A Little Happier: My 13 Color “Koans”—Mysterious Statements that Can’t Be Understood Logically

A few years ago, I went through a long period of being absolutely preoccupied with the subject of color. What a beautiful subject to study! I wrote a strange little book called My Color Pilgrimage, and I still need to figure out what to do with it.

I love the subject of color, and I also love the subject of koans. A “koan” is a question, story, or statement that can’t be understood logically. Zen Buddhist monks meditate on koans as a way to abandon dependence on reason in their pursuit of enlightenment.

Because I love color and koans, I wrote my own list of color koans. Well, some of them probably don’t qualify as true koans, but they’re still fun to ponder.

Here they are:

  • What color is the chick inside the egg?
  • If you walk outside on a moonlit night, is the grass green?
  • What’s more blue: a canvas that’s entirely blue, or a canvas that’s mostly blue, with a bit of yellow?
  • Is a preference for deep colors more admirable than a preference for pastels?
  • Do fluorescent colors have the same status as non-fluorescent colors?
  • What color is almost-black: brown, purple, or gray?
  • We get the color pink from adding the color white to the color red, so pink is light red. Why, then, is it possible to point to a dark pink that’s darker than a light red?
  • What color is the opposite of red? (You probably said green. Only after Newton did red and green become opposite. In antiquity, the opposite of red was white; from the central Middle Ages, the opposite of red was blue.)
  • This is a true story: I told a store clerk that I wanted to buy a blue chair, and he told me, “You should consider buying this chair. True, everyone thinks it’s gray, but it’s actually blue—just look on the tag.” Is the chair gray or blue?
  • I hand you a ball with a green core and a thin red surface. Is it a green ball or a red ball? Now I cut the ball in half. Is it a green ball or a red ball? Trick question! It’s not a ball anymore.

And here’s my color twist on a famous Zen koan.

Here’s my version of the traditional story: Two monks disagreed as they watched a flag flapping in the wind. “The flag is moving,” said one monk. “No, the wind is moving,” said the second monk. The Sixth Patriarch happened to pass by. He said, “Not the wind, not the flag, mind is moving.”

And here’s my version, for color: Three monks were arguing about a flag. One said, “The flag’s color is in the fabric.” The other said, “The flag’s color is in the light.” The other said, “The flag’s color is in the eye.” The Sixth Patriarch happened to pass by. He said, “Not the fabric, not the light, not the eye, mind is color.”

Color is a ubiquitous, conspicuous aspect of our world, but it’s shifty. Art can’t capture it; philosophy can’t make up its mind; language can’t describe it; science is unsatisfying; popular culture overstates. Color is an irresistible mystery.

I’m a color pilgrim, a color explorer going from red to violet, and back again. One thing is true: When I think about color, I see things in a way that I didn’t see them before.

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