A koan is a question or answer posed by Zen masters that is difficult to understand and challenging for those seeking solutions. It directly challenges one’s fundamental concept of self, acting like a sharp weapon that pierces through the self, revealing the Buddha-nature within. Rather than fighting or grappling with these attacks, one’s task is to merge with them and let them “glow on their own.”
The original meaning of koan referred to public cases that were posted on the government gate board the day before, similar to a State announcement today. Zen Buddhism preserves the teachings of past Patriarchs and records them to be passed on to future students. These recorded teachings serve as official announcements, full of inviolability and solemnity, and are designed to develop the thought and improve the thinking of Zen practitioners, thus earning the name “koan”.
Definition – What does a Koan mean?
A Koan, originating from the Zen Buddhist tradition, is a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution. Its purpose is not to propose rational thought, but rather to stimulate intuitive enlightenment or insight. This Eastern philosophical concept is used in Zen teaching and practice as a means to direct the mind towards a level of understanding that transcends conventional logic and reasoning.
Etymologically, “koan” is a transliteration of the Chinese term “gong’an”, which denotes a legal case or precedent in Tang dynasty law. It is derived from two constituent elements, ‘ko’, which refers to the public nature of the case, and ‘an’, which refers to the judgement bench or the case table. In its application within Zen Buddhism, a koan is not so much about resolving a legal dispute as it is about eliciting a profound shift in consciousness.
Koans are used as a form of meditation, where the practitioner contemplates the koan and its potential answers in order to transcend their dualistic thinking. The koan poses a challenge that cannot be grasped by the ordinary mind, hence pushing the individual towards a non-conceptual understanding of reality. While the process may initially seem nonsensical or paradoxical, it aims to break down preconceived notions and conventional patterns of thought. This is often seen as a precursor to satori, or sudden enlightenment.
One of the most well-known koans is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This paradoxical question is designed to challenge the binary oppositions we typically accept, such as the dichotomy of action and reaction. By rejecting simple, logical responses, the individual is encouraged to reach a state of understanding that goes beyond such dichotomies.
While the meaning of a koan is deeply rooted in Zen Buddhist philosophy, the application of the concept has extended beyond this context. It is often used in a more general sense to refer to any statement or question that defies straightforward interpretation or encourages contemplation beyond ordinary understanding. Koans, therefore, contribute significantly to the pedagogical and philosophical landscape of Zen Buddhism while also resonating with broader, trans-religious themes of wisdom, enlightenment and the limits of human understanding.
History of Zen Koan
The origin of Zen koans can be traced back to the Tang dynasty in China (618-907 CE), where they were used in the practice of Chan Buddhism, which is the Chinese precursor to Zen. The use of koans was a response to the limitations of relying solely on language and logic to convey the nature of reality, which is seen as ultimately ineffable and beyond words. The aim of a koan is to encourage a direct experience of reality beyond concepts, by pointing the practitioner towards the experience of the present moment.
The use of koans as a teaching tool was popularized by the Chinese Zen master Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163 CE), who emphasized the practice of “hua tou” (literally “word head”), a method of introspection in which the practitioner focuses intently on a particular phrase or question until insight arises. Dahui’s teaching method became known as the “shikantaza” (just sitting) approach, which emphasized the direct experience of reality without relying on conceptual understanding.
Koan practice was later introduced to Japan in the 13th century by the Chinese Zen master Dogen Zenji, who founded the Soto school of Zen. In Japan, koans were further developed as a tool for Zen training, and several collections of koans were compiled, including the famous “Blue Cliff Record” and “Gateless Gate” collections.
Today, koan practice remains an important aspect of Zen training, and is often used in conjunction with other practices such as seated meditation (zazen), chanting, and mindfulness training. The goal of koan practice is to help the practitioner awaken to their true nature and attain enlightenment.
The purpose of Zen koans
The purpose of Zen koans is to help the practitioner transcend their conceptual thinking and access a direct experience of reality, which is beyond words and concepts. Koans are designed to provoke a sense of doubt or confusion in the practitioner’s mind, challenging their habitual patterns of thought and inviting them to look at reality in a new and more direct way.
Koans are used as a tool for Zen training, helping the practitioner to develop clarity, insight, and wisdom. By engaging with a koan, the practitioner is encouraged to go beyond their rational mind and experience the present moment directly. This process can help to dissolve the ego, which is seen as a construct of the mind that separates us from the world around us.
Koans also play a crucial role in the Rinzai school of Zen, where they form the core of a rigorous meditative practice known as koan introspection. During this process, a practitioner is given a specific koan by their teacher and instructed to focus on it continuously. The purpose is not to solve the koan through intellectual reasoning, but to embody its non-dualistic truth through one’s whole being. The practitioner is often asked to present their understanding to the teacher in a private meeting, a practice known as dokusan or sanzen, in which the teacher will evaluate and guide the practitioner’s insight.
The unique role of koans lies in their capacity to challenge and disrupt our ingrained cognitive schemas. The seemingly absurd and irrational nature of koans is intentional. By presenting an apparently insoluble problem, koans aim to exhaust the logical mind and its incessant desire to categorize and analyze. In doing so, they create an experiential impasse, a kind of cognitive gridlock that thwarts the usual functioning of consciousness. This interruption of ordinary cognition can potentially trigger a profound shift in perception, allowing an immediate, direct apprehension of reality as it is, unmediated by conceptual thought.
Therefore, the aim of koan practice is not to arrive at a specific answer or solution, but to allow the mind to become more open and flexible, enabling the practitioner to see reality in a new way. Through koan practice, the practitioner may come to realize the ultimate nature of reality, which is said to be empty, formless and beyond description.
How to practice contemplation of Koans
A koan is an advanced means, with no hidden supernatural powers, but it can help the practitioner become enlightened when practiced correctly. Zen master Genki calls koan “how to open can lid” for your mind.
Koans should only be used after you have entered concentration. Right Concentration is the state of mind when all concepts, thoughts, feelings, judgments… have been silent, and the mind has become clear, quiet, naturally reflective, flowing freely in the moment.
If your mind has not attained concentration, then don’t practice with koans. The koan will stir up the waters of the mind, and if the mind is already in turmoil, the koan will only make things worse. That’s why Zen master Genki only gives koans during his Sesshins retreats (a meditation practice that focuses – quiet, undistracted by external factors).
The koan will NOT be answered. Any descriptive response: yes/no, or this/that… will be rejected. Normally, koans don’t need words or language. A few gestures are enough. That’s why Zen masters say koans are not answered, but solved.
To contemplate a koan means to let a koan work within you. When a certain degree of right concentration has been attained, you bring the koan to mind. The most appropriate way of contemplating a koan is to ask the question gently but continuously into consciousness. Don’t waste time trying to understand the koan.
Let it lead your mind through this question, and make no effort to answer it. Any analysis is just a waste of time, and this will produce a fake Zen answer. A koan is a Buddhist weapon attack on our interpretation, interpretation, imitation or analysis; and then, only after we have exhausted or let go of all types of investigation, can a deeper level of contemplation be reached.
Only when we can confess that we know nothing can authentic koan practice begin. Leave the koan in your belly, where it might begin as if you’ve swallowed a hot iron ball, so hot that it can’t be digested or expelled. In fact, sometimes after many years of practice, the koan will do its part, your mind will open up in deep understanding.
The koan is seen as the seed of enlightenment. Sometimes it takes a long time to cultivate it, sometimes the growing period is short and direct. To solve a koan completely, you have to let it grow naturally; a koan must be self-revealing. To nurture and care for a koan, simply and continuously, focus on your conscious attentiveness, the essence of that “question” or of that “face-to-face.”
Some Koans are famous in Zen Buddhism
There are many popular koans known in the West, such as “does dogs have Buddha nature?” by Zen master Zhaozhou, or “the sound of one hand clapping” by Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769) has puzzled many scholars trying to find the answer.
As shared, most koans are not a question to get a verbal answer or logical explanation. However, there is an answer!
Another koan example of “attachment” (stuck to something). One day Tanzan and Ekido were walking together on a muddy road. The heavy rain was still falling. Around a bend, they met a beautiful young woman in a kimono with a silk belt, hesitant to cross the street.
“Hey girl,” he said, immediately Tanzan carried the girl across the street.
Ekido saw the action and remained silent until the night when the two took refuge in a temple. Unable to bear it any longer, Ekido complained to Tanzan: “We are monks, we must not go near women, especially beautiful young girls. But why do you break the precepts?”
“Wow, I left the girl across the street,” said Tanzan, “Do you still bring her?!” Like all koans, this story has many interpretations. But a common lesson shows that despite not being “attached” physically, Ekido let the spirit “cling” to the woman.
In addition to exploring ambiguity, koans often mock those who claim to clear know the world around them.
An example of “understanding” is the story of three monks arguing over a temple flag rippling in the wind. The first monk said, “I see a flag moving”. While the second monk asserted: “It is not the flag moving, but rather the wind moving.”
They argued back and forth until a third monk intervened, “The flag is not moving, nor is the wind likte that, but your minds are moving!”
This koan shows us what “Buddhist understanding” is like. The first monk asserted the importance of observing the world, the second prioritizing knowledge that we can infer from that world.
But the “confirmation bias” of individual monks towards their answers caused them to overlook insight into reality. This goes against the Buddhist view of eliminating dualistic thinking. The third monk resolves their conflict as a insight – both monks argue so much that they don’t see the bigger picture.
All of these explanations, of course, only hint at how to view these koans. No wisdom from the monks, or supposedly wise characters in these stories can handle them for you.
That is because the purpose of the koans is not to find a simple solution. It is a process of reflection, grappling with paradoxical puzzles, challenging our desire for resolution, and our understanding of “understanding”.
The patriarchs of Zen Koan
The Patriarchs of Zen Koan are the lineage of Zen Buddhist teachers who have transmitted the practice of koan study from generation to generation. The following is a brief overview of some of the most important Patriarchs in the history of Zen Koan:
- Mazu Daoyi: He was a 9th century Chinese Zen master who is considered one of the most important figures in the development of koan study. Mazu is known for his teaching style, which emphasized the use of “non-abiding” and “not-knowing” to break through conceptual thinking and access direct experience.
- Dahui Zonggao: He was a 12th century Chinese Zen master who developed the “kanhua” or “hua tou” method of koan study, which involves intense introspection on a particular phrase or question to provoke insight. Dahui is also known for his emphasis on the practice of “shikantaza,” or “just sitting” meditation.
- Dogen Zenji: He was a 13th century Japanese Zen master who founded the Soto school of Zen. Dogen is known for his emphasis on the practice of “zazen” (seated meditation) and his integration of koan study into Soto Zen practice.
These are just a few of the many Patriarchs of Zen Koan who have contributed to the development of this important practice. Their teachings continue to inspire Zen practitioners around the world to this day.
All koans require us to awaken to the present moment, and to live fully in that present moment with no filter between us and the rest of reality – no filter between us and the Buddha.
When Zen koans is practiced properly, we will discover that it is our life that is the greatest koan of all. Any obstacle or circumstance that seems to separate us from ourselves, or from anyone or anything else, can be used as a koan.
Bring that obstacle to your mind, as described above, and wait for it to ripen, and fall off without trying to fix, change, or analyze. You will discover that all hindrances are illusions of mind. To see reality clearly is to remove all barriers within you (knowledge, prejudices, opinions), between your self and everything else. The Patriarchs of Zen Buddhism said that, nothing is separate or excluded, everything is still moving and interwoven without any distinction.