Not Two — Poles

    Polarity is defined as: The ongoing tension between opposing interdependent imperatives.

I’ve been thinking a lot about polarity lately, and one of the things I’ve been thinking about is the fact that I seem to mentally insert the word “two” into the definition a even when it’s not there. I’ve been wondering whether this limits my thinking in any meaningful way.
I decided to attempt to resolve this issue, at least in my own mind, in the area of theology. I chose theology this for two reasons. First it is an area of ongoing interest to me and second it is rife with polarities. Once again, my purpose was to find concepts that I could think more clearly about using the concept of polarity.
In particular I wanted to look polarities with an odd number of poles and where it made little sense to think in terms of sets of dual-pole polarities. The first candidate I thought of was the Christian Trinity. It met my criteria quite nicely, at least in my mind. Obviously it has three poles: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and it makes little sense to consider the poles in terms of three dual-pole polarities.
I mentioned this polarity to a friend and his only objection was that he wanted something less theoretical and more objective, something observable. Without worrying about the validity of his criticism, I proposed another polarity: Love of self, Love of neighbor and Love of God. Once again three poles and it is more objectively observable, but I must admit that the three dual-pole polarities make more sense that they do for the Trinity.
So I had two potential triple-pole polarities, but I wasn’t sure that was enough to justify reading the definition of polarity differently. Then I started thinking about Zen. And it seemed to me that many of the more familiar koans were interesting in terms of polarity. The koans “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “What is your face before your parents were born?”  seem to involve a polarity with only a single pole (the hand, and birth).  The fact that there is a single pole and yet the polarity remains is the whole point.
Even more interesting is the koan Mu. According to Roshi Kapleau, no koan is assigned novices more often than Mu. It is considered unsurpassed for breaking asunder the mind of ignorance. Here it is:

    A monk in all seriousness asked Joshu: “Has a dog a Buddha nature or not?”
    Joshu replied. “Mu!”
    So what is this Mu?

It begins, simply enough, with a polarity. The dog both has and does not have a Buddha nature, and presumably so do we. But this is just the jumping off point for the koan. One student described Mu as follows:
“Imagine the moon shining on a still lake. Now take away the moon and the lake so that only the shining remains.”
This explanation is incomplete, of course, but gives clear intellectual picture of Mu. In terms of polarity, I see Mu as a naked polarity (no poles, just the tension). That’s what gives Mu its power.
In other words, the compelling nature of Zen koans comes precisely from the tension of polarity without the requisite poles. And, at this point I have satisfied myself that reading the word two into the definition of polarity limits my ability to see things that I find worth seeing. Finding things like that in theology is enough for me, even though I haven’t found similar polarities in other areas (yet). Any comments?

The material on the koan Mu was taken from The Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau.  Mu literally means no, not, have not, or nothing.

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