan, the punch line, provides a rueful laugh of recognition. The whole koan implies despair, yet again it announces that we know exactly what's going on. That knowledge means that though we might be rats in the maze, we also stand outside the race, and see it for what it is. And standing outside in our recognition, we are the rats no longer.

Nature Bats Last

Baseball is a game that combines violence and patience, the slow repeated rituals of the batter getting set in the box, and the pitcher's wind-up, but then comes the wicked hard whip of the bat at the 95 mile an hour fastball unleashed from 90 feet away.

Not unlike the natural world, with its calm sunshine and gently flowing waters, its placid lakes and gentle snowfalls. And then its sudden storms, avalanches, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis.

Baseball proceeds slowly, at its own pace, like the world around us, especially the natural world. It's partly a grind: you sit, you bat, you run, you sit, you field, you sit, inning after inning. And the game can proceed in many ways. You can even forget to keep score.

But the game can change quickly-a catastrophic earthquake of an inning, in which your opponent scores 11 runs on 22 hits that feel like meteorites pummeling you from the sky. Or you can be hit inning after inning and you get further and further behind, like a drought, a dustbowl, a flood, an epidemic. Or you can give up one run here and there, and hardly notice that you're seriously behind.

The home field advantage in most team sports is most often an amorphous psychological edge, having to do with familiarity, territory, and the energy of hometown fans. But in baseball, there is a home field advantage in every game, built into the rules of the game itself. The visiting team can score all its runs at the last minute, but it isn't really the last minute...Say the visitors wake up in the ninth inning six runs behind. They furiously score seven runs. But though it is their last at-bat, the game is not over. The home team bats last, and if they score only two runs in the bottom of the ninth, the game is over and the home team wins.

We can screw around with the earth, thinking that a last minute technological solution will even the score or bring us out ahead after centuries of abuse, pollution, soil degradation, species extinctions. But the game is not over because humans say it is. Nature bats last.

The application to the climate crisis is particularly apt. The longer we wait, the less likely that anything we do will change the outcome. This is a game in which everything is at stake. We face the possibility that the earth as we know it will no longer exist, and humanity will find itself in the loss column.

This traffic koan is one to contemplate while we're stuck in traffic, burning the carbon that could seal our fate. It doesn't exhaust the possibilities (the earth is not an adversary) but it makes its point. It's time to get into the game.