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The Koan of the Cave

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Joined: 18 Jan 2005
Posts: 5197
Location: Michissippi
The Koan of the Cave  Reply with quote  

Before I begin, a brief historical note: I first wrote this for a survey of philosophy class circa 1975. It got an A. Five years later I rewrote it from memory for a graduate-level class on essay writing. It got an A, and the professor wanted it submitted for a Hopwood Award. I had no clue what a Hopwood was, and was too busy doing my senior project in computer science to even think about another rewrite. Last week I was cleaning up old stuff and found it again. Here's that long-delayed rewrite. Enjoy. Oh yeah, spelling corrections, etc, gratefully accepted.

The Koan of the Cave

In the land where Joshu lived there was a cave which slanted deep into a hillside. Near the bottom was a raised platform on which a fire was kept constantly burning. Men carrying wooden cutouts on poles walked back and forth in front of the fire, creating a shadow play on the wall at the bottom.

Below the wall were chained men and women, arranged so they could not turn and see the fire or the men. All they saw of the world was the flickering shadows on the wall. All they heard of the world was the echoing voices of the marchers and of their fellow prisoners. They thought the voices came from the shadows, and their own shadows were part of a society with those cast by the marchers. They passed their entire lives in the cave, a happy, tight-knit society that never knew anything but what was before them.

One day while wandering through the forest, Joshu came upon the cave. Noticing the smoke pouring from its mouth, he entered and observed the scene within. In a whimsical moment, he decided to see what would happen if he took one of the cave dwellers and showed him the outer world. He stepped forward and selected a young man of intelligent appearance, struck off his chains and began leading him towards the mouth of the cave.

As they approached the light, the young man began to struggle at the unaccustomed brightness. The dim shadows he was used to vanished, and, without reference point, his attempts to escape from Joshu sent him careening out of the caves mouth and into the sunlight. Utterly blinded, the young man fled aimlessly. Joshu followed him through the forest. Eventually the young man happened into the shade of a tree. Noticing that in this place the pain of the light was less, he resolved to stay there until either he adapted or the light lessened.

As the day passed, Joshu grew bored with watching the young man sit. He decided to return to the monastery to teach his students and take his evening meal. He left the young man deep in the shade of the tree. The young man, having no notion of night or day, fell asleep.

When the young man awoke the afternoon had passed into full night. He rose and found to his amazement that he could once again see. Shapes were dim and indistinct, and he could peer closely without hurting his eyes. But unlike life in the cave, he found he could move among the shadows and touch them as real objects, things possessing the same physical reality that his own body had, though of a different shape and texture.

He moved about marveling at this new wonder, when a still greater was revealed -- the moon rose. His world of shadows took on a complexity of detail as rich as the shapes and textures he felt. Moreover, things were no longer merely shades of darkness, but outlined in silver, grey and black. The young man ran through the forests and fields around the cave, perceiving the many new things that he now realized has always been inherent in the old. Finally, having exhausted himself, he fell into a deep sleep.

When he awoke the dawn was near, and another new level of wonder was revealed -- color. The sky ran from read east to indigo west, and every shade between was mirrored in the dew around him. Grass shone green, stone grey, and flowers were beauty beyond imagination. The sky grew lighter and lighter, and finally the sun rose. A fat red ball at first, it grew brighter and brighter as it climbed, until he could not bear to look at it for even one moment. Humbled by unbearable brightness, he lowered his eyes and again looked around him. He reflected on his life in the cave and how he had once cherished his skill at discerning shadows. He knew he had found something far greater, and felt it his duty to bring others to the same level of knowledge he had achieved.

Also rising early that morning was Joshu. He returned to the place he had left the young man, only to find him gone in the night. After a few moments reflection, he decided to once again investigate the cave. Since the young man he had removed had done nothing except try to hide from the light or cry in pain, Joshu decided to try something different. He entered the cave, coughing at the bad air inside, and sat down with the others still chained there.

Shortly after Joshu sat down, the young man found his way back to the cave and went inside. He went to his old companions and began to exhort them on their lot, tears of compassion mingling with the tears from the smoke. "This is all an illusion," he cried. "There is a world which you cannot see, beside which this is but a shadow of a shadow of a shadow."

His friends naturally did not look at him but at his shadow and asked if it had come by some new way of perception. When he replied ambiguously, they asked him to prove his new skill by identifying a particularly vague and subtle shadow. His eyes, changed by his exposure to the light, were no longer sufficiently skilled to discern the shadows of shadows, and he failed their test. They repeated it again with simpler shadows, and each time he failed to perceive their meaning. Finally they dismissed his ideas as the ravings of a simpleton or madman, and ignored his anguished cries.

The young man rose up to leave, when he suddenly caught sight of Joshus saffron robe in the reflected firelight. He remembered Joshu from the day before and ran to him crying, "Tell them! Tell them of their state! Tell them of the things they cannot see!"

Joshu looked around the cave, at it's dwellers and at the young man. He said "The room is full of smoke."

Copyright 1975, 1980, Steve Simmons

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