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Two Cult Koans

A novice rationalist studying under the master Ougi was rebuked by a friend who said, “You spend all this time listening to your master, and talking of ‘rational’ this and ‘rational’ that—you have fallen into a cult!”

The novice was deeply disturbed; he heard the words, “You have fallen into a cult!” resounding in his ears as he lay in bed that night, and even in his dreams.

The next day, the novice approached Ougi and related the events, and said, “Master, I am constantly consumed by worry that this is all really a cult, and that your teachings are only dogma.”

Ougi replied, “If you find a hammer lying in the road and sell it, you may ask a low price or a high one. But if you keep the hammer and use it to drive nails, who can doubt its worth?”

The novice said, “See, now that’s just the sort of thing I worry about—your mysterious Zen replies.”

Ougi said, “Fine, then, I will speak more plainly, and lay out perfectly reasonable arguments which demonstrate that you have not fallen into a cult. But first you have to wear this silly hat.”

Ougi gave the novice a huge brown ten-gallon cowboy hat.

“Er, master…” said the novice.

“When I have explained everything to you,” said Ougi, “you will see why this was necessary. Or otherwise, you can continue to lie awake nights, wondering whether this is a cult.”

The novice put on the cowboy hat.

Ougi said, “How long will you repeat my words and ignore the meaning? Disordered thoughts begin as feelings of attachment to preferred conclusions. You are too anxious about your self-image as a rationalist. You came to me to seek reassurance. If you had been truly curious, not knowing one way or the other, you would have thought of ways to resolve your doubts. Because you needed to resolve your cognitive dissonance, you were willing to put on a silly hat. If I had been an evil man, I could have made you pay a hundred silver coins. When you concentrate on a real-world question, the worth or worthlessness of your understanding will soon become apparent. You are like a swordsman who keeps glancing away to see if anyone might be laughing at him—”

“All right,” said the novice.

“You asked for the long version,” said Ougi.

This novice later succeeded Ougi and became known as Ni no Tachi. Ever after, he would not allow his students to cite his words in their debates, saying, “Use the techniques and do not mention them.”

A novice rationalist approached the master Ougi and said, “Master, I worry that our rationality dojo is… well… a little cultish.”

“That is a grave concern,” said Ougi.

The novice waited a time, but Ougi said nothing more.

So the novice spoke up again: “I mean, I’m sorry, but having to wear these robes, and the hood—it just seems like we’re the bloody Freemasons or something.”

“Ah,” said Ougi, “the robes and trappings.”

“Well, yes the robes and trappings,” said the novice. “It just seems terribly irrational.”

“I will address all your concerns,” said the master, “but first you must put on this silly hat.” And Ougi drew out a wizard’s hat, embroidered with crescents and stars.

The novice took the hat, looked at it, and then burst out in frustration: “How can this possibly help?

“Since you are so concerned about the interactions of clothing with probability theory,” Ougi said, “it should not surprise you that you must wear a special hat to understand.”

When the novice attained the rank of grad student, he took the name Bouzo and would only discuss rationality while wearing a clown suit.

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