Kōan 公案

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

Zen Master Dogen on The Man Up a Tree Koan

All quoted Kōans belong to their lawful copyright owners.

6 Replies to “Kōan 公案”

  1. Mathieu,
    Your short article stopped short of becoming a scholarly work. First, it has been a common mistake for many authors when using the word ‘Zen’ for all contexts. In reality, Zen is a corrupt word of ‘Ch’an’ when Japanese masters imported ‘Ch’an’ teachings and tradition into Japanese soil. Yet, the word ‘Ch’an’ itself is a corrupt word of Dhyāna (International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration or IAST) meaning ‘meditation’ in Indian tradition. Similarly, names of historical Chinese Ch’an masters should be indicated in Chinese instead of Japanese (e.g. Zhàozhōu (778-897) instead of Jōshū…).
    Second, the readers would be much more informed if references were included in your article… (I would like to privately discuss more if necessary).
    Despite that, I enjoyed the topic.

    1. Hello,

      Thank you very much for your comment and for all the informations you’ve provided.

      I’ll make sure to try and use Zen in the right contexts!

      I’ve changed Jōshū back to Zhàozhōu as I should’ve done from the start, I agree with the fact that historical names should be kept as such; as I was getting information mostly from Japanese point of views, I didn’t quite realize.

      As for the references, I usually try to include them in my articles but it hasn’t yet become a reflex, so thanks for pointing that out!

      I’ve made necessary changes to the article in order to fit the facts.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the topic and thanks again!

  2. Hi Mathieu,
    I am glad that you found my comments constructive. The way in which you publicly acknowledged the inconsistency in your article is an evidence of what scholarly writing is about. Without critical peer reviews, an author could easily fall into the trap of complacency and incompetency.
    Once you changed Jōshū back to Zhàozhōu, you need to check all other names in a same system (e.g. Nánquán instead of Nansen…).
    With regard to the renowned kōan “What is the sound of the clap of one hand?”, it is necessary to indicate who said it, what context it was spoken, and purpose of that saying in teaching. In this way, you should explain right from the introduction the etymology of each component of kōan (公案) and what the word kōan really means in Ch’an or Zen tradition.
    I will discuss more if necessary.

    1. Hello,

      Thanks again for your comment! I appreciate the interest you take in my work as it motivates me to keep going!

      I totally agree that constructive criticism is one of the most important tools in writing.

      Yep, I definitely forgot about Nansen, I switched it to Nánquán, and checked the other mentioned names, so hopefully they’re all correct haha.

      Indeed adding the author of this very famous Koan and the context is a very good idea which I added to my article, thanks!

      While writing this article though, I didn’t really think much about talking about the etymology which seems to be a good idea.

      Thanks again!


  3. Hi Mathieu,

    Your article is getting there! However, certain places still need to be refined. First, the way in which kōan was interpreted as ‘public case’ does not fully reflect the nature of Zen’s training method. Hakuin Ekaku’s kōan “What is the sound of the clap of one hand?” has been popularly used to eliminate the reasoning of Zen pupils regardless of how hard the pupils try to come up with answers. In the final stage of meditation on this kōan, the logic of Zen pupils supposedly no longer exists. Thus, kōan should be better understood as ‘public examination.’

    Second, throughout the process of meditation, in no way that Zen pupils could find their ways by themselves. Rather, they could only attain ‘satori’ (sudden enlightenment) with proper guidance from their teachers (who already attained satori). Come to this point, you need to indicate how to know when a Zen practitioner, particularly with Hakuin himself, attains satori.

    Third, it is a good practice to indicate the lifespan of Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769). In this way, you could omit the phrase ‘during the 18th century AC’. In case you do not know when Hakuin’s quote was made, using something like ‘it is commonly believed that’ will be adequate. Ideally, the readers would be better informed if you could provide in what context Hakuin made that riddle.

    Fourth, It would be best to discuss a Zen master and his teaching method in depth instead of compiling many isolated events. Perhaps, your article would be more insightful if you only focus on Hakuin Ekaku’s life and training method.

    Fifth, all figures should show captions and authors’ permission (unless these works belong to ‘Public domain’ in Wikipedia).

    As usual, I will further comment if necessary.

    1. Hi, sorry for the late reply.

      Thanks again for all the info!

      Yes, I did come across the thought of “eliminating any sense of logic” while researching and forgot to include it. It’s a very important aspect. I also changed the translation to “public examination”, which, as you stated, is more adequate.

      Satori didn’t pop much in my research, and that’s a shame, I just discovered plenty of interesting things thanks to you. Given all the informations and content there is on this subject and the pursuit of this state of mind, I’m thinking of dedicating a whole other article about these kind of aspects. I think I’m going to keep this article focused around the concept of kōan, the objective was to discover about them. I would like to go much deeper in discovering the details of Buddhism and satori and I believe another article would be a great place for that.

      Indicating the lifespan is definitely a good way to situate a historic moment, thank you for pointing it out. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much about the context of in which the famous kōan was thought. I might look into it deeper in the future.

      About discussing a particular Zen master and his teaching method, I think that would be a very interesting approach, which I think I would like to study in depth in another article. In this article I wanted to try to grasp the concept of the kōans and concentrate on them. I believe that in the future I will link an article going in depth on the subject of a certain Zen master, which seems very interesting.

      I don’t yet know much about authors’ permissions and such legal aspects of writing, I will definitely have to look into that further, thanks for informing me.

      Thank you very much for contributing!

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