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Case 27

Koan Zero

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The old scribe Qi kept the kōans of the temple in a massive book, known to us now as The Codeless Code. In its pages lay the entire wisdom of the temple. Maintaining it was the scribe’s most singular and sacred duty.

One day he was asked by a novice why the kōans were numbered beginning with the number one.

“Would not zero have been more appropriate for our profession?” queried the novice.

A look of horror crept over the old man’s face. With trembling fingers he turned page after page of the temple’s accounts. Indeed, every kōan, from first to last, had the wrong number. And since all documents, databases, and internal websites of the temple referenced the kōans by number alone, the damage was irreparable.

The scribe was desolated. For seven days he sat huddled in a corner of his office, staring at his inkless brush as though it were a cobra poised to strike.

Silence spread through the temple like a sickness. Since no new kōans were being set down, there was no subject for discussion at the morning meetings and nothing for the students to meditate upon in the afternoon. Finally, old Jinyu—the venerable Abbess Over All Clans And Concerns—was petitioned to resolve the matter.

The abbess rapped the scribe’s door sharply with her cane, rousing the man from his misery.

“Young man,” she said (for the old scribe was still many years her junior): “Is it not true that each day’s kōan is produced by meditating upon the wisdom that the temple has gained since the prior kōan was set down?”

“It is,” said the scribe, bowing deeply.

“Then your path is clear: go back to Kōan Number One, subtract the wisdom that it teaches, and Kōan Number Zero will be revealed. And likewise Kōan Minus One, and Minus Two, and so on until the beginning of time itself.”

Thus was the scribe’s workload doubled, yet his misery subtracted from itself.

Topics...  philosophy, zero