'"Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven."
To achieve this end, the koan is the most famous Zen "device."'~C.Humphreys, Zen Buddhism, (pg. 148.)
What is a koan?
For some, a very Western definition may prove to be most useful. My Websters' dictionary defines koan as
"a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment."
I prefer a more Eastern interpretation and like part of the definition given in the book The Three Pillars Of Zen
"In Zen a koan is a formulation, in baffling language, pointing to ultimate Truth. Koans cannot be solved by recourse to a logical reasoning but only awakening a deeper level of the mind beyond the discursive intellect."
||'"Like in Zen...the Zen Buddhists have these koans, you know, they're riddles that you meditate on. And the whole purpose of the riddles is to hang you up, like, "We know the sound of two hands but what is the sound of one hand?" Now that's had Buddhist monks hung up for years."'
~John Brent as "Geets Romo," from the LP How To Speak Hip.
"To produce the sudden insight called satori, many Zen Buddhists in Japan contemplate a "mind-murdering" form of riddle called the koan. (What is the sound of one hand clapping? What was your original face before you were born?) These riddles of course defy logic, and that is just what they are supposed to do; they are designed to break down the rational intellect, just as LSD does, and thus provide the student with a new viewpoint."~William Braden, The Private Sea, pub. 1967. (pgs. 48-49.)
SMiLE was to be a koan, the picture-perfect platter for "the summer of love." Consider the following comments regarding the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's (the album which ended up taking top honors that summer);
"...it would be silly to pretend that Sergeant Pepper wasn't fundamentally shaped by LSD. The album's sound - in particular its use of various forms of echo and reverb - remains the most authentic aural simulation of the psychedelic experience ever created. At the same time, something else dwells in it: a distillation of the spirit of 1967 as it was felt by vast numbers across the Western world who had never taken drugs in their lives. If such a thing as a cultural 'contact high' is possible, it happened here. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band may not have created the psychic atmosphere of the time but, as a near-perfect reflection of it, this famous record magnified and radiated it around the world."~Ian MacDonald, Revolution In The Head: The Beatles' Records And The Sixties, (pg. 199.)
To an even greater extent than Sgt. Pepper's, the koan SMiLE was to have intentionally radiated and transmitted the spirit of those times. SMiLE was meant to do what Sgt. Pepper's happened to do.
"The idea is to unfold the Zen psychology in the mind of the uninitiated, and to reproduce the state of consciousness, of which these statements are the expression. That is to say, when the koans are understood the master's state of mind is understood, which is satori and without which Zen is a sealed book."~D.T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism, (pg. 135.)
"...I'm thinking of the future when I'll be in the position to really bring happiness to people."
~Brian Wilson (LLVS, pg. 65.)
"The koan is not a conundrum to be solved by a nimble wit. It is not a verbal psychiatric device for shocking the disintegrated ego of a student into some kind of stability. Nor, in my opinion, is it ever a paradoxical statement except to those who view it from outside. When the koan is resolved it is realized to be a simple and clear statement made from the state of consciousness which it has helped to awaken."~Ruth F. Sasaki, The Zen Koan, (pgs.xi and xii.)
Brian Wilson composed songs for SMiLE from a sandbox. Brian had had a profound religious experience while on a beach and the sandbox was to help Brian access that experience and express it musically. SMiLE was made from the state of consciousness it was to help awaken.
SMiLE may have been conceived during Brian Wilson's 3rd, and final, LSD trip(Wouldn't It Be Nice, pg. 144.) It was during these "four hours of enlightenment and spirituality" that Brian "imagined the grand, Spectorlike production" (Wouldn't It Be Nice, pg. 145) that was to become "Good Vibrations." It is possible that SMiLE, based upon Brian's bookstore hallucination(Wouldn't It Be Nice, pgs. 128-129) and "Zen riddle" realization, also originated at this time. If so, it was conceived from the state of consciousness is is to awaken.
Originating from this "place" the SMiLE music sometimes seems like one song repeated over and over in different ways. "Repetition" is one method masters use to echo the inner meaning of Zen.
"I remembered Loren once explaining that hallucinations were comparable to Zen riddles, mysteries full of meaning. What had mine meant?...If that was a riddle, I wanted to know the solution."~Brian Wilson, Wouldn't It Be Nice, (pg.129.)
There are similarities between Brian's bookstore episode and the traditional koan experience. There is the impenetrable, logically unsolvable, problem. There is also the absolute determination on the part of the individual to solve the problem. This appears to be a no win situation.
"A psychological impasse is the necessary antecedent of satori."~The Zen Koan as a means of Attaining Enlightenment, (pg.82.)
Some writers have suggested that koans basically destroy the ego.
"...the emphasis of the T'ang masters on "not-seeking" gave way to the more energetic use of the koan as a means of exhausting the strength of the egoistic will."~Alan Watts, The Way Of Zen, (pg.172.)
"We were doing witchcraft, trying to make witchcraft music."~Brian Wilson quoted in Nick Kent's The Dark Stuff (pg.27.)
This haunting quote can be easily explained if one considers SMiLE a koan.
"I began to think that we started that fire somehow mystically."~Brian Wilson
The well known "Fire" episode may further advance the koan argument, for if one believes they can mystically start fires by recording music they may also believe they can mystically transmit the spiritual experience via a record album.
"...he who develops his intuition before the reason of the mind is well confirmed, may be a 'genius' but he will not be stable, and a tower that is built upon sand may reach to the sky but will sooner or later fall."~C. Humphreys, Buddhism, (pg.180.)
"I then told the astrologer about the hallucination I'd had in the bookstore last December, presenting it as a riddle."~Brian Wilson, Wouldn't It Be Nice, (pg.131.)
How was Brian Wilson going to present a koan, the Zen riddle, as a full length record album?
The answer was revealed to Brian after his bookstore acid flashback.
"I remembered Loren once explaining that hallucinations were comparable to Zen riddles, mysteries full of meaning."~Brian Wilson, Wouldn't It Be Nice, (pg.129.)
To present the Zen riddle Brian would create an entire album in the form of an hallucination.
The more mixed up and confused the better. The modular form of composition would be employed throughout. Sections could be moved about and rearranged at anytime. New ideas could be added anytime. Nothing would be "too far out" or beyond consideration for inclusion.
A booklet of picture hallucinations (provided by Frank Holmes) would add the proper visual effect.
Lyrics would be written more for effect than meaning (and therefore difficult to "explain").
"'I was there to support his 'dream-escape.'"~Van Dyke Parks
Parks was the perfect choice to write lyrics for SMiLE in the style of Brian's bookstore riddle/hallucination.
"Van Dyke, a skinny kid with a unique perspective, spoke in funny, poetic, often beguiling torrents."~Brian Wilson, Wouldn't It Be Nice, (pg.145.)
SMiLE embodies all of the qualities described in the above quote. It is funny, poetic, and its apparent "Americana" theme has beguiled listeners for decades.
"So when Brian and I started to work, I was was going to pretend like I'd read ee cummings, the great Beat poets, Walt Whitman and we were were going to make this..."~Van Dyke Parks quoted in "SMiLE? Don't Mind If I Do...." MOJO, Mar.2004:48.