Zen koan

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What is a koan?

A Zen koan is a short story or sentence that initially seems paradoxical in nature. It is a learning tool intended to alter our perception of reality.
There are some Zen poems that are not necessarily koan and these are called 'haiku'.


A paradox is something that does not make sense. In the case of a koan, it is how we think that does not make sense. Once our mind is capable of seeing things more simply, there ceases to be a paradox.
The paradox existed between reality and our thoughts, between opinion and the actual.

If there was no fixed point, no conclusion, there would be no contradiction.


Koan explained

Nobody can answer a koan for you. It may take years for your mind to see what a koan is telling you - a sudden unexpected flash of insight will occur.
Some interpretations you may come across are rather misleading: esoteric, convoluted religious explanations that assume an
understanding of Buddhist precepts.
They go against the child-like simplicity and immediacy of Zen.


Consider this question as a koan: "What is the meaning of


'What is' represents an attempt to answer a question in unequivocal terms. 'Meaning' is an attributed value relative to the individual.
encompasses the entirety of existence, and cannot be described or understood in any term other than the whole. Any part of life cannot by definition explain the whole.
Existence is too complex to be comprehended intellectually or verbally.


The example question ("What is the meaning of life?") is a koan because it highlights the futility of the question itself and the meaningless nature of the answer.
The only acceptable answer is 'life'; and this tells you nothing. Questions define and limit answers, and presuppose that everything can be explained using words.

Contradictory statements

People employ absurd arrangements of words and believe that they have meaning.
How many ridiculous statements can you find in everyday life?

e.g. One size fits all...

How outrageous is this? Will it fit a baby? A toddler? A teenager? A skinny person? An obese person? A short person? A tall person?

e.g. It's all good...
How can it be? Good is relative to bad. Without a contrast, there cannot be good. Refer to the 'best meat' koan below.

e.g. The first rule is that there are no rules.
If this is the case, there cannot be a first rule.

e.g. Expect the unexpected.
Surely the contradiction here explains itself?


We do not understand koan through conventional means. The answer is not gained through analysis - it must just occur spontaneously - from the subconscious straight out of your mouth.
Like the child in Hans Christian Anderson's story noticing immediately that the Emperor was naked.

Why study a koan?

To understand tai chi it is necessary to change our perception of reality. Tai chi is drawn from a Taoist culture. Without understanding the Tao, how can we hope to understand its offspring (tai chi)?


Your understanding of a koan will change as you change. Here are some example koan:

Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind.
One said, "The flag moves."
The other said, "The wind moves."
They argued back and forth but could not agree.

Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, said: "Gentlemen! It is not the flag that moves. It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves."

The two monks were struck with awe.


A monk asked Kegon, "How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?"

Kegon replied, "A broken mirror never reflects again; fallen flowers never go back to the old branches."


What is your original face before you were born?


Shuzan held out his short staff and said, "If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?"


When you can do nothing, what can you do?


What is the sound of one hand clapping?


Zen Master Unmon said: "The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?"


Elder Ting asked Lin-chi,
"Master, what is the great meaning of Buddha's teachings?"
Lin-chi came down from his seat, slapped Ting and pushed him away.
Ting was stunned and stood motionless.
A monk nearby said, "Ting, why do you not bow?"
At that moment Ting attained great enlightenment.


When the many are reduced to one, to what is the one reduced?


One day Banzan was walking through a market. He overheard a customer say to the butcher, "Give me the best piece of meat you have."

"Everything in my shop is the best," replied the butcher. "You can not find any piece of meat that is not the best."

At these words, Banzan was enlightened.


A monk asked Master Haryo, "What is the Way?"
Haryo said, "An open-eyed man falling into the well."


One day as Manjusri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, "Manjusri, Manjusri, why do you not enter?"

Manjusri replied, "I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?"


A monk saw a turtle in the garden of Daizui's monastery and asked the teacher, "All beings cover their bones with flesh and skin.

Why does this being cover its flesh and skin with bones?" Master Daizui took off one of his sandals and covered the turtle with it.


After taking the high seat to preach to the assembly, Fa-yen raised his hand and pointed to the bamboo blinds. Two monks went over and rolled them up in the same way. Fa-yen said, "One gains,  one loses."


Once Ma-tsu and Pai-chang were walking along and they saw some wild ducks fly by.

"What is that?" the master asked.

"Wild ducks," Pai-chang replied.

"Where have they gone?"

"They've flown away," Pai-chang said.

The master then twisted Pai-chang's nose, and when Pai-chang cried out in pain, Ma-tsu said, "When have they ever flown away?"


As the roof was leaking, a Zen master told two monks to bring something to catch the water. One brought a tub, the other a basket. The first was severely reprimanded, the second highly praised.


One day Chao-chou fell down in the snow, and called out, "Help me up! Help me up!" A monk came and lay down beside him. Chao-chou got up and went away.


Te-shan was sitting outside doing zazen. Lung-t'an asked him why he didn't go back home. Te-shan answered, "Because it's dark."

Lung-t'an then lit a candle and handed it to him. As Te-shan was about to take it, Lung-t'an blew it out. Te-shan had a sudden realisation, and bowed.


What is the colour of wind?


A monk asked Zhao Zhou to teach him.
Zhao Zhou asked, "Have you eaten your meal?"

The monk replied, "Yes, I have."

"Then go wash your bowl," said Zhao Zhou.
At that moment, the monk was enlightened.


If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.


A monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax, "What is Buddha?"

Tozan said: "This flax weighs three pounds."


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Page created 18 September 1994
Last updated 04 May 2023