Kōan is a short story, enigma or dialogue that a teacher uses to teach his student lessons in Zen Buddhism. These stories are often enigmatic, sometimes absurd and paradoxical, not soliciting conventional logic. They lead to great doubt, leaving a bittersweet aftertaste to the receiver.
Kōan originated from China and were developed during the Tang dynasty (618-709). The word Kōan is composed of two kanji : 公 (kō, meaning “public, official”) and 案 (an, meaning “draft, case, plan, examination”). The word could be translated as “public examination”. It is said that Zen Buddhism cannot be taught with words and must therefore be sought by the student as he finds his way.
The word Zen comes from the Chinese Ch’an from when Japanese masters brought Ch’an teachings and tradition to Japan. The word Ch’an itself comes from the sanskrit word Dhyāna meaning ‘meditation’ in Indian tradition.
These short enigmas must be meditated, there are no fixed answers, only what the student believes.
In Zen tradition, students long to attain 悟り(satori), which could be translated as ‘enlightenment’ or ‘comprehension’, it designates spiritual awakening. A state in which a person lets go of one’s ego, discovers one’s own true nature and comes into a state of being one with the universe. To attain such a state, a student cannot work alone, and must therefore be guided by a master. Kōan are a way for masters to guide their students.
One of the most famous Kōans is probably this one:
After reading this for the first time, I found myself trying to clap with one hand, achieving ridiculously awesome results.
It was thought by Japanese Zen master Hakuin Ekaku (白隠 慧鶴, 1686-1769). He didn’t want to limit himself to the vicinity of existing Chinese Kōans. He believed his newly created Kōan to be much more effective than the original wú (or mu in Japanese) kōan that was traditionally assigned to monks at the time.
Here is said wú kōan :
“A monk asked Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn, a Chinese Ch’an master, ‘Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?’ Zhaozhou answered, ‘Wú’ (in Japanese, Mu).”
The kōan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” was used to eliminate the students’ reasoning. In the final stage of the meditation of this kōan, the pupil’s logic supposedly doesn’t exist anymore.
I have noticed that a lot of kōans kind of bring the same “elimination” of logic when you think about them very hard.
I think the best way to understand Kōan and to grasp their concept is simply to experience them. So without further ado, here is a list of Kōans:
“Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, ‘The flag is moving.’ The other said, ‘The wind is moving.’ The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them, ‘Not the wind, not the flag. Mind is moving.'”
“A monk asked Yúnmén, ‘What is Buddha?’, ‘A dry shit stick!’ answered Yúnmén.”
“A monk asked Tung Shan, ‘What is Buddha?’, ‘Three pounds of flax.’ answered Tung Shan.”
“The monk Xiang’yan said, ‘Imagine a man climbing up a tree at the edge of a thousand-foot-high cliff. He grabs hold of a branch with his mouth, since he cannot get a hold with his feet and he is unable to pull himself up with his hands. At the bottom of the tree someone asks him, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?’ Were he to open his mouth to answer the man, he would lose his grip and forfeit his life. Were he not to answer, he would make a mistake due to the nature of what was asked. What should he do at such a time?'”
“Doko came to a Zen master and said, ‘I’m seeking the truth. In what state of mind should I train myself so I can find it?’
The master said, ‘There is no mind, so you cannot put yourself in any state. There is no truth, so you cannot train yourself to reach it.’
Doko replied, ‘If there is no mind to train nor truth to find, why do those monks meet here before you every day to study Zen and to train themselves through this study?’
‘But there isn’t even an inch of room here,’ said the master. ‘How could the monks gather? I have no tongue, so how could I call them or teach them anything?’
‘Oh, how can you lie like this?’ said Doko.
‘But if I have no tongue that allows me to talk, how could I lie to you? answered the master.
Then Doko said sadly, ‘I cannot follow you. I cannot understand you.’
‘I cannot understand myself,’ said the master.”
“Zhàozhōu asked the teacher Nánquán, ‘What is the true way?’
Nánquán answered, ‘Every day’s way is the true way.’
Zhàozhōu said, ‘Can I study it?’
Nánquán answered, ‘The more you study it, the further you will be from the way.’
Zhàozhōu asked, ‘If I don’t study it, how can I know it?’
Nánquán answered, ‘The way does not belong to the things we can see nor the things we can’t see. It does not belong to the things we know nor the things we don’t know. Don’t look for it, don’t study it, don’t mention it. To reach it, open yourself as wide as the sky.”
There you have it. A few Kōans to scramble your mind a little. I think it’s really interesting to read these kinds of stuff, it really gets on your mind and makes you try to understand something you can’t understand, in a way, I guess.
It’s weird, I love it.
What about you? Do you like to have your mind wrapped around something you can’t understand? What are some of your favorite Kōans?
Thanks to Hung Nguyen for contributing to this article and bringing lots of information!
References : Geek in Japan (book) by Hector Garcia
All quoted Kōans belong to their lawful copyright owners.